On April 20, the Russian Investigative Committee announced that it was lifting criminal charges from the well-known Russian billionaire of Ingush descent, Mikhail Gutseriev. Ingushetia’s government welcomed the move and expressed its hope that Gutseriev would contribute to economic projects in the republic (Kommersant, April 24). The development fits into the strategy for economic development of the North Caucasus to stabilize a region that the Kremlin seems to have recently adopted, appointing an oligarch-friendly presidential envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin.
Mikhail Gutseriev expeditiously left Russia in the summer of 2007 following his unsuccessful attempts to fend off Russian investigators who accused him of illegal business activities, tax evasion and money laundering. Gutseriev’s son, Chingizkhan, was reported to have died under suspicious circumstances in August 2007 and Gutseriev stated he was leaving Russia because of “unprecedented pressure.” The Russian government quickly issued an international warrant for Gutseriev’s arrest, while he was thought to have found refuge in the United Kingdom.
Gutseriev’s oil company Russneft was believed to be the central contentious issue that led to him being forced out of the country. Russneft was the seventh largest oil company in Russia in terms of oil extraction –14.7 million tons in 2006, half of which it was able to refine at its own refineries. Oleg Deripaska, one of the richest men in Russia, bought Russneft around the time of Gutseriev’s hurried departure (Kommersant, April 24).
Besides probably being targeted for having a lucrative oil business, Gutseriev was also implicitly accused of destabilizing the situation in Ingushetia by Ingushetia’s then President, Murad Zyazikov, who was subsequently removed from office in October 2008. Gutseriev’s business presence in Ingushetia was quite prominent during Ruslan Aushev’s presidency, but quickly was curtailed after Zyazikov, a Federal Security Service (FSB) general, came to power in 2002.
In October 2009, the Russian authorities suddenly started to display benevolence toward Gutseriev. Some of the charges against him were dropped and in January 2010 he was even able to recover 100 percent control over Russneft, which is a remarkable achievement in Russia even as its liabilities by then exceeded its price by twofold. Anonymous sources around Gutseriev were reported to have said that he would return to Russia in the next few weeks (Vedomosti, April 23). A number of Russian publications reported during the past several months that Gutseriev was about to return to Russia, an oblique sign that his return is strongly desired by the country’s powers-that-be.
It is still unknown whether Moscow will succeed in convincing Mikhail Gutseriev to return to Russia. However, there is an example of another Russian billionaire, Telman Islmailov, who aroused the authorities’ ire and had to stay out of the country but then was pardoned and returned to Russia in February 2010, visited Chechnya and vowed to invest in the republican economy.
Meanwhile, the security situation in Ingushetia remains dire. On April 20, six policemen were wounded when an explosion hit the Ingush deputy interior minister’s car. Over 500 policemen were killed in this small republic over the past several years, according to its President, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Ingushetia experienced 191 attacks in 2009, four of them suicide attacks. “The armed underground forces declared a war on the Ingush police and in this war, we regrettably have suffered great casualties,” the former Interior Minister of Ingushetia, Musa Medov, admitted on April 19 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, April 20).
Rights activists insist that the security services cause destabilization by their own indiscriminate acts of violence in which innocent civilians die. Ingushetia, along with Chechnya, has a long held tradition of blood revenge that results in perpetuating the cycle of violence. In an article published on April 17 in the New York Times, 29-year-old Ramzan Ugurchiev, the chairman of Ingushetia’s state youth committee, is quoted as saying that 15 percent of his own classmates joined the rebel forces. Ugurchiev also concisely reflected on the dynamic taking place in the republic: “The harder you press down, the more we will press up against you,” he was quoted as saying.
Yevkurov’s position has weakened over the past year-and-a-half, as he was largely unable to restore law and order or improve the economic situation in the republic. In fact, the Russian audit chamber raised concerns over $23 million in budgetary funds that were spent “ineffectively” in Ingushetia (www.corrupcia.net, April 21).
As President Yevkurov is losing his clout in Ingushetia, Moscow may be forced to use other means in pacifying the republic. One such method could be using Mikhail Gutseriev’s money and expertise to invest in and develop the region. Apparently, Moscow is so desperate that it even pressed Russian rivals of Gutseriev to relinquish control over his assets to lure him back into the country. While Gutseriev was a successful businessman in Ingushetia and also had business projects in other republics of the North Caucasus, he may not be as successful now, given that the situation is much different than it was in the 1990’s. Still, attracting people like Gutseriev to help implement Moscow’s development policies in the North Caucasus could potentially be extremely beneficial to both Moscow and the North Caucasus, shifting the paradigm from the domination of Russia’s security services to economic expansion in the region.