At the end of December, Ingushetia’s new president, Yunus-bek Yevkurov stated during an end-of-the-year press conference that the merger of the North Caucasus republics into a gubernia was a likely prospect (Ingushetia.org, January 7).
Various versions of changing administrative borders in the North Caucasus have been discussed during the past several years, and most of them were introduced by Kremlin-friendly politicians in Moscow. The proposals have varied from the complete abolishment of the North Caucasian republics by merging them with neighboring Russian-populated regions to less drastic changes, like the merger of Adygea, a small republic in the western part of the North Caucasus, with the predominantly Russian populated Krasnodar region surrounding it, or the merger of Ingushetia and Chechnya.
The latter idea has become especially persistent with the deterioration of the security situation in Ingushetia over the past several years. This was in stark contrast to the developments in Chechnya, where the Kremlin’s handpicked leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, was endowed with dictatorial powers and ruthlessly suppressed the Chechen pro-independence movement.
Chechens and Ingush are two closely related peoples, referring to themselves sometimes as Vainakhs. Until General Dzhokhar Dudaev came to power in Chechnya and led the Chechens to de-facto independence in the beginning of 1990s, Chechnya and Ingushetia had been part of the same republic, Checheno-Ingushetia, for decades. Ingush shared the tragic fate of the Chechens in 1944 and were sent en masse into exile by Stalin, although historically the Ingush were much more loyal to Russian rule in the North Caucasus than the Chechens.
While Kadyrov, who is a former pro-independence Chechen, was largely able to marginalize the Chechen separatist fighters and gain considerable support from the Chechen population, Murat Zyazikov, the Russian security services general who was Ingushetia’s president, failed to contain rising violence and ended up being dismissed in October 2008 amid widespread criticism from not only within his native republic, but also Moscow.
Zyazikov was replaced by another veteran of the Russian security services, Yunus-bek Yevkurov. Since his appointment, Yevkurov has been eagerly trying to establish better relations with the Ingush opposition by co-opting them into his government and gaining broader support from the Ingush population. Yevkurov signed a decree calling for an Ingush people’s conference to discuss the most important issues in the republic, to be held on January 31 (Ingushetia.org, January 8).
The Ingush public, and even its Russian security services-supported government, have been persistently dismissive of the Kremlin’s attempts to merge Ingushetia with neighboring Chechnya. The Ingush fear they will become a minority with little power in Checheno-Ingushetia, just as it was the case during the Soviet period, and that the question of the disputed land between North Ossetia and Ingushetia will not be on the greater Checheno-Ingushetia’s agenda. The population of Chechnya is currently about twice that of Ingushetia.
Chechen officials, for their part, had for several years indicated their interest in absorbing Ingushetia, but by the end of 2008 they also distanced themselves from this idea. Kadyrov stated on December 17 that the Chechen government did not aspire to the unification of Chechnya and Ingushetia (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 18, 2008). This backing off by Chechen officials coincided with the change of government in Ingushetia, with Yevkurov replacing Zyazikov. So Moscow and Kadyrov will bid their time, observing whether Yevkurov copes with putting down the violence in Ingushetia. Given that the security situation in Ingushetia has remained extremely precarious even after Zyazikov’s dismissal, it remains to be seen whether Ingushetia will survive as an autonomous subject of the Russian Federation.
The Sunzha region is another possible hot spot that could poison Ingush-Chechen relations. Both Chechnya and Ingushetia are obliged to adopt republican legislation in 2009 for demarking the municipalities’ borders. This will revive the old dispute over the Sunzha region, which both sides have competing claims to the area. Even Chechnya’s official human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhazhiev, has entered into the territorial dispute, addressing a special letter to the Ingush people on December 17 regarding the issue (Regnum.ru, December 17, 2008).
In the meantime, Moscow still openly plans to eliminate national republics, and sees them as a threat for Russia’s territorial integrity and potential source of conflict. The deputy head of the Federation Council, Aleksandr Torshin, made several public statements earlier in 2008 to support his unitary state ideas (Politichesky Zhurnal, March 11, 2008).
If the security situation in the North Caucasus remains hazardous or deteriorates further, Moscow might be compelled to move ahead with plans for administrative reform, including the abolishment of the autonomies. Nothing prevents Moscow from going the other way around—provoking destabilization and then going on with its plans for an administrative borders reshuffle. In either case, the change is unlikely to bring additional stability, given that the current security issues that Moscow and local governments face in the North Caucasus have little to do with the borders. Well ahead of the federal authorities’ plans, the self-proclaimed Islamist Caucasus Emirate has already abolished all borders in the North Caucasus.