When the Ingush public found themselves at a crossroads in 1991 after their Chechen neighbors announced secession from Russia, they decided that following the Chechen example may lead to the irreversible loss of lands in the environs of the Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz that were originally annexed during the deportation of the Chechen and Ingush peoples in 1944. The Ingush opted for a different path and announced the re-establishment of the Republic of Ingushetia (initially formed in 1918 and merged with Chechnya in 1934.) By transferring ancestral Ingush lands to North Ossetia-Alania and resettling the Ingush alongside the traditionally pro-Moscow Ossetians, the Russian government thought its security at the main Trans-Caucasus artery would be guaranteed. Essentially, the Ingush were moved further away from a strategically important road because of their closeness to the Chechens, that is, Russia attempted to protect itself from potential excesses from their side.
The issue became particularly pressing after the Abkhazia war of 1992, when all the roads to the Transcaucasus, save the Voyenno-Gruzinskaya Highway (the most important transportation link between the Russian-dominated Caucasus and Trans-Caucasian countries since the late eighteenth century), were blocked. The route across Dagestan and Azerbaijan is also an option, however, it is a less commercially attractive alternative compared to what is already available to Russia today. It therefore comes as no surprise that during his visit to the new military base in the mountains of Dagestan (Botlikh), Vladimir Putin brought up the matter of a new road to Georgia (Newsru.com, February 4, 2008) to bypass the Voenno-Gruzinskaya Highway, which remains blocked to this day due to the still-unresolved status of South Ossetia within Georgia. The Dagestani route (Avaro-Kakhetinskaya Highway) is therefore of strategic importance for Russia today, although Putin’s proposal caused no great enthusiasm in Georgia (K. Liklikadze in the Tbilisi weekly Rezonansi, February 11, 2008).
Ingushetia’s position in the region is a special one; despite its obvious closeness to the Chechens it managed not to become embroiled in the Abkhazia conflict of 1992. It also maintained its distance from the Caucasus Confederation and avoided declaring its sovereign status like other republic members of the Russian Federation. It is perhaps Ingushetia’s excessively pro-Russian stance that allows Moscow to ignore the problems of the republic because it realizes that they are tied to the return of the annexed lands near Vladikavkaz.
In the context of Ingushetia’s politics, the return of the lands seized during the deportation will always remain a litmus test of the patriotism and maturity of its politicians. It therefore comes as no surprise that when Ruslan Aushev was approached to lead the blank slate of a republic with no distinct boundaries and no administration, the Ingush people assumed that someone with Aushev’s reputation would be able to secure the return of the disputed lands. Ruslan Aushev stepped down before the end of his term after it became clear that he had failed to win the trust of President Putin (Echo.msk.ru, April 8, 2008). Despite colossal improvements in Ingushetia, the people were still not satisfied with Aushev’s rule because the core issue of the Prigorodny district remained outstanding with no future prospects of resolution. The public became accustomed to Aushev during the decade of his presidency; the search for his replacement was already underway and Aushev’s decision to step down early was met with understanding and gratitude. Aushev was also blamed for his close relationships with prominent ethnic Ingush businessmen (Mikhail Gutseriev, Mussa Keligov, etc.) and the dominance of the Aushev clan.
In contrast with Ruslan Aushev, who was already a national hero before he was elected, Murat Zyazikov was a virtual unknown before his rise to the presidency. Zyazikov’s term as president will be remembered by the Ingush people as a time of unrestrained crime, contempt for any government action, terror against its own people, dozens of people gone missing and hundreds arrested and killed by security forces and belatedly blamed for their alleged ties to terror. The previously unseen scale of attacks against law enforcement personnel mounted by the Ingush Sharia Jamaat under the longstanding leadership of the Ingush armed resistance commander Magas (A. Yevloev) should also be added to the mix. Even the ever-diplomatic European Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg could not avoid saying that the real hotspots of North Caucasus today are Ingushetia and Dagestan (Deutsche Welle radio station, May 1, 2008), and it is difficult to disagree.
For example, during just the first few days of May, Ingushetia saw a spree of shootings of policemen across the republic, attacks on a military convoy and a policeman’s residence, the killing of Kantyshevo village native Issa Arsaev during a police- and FSB-led operation and multiple gunfights after dark in locations guarded by the army, the police and the FSB branch in Ingushetia (Ingushetiya.ru, May 1-9, 2008).
The events in Ingushetia are unfolding as if following a preplanned script (quite possibly by someone in the Kremlin, although Putin is unlikely to give up his appointee Zyazikov without a fight.) First, after maintaining a low profile for many years, Ruslan Aushev made a very public appearance on a talk show focused on issues facing Ingushetia hosted by the Moscow State University (Gazeta #69, April 16, 2008). He next made a surprise visit to Ingushetia to take part in a soccer game of the local league, and several competitions bearing his name took place in Nazran (Ingushetiya.ru, May 9, 2008). It seems as if the conditions for the return of the previously disfavored Ingush leader are ripening. Finally, the popular Ingushetiya.ru website recently sponsored a petition drive asking visitors to sign and send to the government a request for Aushev’s return as president of Ingushetia.
Some in Ingushetia are awaiting the return of Ruslan Aushev with open joy; he personifies a time when things like “mop-up” operations, “anti-terror” zones stretching over two to three blocks and kidnappings perpetrated by the law enforcement agencies of the neighboring republics were virtually unknown in Ingushetia and seemed impossible.
However, Ingushetia has changed and so have the Ingush people; they have learned to live outside the rule of law maintained so painstakingly during Aushev’s term. They have also learned to look at their leaders with a more critical eye and create mechanisms to put pressure on the government. An example of the latter can been seen in the mass meetings of the Ingush teips (clans) across the republic to elect representatives for the popular public assembly to operate independently and in parallel to the People’s Assembly of Ingushetia. The elections to the latter were ignored by this small but very temperamental North Caucasus republic.
Ruslan Aushev is also not the same man he used to be during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Aushev stepped down when he failed to convince then-President Putin that the policy of terror directed against the entire civilian populace will bring no results. Therefore, the rule of Ruslan Aushev under the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will be constrained by limitations that did not exist when Aushev was first elected president during the term of Boris Yeltsin. Consequently, Ruslan Aushev will not be as effective as his supporters expect him to be today. Aushev represents Ingushetia’s past; the present calls for a new leader capable of uniting the people in the face of the current threat that the crisis in Ingushetia may worsen.