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Arrests, lies and borders: what’s happening with land disputes in Russia’s North Caucasus

The border dispute between Ingushetia and Chechnya has led to an outburst of civic activism in the North Caucasus - and it could turn more radical.

Ekaterina Neroznikova
19 June 2019
Rally in Magas, Ingushetia, October 2018
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CC BY-NC 2.0 Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In the North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, the authorities are currently pursuing 26 criminal cases over demands to halt the transfer of land to neighbouring Chechnya. Activists are accused of violent conduct towards the police and calling for civil unrest. There are regular reports of new arrests, and there may well be more in the future.

At a minimum, these protests have halted plans for a significant allocation of Ingush territory to Chechnya. Since autumn last year, the rallies in Magas, Ingushetia’s capital, have also provoked public support in other Russian cities and abroad, with activists organising pickets in support of protesters. The Russian press has already called these investigations a “second Bolotnaya Square Case”, in reference to the numerous prosecutions that followed protests over Vladimir Putin’s 2012 inauguration.

The first hints that there was something amiss on Ingushetia-Chechnya border came in September 2018, when border posts began to move. Soon after, locals discovered that an agreement had been reached on a so-called boundary amendment between the two republics.

That same month, a document appeared on a Chechen government website which discussed a commission to oversee issues arising from any changes of the Chechen Republic’s administrative borders. The commission was headed by Magomed Daudov, speaker of the Chechen parliament and right-hand man to Ramzan Kadyrov, as well as numerous close allies of the Chechen leader.

At the end of January 2019, it was revealed that Dagestan had also set up a land commission and was beginning to work with representatives of Chechnya. But in mid-April, both commissions had to announce that their work had come to a halt.

“Repressive measures are now going full throttle and show no signs of stopping,” Ruslan Mutsolgov, regional head of the liberal opposition Yabloko party, says.

Old and young behind bars

“According to our information, the police have identified no less than 300 people who were on the main square in Magas, and the federal highway blockade outside of Nazran on 27 March," Ruslan Mutsolgov tells me." These people weren’t necessarily protesters – some of them had come to calm the situation and persuade the protesters to unblock the road.”

The investigative detention centre in Nalchik is full of people of all kinds: it’s not just the young and active, such as prominent opposition politician Bagaudin Khautiyev, who have been arrested, but also older dignitaries like Akhmed Barakhoyev and Malsag Uzhakhov. Most of them will probably be found guilty, and generally, if a court decides to impose a custodial sentence, they’ll be behind bars for some time. The names of only a few people who have come under pressure are known. According to Mutsolgov, around 200 people have been arrested, charged with administrative offences and given fines or community service.

Akhmed Barakhoyev | Source: Fortanga / YouTube

“This wave of repressive measures is likely to affect more and more residents of Ingushetia,” Mutsolgov says. “Relations with the regional, and now the federal government, are continuing to deteriorate, as the public increasingly deplore the authorities’ actions. The arrests and convictions are now going against the authorities, and harming their image.”

Protesters who are yet to be arrested are continuing to fight: representatives of Ingush clans regularly request permission to hold rallies to protest against Ingush land being handed over to Chechnya, and the requests are equally regularly tuned down. The wives and mothers of imprisoned activists have set up an organisation (“The Patriotic Union of Women of Ingushetia”) and are trying to help their imprisoned family members. But so far, that’s all concerned Ingush can do.

An attack on protest leaders

It’s not just law enforcement who are working against Ingush activists, the official propaganda machine has been working hard too. Various pro-government media outlets have been busy trying to discredit the most prominent protest leaders. Telegram channels linked to regional law enforcement have been particularly effective, regularly “exposing” protesters.

These online networks were active, for example, in “publicising” a campaign to raise money for Ingush arrestees, including funds towards legal fees. This involved spreading rumours that opposition journalist Isabella Evloyeva had been using these funds to stay in high-priced hotels abroad. Given that Evloyeva had been actively covering the protests (and helping independent media), this “news” kept the internet busy for several weeks.

At times, the propaganda machine has also targeted Magomed Mutsolgov, who, aside from being brother to Ruslan Mutsolgov, is well-known in Ingushetia for his civil rights activity.

“The protests certainly involve separatism and extremism,” wrote one popular Telegram channel. “The involvement of pro-Western emissaries such as Magomed Mutsolgov and practically all the other leaders linked to foreign ‘human rights’ organisations cast a certain shadow.”

“Reports” in this vein have significantly increased since the protest began.

Russia 24 story on Ingushetia's protest leaders.

Media attacks on protest leaders recently reached the national level, when the Russia 24 TV channel ran a story about how prominent protest leaders were actually part of “organised criminal groups that have taken control of Ingushetia”. The programme focused on Malsag Uzhakov and his pharmacy business, as well as Akhmed Barakhoyev.

This “investigation” paid particular attention to Akhmed Pogorov. According to Russia 24, the head of the World Congress of Ingush is involved in “pseudo-public activity” and “dark schemes”. The channel’s journalists enthusiastically discussed Pogorov’s cars, house and safe with two million roubles inside.

Ingushetia’s official spiritual leader Mufti Isa Khamkhoyev didn’t escape their attention either: he supposedly helped a company that organises Hadj trips embezzle taxes to the tune of 20 million roubles. Mufti Khamkhoyev, as you might imagine, opposes the policies of Yunus-Bek Evkurov, the head of Ingushetia. “The head of Ingushetia has obviously spared no cash on putting this story together,” Mutfi Khamkhoyev said. “Our leaders, trying to vindicate themselves, are libelling people who are fighting for justice. But their lies can’t last – they are bound to fail”.

Ingushetia is not alone

While activists were being arrested in Ingushetia, neighbouring Dagestan has also been busy. Despite frequent calls in Dagestan’s media to make the commission on the border with Chechnya more transparent, there’s been little in terms of public results. And even if there were any, it would inevitably cause a scandal. In early April, residents of Dagestan discovered that Chechnya had unexpectedly claimed part of their city of Kizlyar according to Russia’s state land registration service.

Shortly after, Dagestan’s commission on defining its border with Chechnya ceased work without any explanation. Occasional short statements have since been issued on official sites by the speakers of both republic’s parliaments and by Magomed Daudov and Khizri Shikhsayidov, the regional commission heads.

“The commission ceased work because Moscow told both Chechnya and Dagestan to stop any border discussions. They were forbidden to continue them. As far as I know, this situation will continue until autumn,” says Shamil Khadulayev, the head of Dagestan’s NGO Council and the only representative of Dagestan’s civil society to be invited to a meeting with Ramzan Kadyrov to discuss the border question.

"There were attempts, but I did everything I could to avoid any escalation of the situation between Chechnya and Dagestan"

Khadulayev believes that the protest activity in Ingushetia has affected the work of the border commission, and the situation in Dagestan could have escalated.

“There were attempts, but I did everything I could to avoid any escalation of the situation between Chechnya and Dagestan,” says Khadulayev. “I tried to calm people down. But if people hadn’t had any information, an uprising could really have been on the cards. People could have taken to the streets – and things would have got out of hand. The Chechen side also understands what’s going on: they don’t need any conflicts, they tell us.”

So, what happens next?

“Kadyrov has long had a dream: to make his territorial claims a reality,” says Ruslan Mutsolgov. “He will probably continue this work – or he may put it on ice for many years.”

Mutsolgov believes that the situation in Ingushetia, where the authorities and Chechnya tried to draw a veil over the loss of 10% of their territory, has provoked similar plans for other regions.

“They have definitely begun to discuss borders in the North Caucasus, although all the borders there were established a long time ago and enshrined by a law that states that regional borders are defined by the borders of municipal structures of border territories between regions”, says Mutsolgov. “To be honest, all this started as a screen. They put the changes in Dagestan on hold to avoid worsening the socio-political situation, and measures to define borders with other regions can be stopped in the same way”.

“Young people are now trying to head the protests, and they are in a more radical mood. The consequences could be unpredictable”

But Mutsolgov doesn’t believe that it’s all over yet. “How will Ingushetia’s regional government work? Will they continue with their anti-people policies? The main question for us now is how the republic’s leadership will act when it comes to borders with other regions.”

Mutsolgov is referring to an older problem, and one that bothers people in Ingushetia just as much as the transfer of land to Chechnya: a section of disputed territory with neighbouring North Ossetia, which Ingush and North Ossetians fought over in 1992.

Prigorodny district, the disputed territory, remains a controversial issue. And in May 2019, the Ministry of Justice ordered a three-month halt to the work of the Ingush People’s Clan Council. Formally, the ministry’s order concerns certain legal violations, but the council believes that this order is connected to a statement on its website against any legislation that would hand over “Prigorodny district and other Ingush lands in favour of North Ossetia or other federal subjects”.

Ingush leaders have said that the hold on the activities of the Clan Council will have no effect on its work, but several council members, including its Chair Malsag Uzhakhov, are now in investigative detention. At the same time, the clan elders have a huge influence on the younger generation: it was they who calmed the young people down earlier this year and prevented a possible conflict with the police. And if the elders lose their means of influence, the situation may change for the worse – for everyone.

Overnight on 31 May, strange notices appeared on the streets of Ingushetia’s towns and villages. These anonymous communications called for Ingushetia to “leave the Russian Federation and join the law-governed democratic state of Georgia… for the sake of stable development and the assertion of our rights under international law.” The protest leaders deny that they have anything to do with these calls.

If these notices aren’t a provocation on the part of the authorities, it’s a bad sign. It’s entirely possible that new forces are appearing in Ingushetia, and their demands might be much more radical than a re-examination of land agreements with neighbouring republics. According to Isabella Evloyeva, “Young people are now trying to head the protests, and they are in a more radical mood. The consequences could be unpredictable.”

It’s calm in Ingushetia right now, and there are at least two reasons for this. One of them is obvious: the resistance has been put down (at least for the moment) and the most active members of the protest movement are in custody, awaiting investigation. The rest have all left the region, to avoid arrest.

There is, however, another reason. Early May this year was marked by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when believers fast and are forbidden to quarrel with anyone. A Muslim who is observing Ramadan will certainly refrain from going to a protest meeting – they can’t risk any conflict with the police. Ramadan, however, finished on 4 June.

People pull down new road signs on the Dagestan-Chechnya border, 11 June.

But while it’s quiet in Ingushetia, in Dagestan people reacted angrily to the recent installation of new road signs on the outskirts of Kizlyar. People aren’t interested in whether the signs are legal or not, or what’s written on official maps: they are afraid of being manipulated and deceived, just like in Ingushetia. In response, the Chechen authorities deployed troops and military hardware to the border

Experience shows that these kinds of actions aren’t left unanswered in the North Caucasus, and intervention from the federal centre can only make the situation more complicated.

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