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Analysis & Opinion
01.11.08 Swapping The Puppets
By Roland Oliphant

On Thursday October 30 the embattled president of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov, announced that he would be taking a new job in Moscow. His resignation was immediately accepted by President Dmitry Medvedev, who appointed one Lt. Col. Yunnus-Bek Yevkurov, the deputy chief of staff of the Volga Urals military district, as interim replacement. On Friday the Kremlin confirmed that Yevkurov was the preferred successor, in a terse communique announcing “President Dmitry Medvedev submitted to the People's Assembly of the Republic of Ingushetia the candidacy of Yunus-Bek Yevkurov for the post of President of the Republic of Ingushetia.”

Zyazikov, a former KGB general who came to power in controversial circumstances in 2002, has presided over a worsening insurgency in Ingushetia, and the move is widely seen as a sign of the Kremlin’s impatience (Interfax quoted Zyazikov as saying “I will work in Moscow,” probably, as one commentator on Radio Svoboda observed, in one of the comfortable administrative jobs “the Kremlin prepares for those of its people who end up in a bad situation.”) Apart from failing to tame the insurgency, he also had increasingly strained relations with the opposition, culminating in the death in August of Magomed Yevloyev, the owner of the opposition website, in police custody.

It is hoped that Yevkurov’s military background will give him a better handle on the counter insurgency effort. “Yevkurov is a real military person, and that gives hope for a peaceful solution,” said Ivan Sukhov, an expert on the Caucasus with the Vremya Novosti newspaper. “Despite his background in the KGB, Zyazikov is a civil figure. He was not involved with the Special Forces operations against the terrorist underground, which have been so brutal that they have made many Ingush angry. Yevkurov is both Ingush and a military man, so hopefully he will understand the situation better and at least be able to influence the planning of operations and make them more humane,” he said.

Human rights groups agree with this logic. “Our view is that the local authorities are not able to take the situation under control and stop blatant and systematic human rights abuses in the region. We also argue that due to the human rights abuses in the region there was growing public indignation and distrust of the authorities, and as a result the insurgency is also growing very swiftly,” said Tanya Lokshina, a Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch who authored a report on Ingushetia published in June. “The situation they have been dealing with up to now had to do with very flawed counter insurgency tactics,” she added.

It was not always this way. When war broke out in Chechnya in 1995, Ingushetia was swamped by an influx of Chechen refugees and occasionally targeted by Russian army incursions, but was largely kept out of the conflict, becoming a safe haven and staging post for journalists, aid workers, black marketeers and fighters on both sides.
Many put that down to the shrewd deal making of Ruslan Aushev, the first president of Ingushetia and Zyazikov’s predecessor. Aushev, a mustachioed former general and hero of the Afghan war, is said to have offered Chechen militants safe haven in the understanding that they would carryout no attacks on, or in, Ingushetia.

That deal was never official, or acknowledged, but it was widely believed in and seen as an embarrassing sign of the Boris Yeltsin government’s weakness. In 2002, the Kremlin apparently decided it would no longer tolerate it, and Zyazikov was installed in an election that many saw as rigged. Even then the situation did not change drastically, though human rights groups did complain about a forced “return” of many Chechen refugees and an increase of “sweep operations” and abductions by security services, again mostly against Chechen refugees.

The real turning point came on June 22, 2004, after the Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basaev led a major raid into Ingushetia that seized control of two towns, including the regional capital Nazran. The insurgents, who are believed to have included a large number of Ingush fighters, made a point of systematically killing police and security officials (and anyone else who happened to be carrying official looking I.D., including many civilians). According to the official republic of Ingushetia website, the raid left 98 dead and 104 wounded.

In the words of the Human Rights Watch report, “the public at large rallied around the government and urged the authorities to take prompt and strong measures to prevent such attacks from happening again.” Yet the authorities’ campaign against the “terrorist underground” soon descended into the “very flawed counter insurgency tactics” that Lokshina says has not only squandered the initial good will, but is actually fueling the insurgency. Those tactics, she said, include “abductions, disappearances and torture, and extra judicial executions, and special operations carried out in such a way as to make civilian casualties almost inevitable.”

One reason for this brutality is frustration. Attacks have only increased, and the insurgents have started to target non-Ingush civilians as well as security forces. In 2007 the number of attacks escalated dramatically, resulting in another 2,500 interior ministry troops being deployed to the region. Even they have failed to have a significant impact on the security situation.

And yet it is not entirely clear who is behind the attacks. A certain element is undoubtedly jihadist. One theory is that as the Kremlin-backed strong man Ramzan Kadyrov has tightened his grip on the neighboring Chechnya, the rebels have turned to Ingushetia as a softer target., an Islamist militant website that regularly reports on attacks in Ingushetia, reported in mid-2007 that Akhmed Yevloyev (no relation to the late Magomed Yevloyev of, the leading Ingush insurgent, received his mandate directly from Doku Umarov, a prominent Chechen rebel leader who calls himself Emir of the Caucasus Emirates. But Sukhov warns against simplifying the picture. “The terrorists may include some Chechens, but there is also an Ingush Muslim underground. They are connected with Chechens like Umarov, but they don’t need much help from him,” he said.

As well as the Chechen and Ingush Islamists, some of the insurgency seems to be fueled by Ingush nationalists alienated by the security services. Figures in the Ingush opposition, most famously represented by Yevloyev, who died in police custody, have recently called for independence from Russia (they have also loudly called for the reinstatement of Aushev, a sign of their political loyalties). It seems doubtful that such figures are connected with the Islamist insurgents – yet.

So Yevkurov is certainly not coming into one of the nice safe jobs the Kremlin reserves for its retirees. To break the back of the insurgency he must reign in the excesses of the security services, which will please the human rights lobby and the opposition. But he must also find a way into the insurgent groups, which has so far proved difficult. “One problem for Ingushetia is that there are no former fighters who would switch sides, as Kadyrov did in Chechnya,” said Sukhov. And there are other, local difficulties. The Islamists also benefit by describing themselves as “above the clans.” They appeal to those who do not do so well out of the traditional system of clan patronage that still governs Ingushetia and much of the Caucasus. It will be hard to remedy that cause of disaffection.

Nonetheless Yevkurov’s appointment has broadly been greeted with optimism. One good sign is that Aushev, the former president whose supporters caused so much difficulty for Zyazikov, described Yevkurov as a “good choice,” according to RIA Novosti. Even Lokshina cautiously welcomed the change. “Zyazikov was not doing anything to guarantee security, reign in the security services or investigate human rights abuses. But it is all doable as long as there is a will, and that is what we expect the new president to focus on,” she said. But she stopped short of an outright endorsement of the new man, perhaps because although human rights groups and the Kremlin are united in their frustration with Zyazikov, their aims differ. If Yevkurov can pacify Ingushetia by finding an “Ingushetian Kadyrov,” he no doubt will. But experience in the neighboring republic shows that does not mean things will get any less brutal.
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