Protests Reignite in Ingushetia Over Controversial Land Swap
Protests over a controversial land swap deal re-erupted in Russia’s Ingushetia last week. Thousands of residents took to the streets to denounce the swap and call for Ingushetia’s leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to step down. The agreement would hand over approximately 130 square miles to Chechnya’s North Caucasus. For Ingushetia, the smallest Russian Republic, 130 square miles amounts to about 9% of its territory. The controversial deal was concluded in September, but protests are still breaking out six months later.
The latest batch of demonstrations began on March 26th with a rally in Magas, the regional capital. Authorities authorized the protest but mandated that it end by 6:00pm that evening. Demonstrators broke the rule, rallying overnight until Wednesday morning when security forces began attempting to disperse them. The confrontation turned violent when “things like chairs started to be thrown, both into the crowd and from the crowd,” according to an Ingush human rights activist. About 1,000 participants in the disbanded protest walked to the city’s federal highway and blocked its motorway entrance after the initial rally was disbanded.
There were reports of injuries, but the only confirmed casualties were the careers of nineteen police officers, who were dismissed for siding with the protesters. Anonymous witnesses reported that the officers belonged to the local Ingush police force and had moved their armored vehicles to block riot units from neighboring regions from advancing on the protesters. The Ingush Interior Ministry confirmed that they had disbanded the unit in question, but also put out a statement denouncing an image showing a police officer refusing to fulfill his duties during the protest a fake.
Ingushetia’s Interior Minister, Lieutenant Dmitry Kava, has also been caught up in the protests’ political ramifications. Minister Kava submitted his letter of resignation “in view of the events in Magas.” He had taken a leave of absence a few days earlier. Ingushetian activist Magomed Mutsolgov, said that Kava’s exit was caused by his refusal to order his troops to disperse the Magas protesters, though it is unclear on what basis he is making that claim.
The support the police, and possibly Minister Kava, have demonstrated for the protests raise questions about who is supporting the deal and why. These questions have been present since the swap’s initial signing back in September, since one of its main criticisms then and now was its secretive nature. The deal was made between Yevkurov and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov without public debate. The latest protests were triggered by Yevkurov’s proposal to eliminate a law that would make the agreement subject to referendum. Both measures have led Ingushetians to fear that the deal is more costly than it is letting on. Kadyrov is being similarly quiet on what he hopes to gain from the deal. Some reports speculate that he is looking to secure oil deposits. Others propose that it’s a move to expand his personal sphere of influence.
However, this secrecy is likely untenable. Ingushetia’s constitutional court blocked Yevkurov’s proposal, meaning the issue will be decided by a referendum. Given the apparently widespread distaste for the agreement, it is unlikely the swap will go forward without the two leaders giving their public a compelling reason to change their minds. Ultimately, the dealers will likely be forced to choose whether to show their hands or fold.