Trouble in the North Caucasus: Russia’s Restless Muslim Republics

By Uwe Klußmann

Although Russia is celebrating the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it still has its own problems in the region as its Muslim republics are drifting toward a partisan war.

Two policemen were killed in Russia's southern Ingushetia region when a powerful bomb went off near the building of the local interior ministry.
AFP

Two policemen were killed in Russia's southern Ingushetia region when a powerful bomb went off near the building of the local interior ministry.

Last Monday, an eerie funeral procession passed through the center of Nazran in the Russian republic of Ingushetia. Hundreds of people silently crowded around the coffin of Magomed Yevloyev. The 37-year-old lawyer and founder of a Web site ( www.ingushetiya.ru) that was critical of the government was killed in police custody. The authorities said that he was shot in a police car “inadvertently” -- though the bullet was accurate enough to enter his temple.

A cordon of police wearing black masks and wielding shields and rubber truncheons pressed against the mourners. The state was apparently afraid of the dead man and his relatives, who announced that they would carry out a blood vendetta, as is customary in the Caucasus.

Yevloyev’s Web site was the last free medium in this tiny, restless realm, which is only slightly larger than the US state of Rhode Island and has fewer than 500,000 inhabitants. What particularly irked the rulers there was that only a single letter (“Y”) differentiated the online address from the republic's official Web site.

Ingushetia is ruled by Murat Zyazikov, a former general in the Russian security services, who resides in an extravagant palace in the virtually deserted new capital of Magas. Zyazikov’s mission is to create jobs and stability, as he once told SPIEGEL, adding that enemies must be “put to the torch.” In private, Zyazikov likes to admit to his love of “German order and cleanliness.”

But, when it comes to order, there's not much of it to be found in Ingushetia these days. While Zyazikov has his heart set on transforming Ingushetia into a “Caucasian Switzerland,” Russian security agencies view this tiny republic as the most problematic patch of turf in Russia, especially after Moscow’s military offensive against Georgia.

In response to Russia’s recognition of the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, US presidential candidate John McCain said that after Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Western countries ought to think about "the independence of the North Caucasus and Chechnya.” That would definitely be pouring oil on the fire.

The Muslim Ingush once lived together with the Christian Ossetians. Then Stalin divided the territory and united the Ingush with the Chechens. In 1944, he deported both peoples to Central Asia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ingush formed their own republic. In 1992, tensions with the Ossetians led to a bloody war. The Russians sent in 12,000 soldiers to fight on the side of the Ossetians.

Thereafter, Ingushetia sank into poverty, eventually reporting an unemployment rate of 80 percent and Russia's highest birthrate. After the war in neighboring Chechnya, the region became a stronghold for armed Islamists.

Magomed Yevloyev, the founder of the Ingushetiya.ru Web site, died on August 31, 2008 from a bullet wound to the head while in police custody.
AFP

Magomed Yevloyev, the founder of the Ingushetiya.ru Web site, died on August 31, 2008 from a bullet wound to the head while in police custody.

These insurgents shoot police and secret service officers almost every day, blow up their vehicles and fire grenades at government buildings. In the first six months of 2008 alone, 70 police officers were killed during armed attacks in Ingushetia. Still, government death squads are just as ruthless as the Muslim terrorists. During “preemptive” searches for suspects, masked agents of the state have repeatedly abducted and murdered young men.

The Islamic militants are fighting for a “Caucasian emirate,” which they hope will one day extend from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. They also enjoy a large influx of fresh recruits in neighboring republics such as Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Dagestan. Assassinations are also commonplace in Dagestan, whose population of 2.6 million makes it the largest republic in the North Caucasus. Last week, journalist Telman Alishaev, who worked for “Islamic television,” was shot dead in the capital, Makhachkala.

For a long time, the Ingush were seen as the good-natured relatives of their wild Chechen cousins. During the war between Chechnya and Moscow, Ingushetia remained more or less an island of tranquility -- but also a secret military hospital for wounded Chechen fighters. President Ruslan Aushev guaranteed a certain degree of stability and acted loyally toward Moscow but, in truth, he remained a friend of the Chechens.

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to make his feelings clear, so he replaced Aushev in 2002 with his secret service friend Zyazikov. The new ruler immediately met with fierce resistance -- and only survived numerous assassination attempts thanks to his armored Mercedes.

A map of part of the Caucasus.
DER SPIEGEL

A map of part of the Caucasus.

To the outside world, Zyazikov presents his territory as a refuge of harmony. This farce reached its acme in 2007 during the elections to the Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. The Ingush delivered record results to the list of candidates from Putin’s United Russia party: 98.72 percent.

Nevertheless, things were still simmering beneath the surface. In November, security forces killed 6-year-old Rakhim Amriyev with a shot to the head during a “special operation” in the village of Chemulga. Yevloyev’s Web site reported extensively on the boy’s murder and on the election fraud. The reports outraged people, and the republic's rulers were not about to forgive him for that.

Yevloyev’s murder could mark a turning point. Last week, the oppositional “People’s Parliament of Ingushetia” launched a petition. The goal of the initiative is to secede from the Russian Federation.

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