One of Dmitry Medvedev’s first important decisions as Russian president was to dismiss Murat Zyazikov, the discredited and ineffective Republic of Ingushetia president, and appoint career military-intelligence officer Yunus-Bek Yevkurov to replace him.
That move was greeted locally with exultation: up to 80,000 people (of a population of some 480,000) had signed a petition addressed to Medvedev requesting that he dismiss Zyazikov and replace him with former President and Afghan war hero Ruslan Aushev.
“The Economist” recently lauded Yevkurov for having “worked wonders” by restoring a modicum of stability to a region that at the time of his appointment in October 2008 was “close to civil war.” The website ingushetiyaru.org, by contrast, regards Yevkurov as the Kremlin’s “gauleiter,” and claims that he and his family are even more corrupt than his detested predecessor. Which perception is closer to the truth?
To attempt to answer that question, it is necessary to examine the whole range of political and economic problems Yevkurov faces, and the nature of the support he receives from the federal center in tackling them. Moscow’s overriding priority is, of course, stamping out the North Caucasus insurgency. But Ingushetia’s long-suffering population judges Yevkurov by other criteria: his ability to protect them from arbitrary reprisals and extrajudicial killings by federal security personnel; the level of corruption within the government bureaucracy, and possibly also the judiciary; continued economic stagnation; and the highest unemployment rate (57 percent of the able-bodied population) in the Russian Federation.
It is true that the level of violence in Ingushetia is currently far lower than in late 2008, having reached an apogee in 2009. (Yevkurov himself barely survived a suicide attack in June 2009). But it is debatable how much personal credit Yevkurov can claim for that downturn, especially given that the Ingushetian wing of the North Caucasus insurgency suspended operations following the betrayal and capture in June 2010 of its leader, Ali Taziyev (nom de guerre Magas), and announced a moratorium on attacks on police a few months later.
Yevkurov Is Not Kadyrov
Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center recently highlighted the difference between the Kremlin’s strategies in Chechnya and Ingushetia. In the former, it has effectively given local police and security personnel subordinate to republican strongman Ramzan Kadyrov carte blanche to use whatever methods they consider expedient to break the back of the insurgency. This has resulted in the concentration in Kadyrov’s hands of so much power that trying to remove him by legal constitutional means has become virtually impossible.
In Ingushetia, by contrast, most of the dirty work is undertaken by Interior Ministry and security personnel brought in from elsewhere in Russia and, it is believed, from neighboring North Ossetia, with which Ingushetia is enmired in an acrimonious territorial dispute. In addition, Yevkurov has consistently appealed to young militants to lay down their arms and return to civilian life, apparently not without success: he claimed in a recent interview that 48 fighters surrendered in 2010.
Petrov made the point that the Ingushetia strategy leads to an escalation of violence in the short term, but is likely to prove more effective in the long term than the Chechen variant, which he describes as “a dead end.” It is worth noting that Yevkurov is one of the most interviewed of Russia’s 83 federation-subject heads, which suggests an orchestrated PR effort on the part of the Kremlin to publicize and highlight his achievements.
The Kremlin is also apparently prepared to turn a blind eye when Yevkurov bends the rules. In late March, unidentified security personnel used force to break up an opposition protest in Nazran and detained and beat up its organizer, oppositionist Magomed Khazbiyev. Khazbiyev was sentenced the following day to 10 days’ administrative arrest, a move that triggered an international outcry, whereupon Yevkurov summoned the elders of the Khazbiyev clan, who undertook to reprimand Magomed as required by “adat,” the traditional legal practice for regulating disputes. In return, Yevkurov signed instructions ordering his immediate release.
The incidence of abductions and extrajudicial killings by police and security forces has also decreased: there were four abductions in 2010 compared with seven in 2009. Two young men have been snatched so far this year, of whom one was badly beaten and released. The second, Ilez Gorchkhanov, was found dead last week.
Yevkurov has publicly upbraided security personnel for playing into the hands of the insurgency by engaging in such gratuitous brutality, but as “The Economist” pointed out, “he does not formally control the local police, and he has little power over the federal security services.”
Public Trust Evaporates
Yet despite the tenuous improvement in the security situation over the past year, public trust in Yevkurov has plummeted. A poll conducted a year ago by the opposition website ingushetia.org found that of 2,027 respondents, 732 (36.1 percent) said they trusted Yevkurov and considered him honest, while 939 (46 percent) said he was “deceiving the people.” By contrast, a survey of some 1,500 people conducted in early March 2011 by the independent journal “Dosh” found that just 8.7 percent trusted Yevkurov, 9.5 percent trusted Zyazikov, while 81.2 percent still trusted Zyazikov’s predecessor, retired general and Afghan war hero Ruslan Aushev.
Those findings should not be construed as reflecting the relative unpopularity of Yevkurov compared with Zyazikov, in that the results might have been different if the question posed had been “Whom do you distrust more, Zyazikov or Yevkurov?” But they almost certainly testify to widespread disappointment and disillusion that the man who was regarded in November 2008 as a savior, and who made a concerted effort to reach out to the opposition and to meet with the population at large to hear, and where possible take action to redress, their grievances, has failed to live up to the (possibly unrealistic) hopes vested in him.
The primary factors contributing to negative public perceptions of Yevkurov is corruption, which is difficult, if not impossible to quantify, followed by continued economic stagnation. Yevkurov himself claims that corruption is declining: he told an interviewer in January that 38 cases had been investigated and sent to court. One such high-profile case, for which a former health minister was recently arrested and charged, involved the procurement of tomographic equipment at an inflated price.
In a subsequent interview, Yevkurov complained that popular perceptions of endemic corruption are fuelled by some Ingushetian judges’ reluctance to hand down harsh sentences in corruption cases, or even to preside over such cases at all, for fear of incurring the wrath of the defendant’s entire extended family.
That reluctance also extends, Yevkurov said last year, to cases involving captured insurgents. He described judges who err on the side of clemency in such cases as “worse than 10 Khattabs,” a reference to the Arab field commander who ran a training camp for Islamic militant fighters in Chechnya during the interwar period and subsequently played a key role in the August 1999 Chechen incursions into Daghestan that triggered the second war.
Yevkurov’s standoff with the republican judiciary led to the dismissal of Supreme Court Chairman Mikhail Zadvornov and his deputy Magomed Daurbekov. Daurbekov has since been reinstated.
Kick-starting the republic’s moribund economy has proven just as intractable, despite the huge aid package of 29 billion rubles ($1.05 billion) announced by President Medvedev during a brief visit to Ingushetia in January 2009. In an interview he gave to “Kommersant-Vlast” earlier this month, Yevkurov named two promising foreign investment projects, but these are unlikely to have an immediate positive impact. In addition, Yevkurov claims that unemployment is down by 4 percentage points, but even that slight decline still leaves half the able-bodied population out of work.
As indicated above, some Ingush are convinced that Yevkurov and his immediate family are as corrupt as the Zyazikov clan, if not more so. Over the past year, the website ingushetiyaru.org has posted a series of purported appeals and open letters from the population denouncing Yevkurov and expressing qualified support for Khazbiyev.
Which Moscow-based Ingushetian oligarch is bankrolling the opposition — Khazbiyev’s family last week offered a reward of 1 million rubles ($35,998) for information about the identity of the persons who abducted him and two of his brothers in late March — is unclear.
Khazbiyev, together with prominent businessman and public figure Maksharip Aushev (no relation to Ruslan), whose murder in October 2009 remains unsolved, initially worked with Yevkurov, but Khazbiyev withdrew his support after Yevkurov refused to dissolve the parliament elected under Zyazikov and schedule new elections.
Last summer, Khazbiyev revived the Mekhk Kkhel, the shadow parliament established early in 2008, with the aim of lobbying for more decisive action to curb arbitrary violence by the security forces and crack down on corruption. Khazbiyev has not yet openly advocated Yevkurov’s dismissal. He has, however, proposed that former President Aushev should be named to head the North Caucasus Federal District and its current head, Aleksandr Khloponin, should serve as Aushev’s deputy.
There is, moreover, one huge imponderable in the Ingushetian equation, and that is Yevkurov’s health. Although he assured interviewers last fall that he is aware of no after-effects from the injuries he sustained in the June 2009 suicide bomb attack, journalists who regularly attend his press conferences say he is clearly a sick man. Never a particularly polished and articulate speaker, he frequently loses track of what he is saying. In addition, he is rumored to suffer outbursts of uncontrollable rage that may have contributed to the recent decision by Aleksei Vorobyov, whom he named in October 2009 as prime minister, to seek a new post outside Ingushetia.
In the final analysis, the success of Moscow’s Ingushetia strategy may hinge on whether and for how long Yevkurov will prove physically and mentally capable of discharging his duties.