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‘It's very difficult to make a decision for the entire nation’ ‘Meduza’ interviews a high-ranking legislator in Ingushetia, where unusually persistent protests have broken new ground in Russian civil dissent

Meduza
Ingush residents protest on March 26, 2019
Ingush residents protest on March 26, 2019
Yelena Afonina / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Mass protests have been ongoing in the North Caucasian republic of Ingushetia since the fall of 2018. At first, residents of the Russian federal subject were protesting a land trade that would shift some Ingush territories to the neighboring republic of Chechnya. When the Ingush parliament began considering a law that would repeal the region’s current referendum requirement for territorial changes, protesters shifted their attention to that amendment. In April, authorities began searching and arresting opposition leaders in Ingushetia, the local Internal Affairs Ministry leader resigned, and government officials stopped speaking with journalists. However, Meduza was able to speak with a vice speaker of the People’s Assembly of Ingushetia, Vasily Svetlichny. He told us that avoiding bloodshed and pursuing diplomacy are both very important but that he believes the protests were provoked externally, not that they emerged from a grassroots effort.

First, a recap of the situation in Ingushetia

Both the beginning of the current Ingush political crisis in the fall of 2018 and the current wave of protests are directly related to the People’s Assembly, the republic’s parliament. At first, the Assembly quickly passed all three readings necessary to approve a land swap between Chechnya and Ingushetia, and mass unrest soon followed: many Ingush residents believed the swap to be unequal. According to calculations performed by cartographer Sofya Gavrilova of Oxford University, Chechnya would receive more than 25 times more land than Ingushetia under the deal. The vote on the agreement was closed to the public, and when it was over, a group of deputies addressed the waiting crowd to say that 15 people out of 25 had voted against the swap. When the People’s Assembly’s official results showed 17 votes in favor, rumors that the vote had been falsified began to spread.

At that point, Ingush head of government Yunus-Bek Yevkurov emerged to speak with protesters himself. When he was hit with a plastic bottle thrown out of the crowd, his bodyguards led him back to safety, shooting into the air as they walked. A protest involving multiple thousands of people continued in the Ingush capital of Magas for two weeks and concluded with an official World Congress of the Ingush People. During the congress, it was announced that the conflict over the land swap would be decided in court.

Fall 2018 protests in Ingushetia opposing a border deal with Chechnya

Another round of protests took place in the second half of March when a new law on referenda in the republic passed its first reading in the People’s Assembly. Unlike Ingushetia’s previous law on referenda, this bill does not include a clause stating that referenda must be called to approve changes concerning the official status of the republic, its name, its division or union with other Russian federal subjects, or its borders and territories. A vice speaker of the People’s Assembly, Askhab Sukiev, explained at the time that the timing of the vote was coincidental and stemmed from a technical error, but few believed him.

This time, local authorities approved plans for a protest in advance, but only for a single day: March 26. The majority of those who participated in the protest left the central square of Magas that evening, but about 200 stayed overnight. Shortly before sunrise, they were surrounded by members of the Russian National Guard, and a scuffle began as some law enforcement officers attempted to disperse the protesters by force. They were unsuccessful. As one group of protesters walked from Magas back to Nazran, a number of activists broke off and blocked the Kavkaz highway that serves as the central transportation artery of the region. It was evening on March 27 by the time protest leaders managed to convince the last activists to take apart their barricades and go with them to the central mosque in Nazran.

A few days later, on the morning of April 3, state officials began searching protest leaders and young opposition activists and giving some of them jail time. Government employees declined to speak with the press during that time, but Meduza was able to arrange an interview with Vasily Svetlichny, a vice speaker of the People’s Assembly of Ingushetia and the chair of the Assembly’s Committee on National Politics and Public Ties. Svetlichny is also the ataman of the Sunzhensky Regional Cossack Society.

The protesters’ point of view is more or less clear; let’s hear more about yours. Recent events have reached an active phase, and the protest organizers have been arrested. Ever since the agreement was signed, there were rumors that the People’s Assembly’s vote on it had been falsified. Can you comment on all this somehow?

What is there to comment on? In order for the republic to live, for its statehood to grow, a number of conditions are necessary. Nowadays, it’s very difficult for us to attract investment. If the borders aren’t decided, then anyone can say, “Come on, guys, how can I work with you? What if, tomorrow…” You can understand for yourself how bad that is. That’s why being in this condition where we’re a federal subject but our borders are indefinite is dangerous and unproductive. That’s why this [new border agreement between Chechnya and Ingushetia] had to be passed.

If we’re in a position to negotiate, then the best thing to do is negotiate, not to fight. We’ve already had situations of conflict on the border. And I lived through the Chechen [wars]. I’ve seen pain, I’ve seen suffering, I’ve seen death, I’ve seen the tears of mothers. I’ve seen how low the people’s morality sinks. I wouldn’t want that. I work here, I live here. I’ve lived through a whole lot with these people.

In 2011, we did some research, we surveyed 8,000 respondents and then some. What do you think — what was the main issue we found on those forms? Give us safety, give us calm. That was the first, the main issue. The rest was down below, the economy and so on. Why? Because people were killed, shot, blown up. People were trying to build something, and they were interrupted. It was dangerous. Our statehood suffered from it.

You know what happened to the head of our republic. He was bombed [on June 22, 2009, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov survived an assassination attempt but was heavily wounded and spent several months in a hospital — Meduza], but he had enough strength and love for his people. He didn’t leave, didn’t hide, he tried to talk to people, do something. We don’t have any warm, cuddly people here. The only way you don’t make mistakes is if you don’t do anything.

Vasily Svetlichny
People’s Assembly of the Republic of Ingushetia

But the question here isn’t about what was done, it’s about how it was done. I’ve gotten the impression, and it could be wrong, that this frustration was due to the way information was communicated. At first, people said that the agreement to change the border would be equal on both sides, but then the calculations showed that the republic would shrink relative to its previous borders. And that whole story around passing the bill in three readings all in a row was confusing. If that had been done differently, maybe there wouldn’t have been so much frustration.

Only someone without a heart and a mind could argue with you. Yes, there were mistakes. That could have been avoided. But the fact is that sometimes, situations arise when you have to make decisions. To take responsibility.

You’re probably aware that in the Republic of Chechnya we had a commission to define the border. But how did it end? In the Republic of Chechnya, a law about the border was accepted in its own time [Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov signed the law on October 5, 2018 — Meduza] That was a forceful decision, and it took place without any discussion. But that’s not our path. We tried to take the path of negotiations, meetings, and so on to try to deal with the situation through legislative channels.

But imagine yourself in our shoes. Let’s say that you are the head of a federal subject. And all the subjects in the North Caucasian Federal District have gathered together. They’ve sat down around a table to decide, say, this question [about the border]. Could there be a situation that could bring positive results? That’s why you have to make a decision. And making a decision for the entire nation, for your entire republic, is very difficult, it’s very painful. But you have to do it.

I agree that you have to make a decision, but again, that begs the question: why not consult the people of your own republic? Or at least inform people, and not toss out contradictory evidence that, to be blunt, doesn’t give people a sense of trust. During that protest, I heard a number of times that if Mr. Yevkurov had gathered together the heads of the Teips, the elders, and explained: we have this situation, the circumstances demand it, we just have to comply. If he had told them that, then it’s likely that what happened in the fall [mass protests] simply wouldn’t have happened.

I discussed that many times with my colleagues, yes. But in this case, it was necessary to make a decision in an extreme situation. I imagine myself in Yevkurov’s shoes, how I would have felt. If you had been sitting there, what would you have done?

I would have called a meeting with the people.

That comes later. We Chechens have a saying: if we would have been smart beforehand but not afterward, then we wouldn’t have any value on this earth. A very good saying. We had a meeting where we had to make a decision. And if we had walked away from it, then the risk is that you look like you’re not a man or not an Ingush.

So what were these negotiations where you walk in the door and that possibility is just gone?

What do you mean, walk in the door?

I mean, you’re saying that you had to make a decision right then and there. But that’s still a decision that can change the fate of the republic and even, in many ways, the region. It’s strange that everything had to be decided that second, that it couldn’t wait a couple days.

And do you think there haven’t been many such decisions in human history?

There have, and their consequences weren’t decisively positive either.

There were various consequences, yes. But a person who takes them upon himself should have courage. Do you think he didn’t predict that there might be frustration? But sometimes, the circumstances are such that someone has to take responsibility upon himself.

What can we say about the situation going forward? I say that humanity still hasn’t thought of anything better than dialogue and working within the law. That’s why we all — the leadership, the population, and all the nonprofit organizations — we all have to get together, have a talk, have a conversation. But it can’t be an atmosphere of attacking, shouting, without any actual argumentation. Vysotsky has this song: “I don’t like stadiums and arenas; people there spend a million on a dime.” It’s very rare that you can make a decision at a big meeting like that. A decision, as a rule, can be made when you sit around a table, have negotiations, introduce arguments. Leadership means predicting that your decision can be good or harmful.

Even today, you have plenty of people saying maybe Ingushetia shouldn’t have become a part of Tsarist Russia. Maybe we should have tied ourselves to England. But a lot of people forget what England did in China. You know that there were opium wars in China. When the great river was red with blood and corpses. Or the Sepoy Mutiny, when the sepoys were tied to cannons and shot. So the people who are teaching us about democracy are themselves far from being democrats. So back then, the Ingush gathered together and decided that they should become part of Russia. But there were people who disagreed. And today there are a lot of people who say we shouldn’t have gone here, gone there. There are a lot of nations — like France — that include various peoples. But the thing is that, well, who are the French? They say, we’re multinational, we’re French. The Germans say, we’re German, all the rest was assimilated. And we still have all the nations, ethnicities, and so on. And no matter how much we shout that “Russia is a prison of nations,” we, fortunately, have not seen the kind of ugliness that our European neighbors have experienced.

We had the Caucasian War.

We did. But there are things you can’t talk about as though they’re detached from a broader process. The Caucasian War was part of global geopolitics. The people who came here, to the Caucasus, were coming from England, Turkey, and then some of them were our people.

Just like Russia got involved in India. There was geopolitics everywhere.

But a lot of everyday questions were decided by local authorities. And there was a governor for political or criminal issues. So some autonomy was preserved. There are various approaches out there. But ultimately, our nationalities were preserved. But that was under the Soviet Union.

Yes, there were deportations and displacements. But there were also Heroes of the Soviet Union, and now there are Heroes of Russia. And there were so many Heroes of the Soviet Union who were Ingush or Chechen. The immunity that was woven into our country, into our people, it worked.

Ingush residents protest against proposed changes to the republic’s referendum laws. Magas, March 26, 2019
Yelena Afonina / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

I’ve been living in Ingushetia for a long time, and it’s probably one of the most loyal republics in the Northern Caucasus. But after recent events, people have started having conversations about independence, which is very unusual for the Ingush. I’ve spoken with sociologists, and they are also surprised. Wouldn’t you say that the results really have been a bit too difficult to justify the decision that led to them?

Yes, some mistakes got through, but I’m telling you that the only way you don’t make mistakes is if you don’t do anything. Once a decision is already made, you have to think about how to make its consequences less painful, how to get something useful out of that decision, not just in the short term, but in the foreseeable future. There’s also a moral component; there are Koranic and biblical truths. If you have a government, nobody kills you, nobody destroys your temples, then you have to respect that government. Would you disagree?

I think that’s a necessary condition for respecting a government but not a sufficient one.

The majority of our population here are believers who live by Koranic norms. And many of them know that governmental power is given by God. There are times when you have to fight. But there are also standards for living together, moral foundations, that we should not violate.

And how does that line up with odd circumstances like the high likelihood that the results of the People’s Assembly vote were falsified?

As a journalist, you should know that if you take too big a step, your pants will rip. You’re presupposing that there was falsification.

A high likelihood.

It’s a high likelihood. And I’m saying there’s a high likelihood that there wasn’t.

And what about that strange situation with the clause [mandating a referendum for territorial changes] that disappeared?

That was a problem that was invented on the spot. Regardless of whatever disappeared or didn’t disappear, it doesn’t have any real significance. Parliaments in Russia, and not only in Russia, have a particular procedure to passing legislation. They discuss it in committee, and then you have the first reading. Before the second reading, they introduce amendments and changes and so on. If something disappeared, then it could have been fixed, verified, and so on. They just had to wait. Everything was fine in the first reading, and then, all of a sudden, there was a huge splash. That means somebody found a purpose for inflating this issue. In any case, there’s no way any of this was criminal.

But that deletion played a particular role. People are nervous.

There were already certain ideas, a certain mood, among people who were ahead of the game. That’s why we recalled the bill for redevelopment so that people could get to know it better: not out of weakness, but out of respect for the population and for popular opinion.

I’ve also remembered that the last protest was state-approved — so that we could meet the people in the middle and arrange a dialogue with them. If you don’t want it to be in Nazran, OK then, let’s do it in Magas. The request [for approval] was accepted, legally developed, there you go. Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) forces were brought in — that’s how it is everywhere when there are massive political protests, whether you’re in Moscow or in the United States. Not to disperse people or shoot them, but to make sure there are no provocations. We met the people in the middle, but some people interpret the desire to find a compromise as a weakness.

As far as I remember, the organizers of the protesters submitted a request [for approval for a protest on April 5 – 9], and when they didn’t receive a rejection the following day, they had the right to hold the protest under notice.

And if the leaders themselves hadn’t been there, who would have maintained order?

Was order maintained? Was it just calm and quiet over there?

A whole group of people acted aggressively toward MVD forces.

As far as I know, when it came to the MVD, people were just fine.

Just fine in what sense? People threw stones at them, there were MVD employees who were wounded.

They were wounded when officers were already storming the crowd. Naturally, people reacted.

But did they storm the crowd right there?

Well, that’s something we still have to figure out.

Well, when we figure it out, then you can make a decision. If everything was done right, then apologize. There are many truths, but there is only one Truth with a capital T. And if we want to find the Truth, we have to bring together our views and our opinions. For that, you need dialogue, and for that, you need meetings where people don’t yell at one another afterward.

And as a journalist, you should know that this phenomenon has been around for many thousands of years. The organizers know very well that when you have a large group of people, especially if you feed them Snickers and put five of them in seven or eight places, give them slogans to shout out in unison, then you can put together a crowd like there’s nothing to it. At some point, you just say, “Forward, march!” and that’s it, the crowd gets itself wound up, and off you go. That’s all easy to organize.

From my perspective, it looks like civil society in Ingushetia is much more disciplined than it is in Moscow. I was shocked at the way the protest was absolutely clean, they picked everything up after themselves, they behaved with total respect toward the police. In Russia, that’s pretty atypical. I’ve seen a lot of protests, and this one was absolutely special. That kind of society really does deserve a respectful dialogue. But I’m afraid that since the protest organizers were jailed, that dialogue might have been destroyed, and we might see radicalism on the rise instead.

I’ll agree with you about civil society in Ingushetia. It did not come out of serfdom; there were no princes here. There was the Mekhk-Khel [a Vainakh parliamentary and judicial body]. They became accustomed to this over centuries. But the thing is that when the head of the republic and the chair of the government went to that protest, people threw bottles at them. The crowd started to beat two people. What’s that about? From your point of view, is that democratic? Is that civil?

People were enraged. The man made a decision, and he should have understood what consequences there might be.

Yes, but he [Yevkurov] didn’t hide, he went out to the people to speak with them and present his conclusions and so on. And they didn’t listen to him.

Because those conclusions should probably have been presented before the fact, and not after, right? Not when the decision had already been made?

See, I just love human rights activists, I love them so much. They say, “We need all this, this democracy, this civil society…” but when it comes to them, when someone kidnaps their child or rapes them — then their opinion changes. They start looking for protection in the law. And for some reason, they have one moral perspective for other people, and then when it affects them, it’s an entirely different perspective. In terms of all your universal values, is it good or bad when a crowd attacks a single person?

Bad, of course.

Well there you go, you answered honestly, and I agree with you, no strings attached. If the people gather together, they should listen to what they’re told. But they intimidated people.

Clashes during the March protests in Ingushetia
Meduza

It would have been wonderful if that crowd had just stood quietly and listened, but you know that for Ingushetia, the question of territory is incredibly painful. That kind of reaction isn’t pretty, but I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s understandable. And the fact that it didn’t go any further, that even that protest continued in a disciplined way — it means that these are people you can have a dialogue with.

I’ve already answered this question for you and said you’re right. I was born and raised in the Caucasus, and my roots have been here for 500 years. I was, am, and will be someone who supports the people of this land. But I will never support the use of force where it shouldn’t have been used. That’s my position. When [the Ingush] were going through their most difficult time, I was there with them. Whatever could be done, I did it, I did it for the greater good, to save people, to save their good name. I can truly answer for myself here.

As you know, the leaders of the IKNE [Ingush Committee for National Unity, which coordinated the October 2018 protests] have now been arrested. What do you think, isn’t there a risk of radical protest that might arise because of that?

I can’t make those kinds of prognoses, but I can express my own wishes as a person who is both part of the government and part of society. I would like to turn to the people and ask them not to hurry, to think through things carefully and try to extend their hands outward into a dialogue.

As for the arrests, I don’t work in the MVD, and I’m no specialist in those agencies. But any government should be able to defend its honor and its foundations, its statehood. Otherwise, you’d have chaos. Chaos is substantially worse than any government. People can adapt to governments, get used to them, fulfill a set of norms. But when there’s chaos, they don’t know what to do. And chaos breeds civil strife, blood. That’s something I very much do not want. So everything should be done rationally, within the bounds of the law. And what do we have to do to achieve that? Dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue again. You can’t do it any other way. Do it, explain it; do it, explain it. Or explain it and then do it. Again, if you’re being beaten, someone’s mugging you, taking your bag, then what are you going to do, explain right away that he’s broken this law and that law? Or try to give him what’s coming to him?

And who was the thief who forced the head of the republic to give away part of his own territory?

You probably haven’t had the chance to read the Chinese philosopher, his dicta on wisdom. You should read them. Then, you won’t compare things like this. Because that’s called clickbait journalism.

But democracy was created for the purpose of ensuring that these decisions won’t just be made by a single person.

Stop right there. Democracy and liberalism are different things. Democracy is the demos, the people. But Democrat himself said: there’s no such thing as democracy. [Svetlichny is likely referring to Democritus — Meduza.]

Who’s this Democrat?

A Greek. You don’t know him? Then dig him up, read him. Where democracy implies a civil society, public statements, decisions, law and order, and so on, liberalism is something that demands my individual freedom, and my individual freedom is higher than all your laws and everything else. Although those comrades do often give a nod to Roman law. But in Roman law, the value of the collective over the individual was always there. And if one person made dangerous decisions, then the senate would vote him out. All his profit, his power, and so on would turn into a punishment.

And I’ll tell you this about people who lead others: some three or five percent of every population possesses prodigious mathematical abilities. God gives everybody different abilities, and there are different needs for them. It’s another three or five percent of the population that’s capable of leadership and prediction; that is, they’re prepared to guide the people who stand behind them. But those people have pluses and minuses, meaning that they can pull people to one side or to the other. In Korea, the U.S. ran an experiment. They really love experiments. They looked for a leader in a concentration camp and pushed him into a run. They went on with that until those three percent were gone. Then a group of soldiers just went on with their service while the rest followed their routine. There are people whom God has enabled to predict, to know, to be able, and they lead people after them. Everyone else is led.

With that, Mr. Svetlichny ended the interview and asked for readers not to take his words out of context. According to FortangaORG, three protest organizers were jailed for 10 days each on April 3, the day this conversation took place. Nine youth activists were also removed from the republic; they are currently being held in a detention facility in Nalchik.

Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Translation by Hilah Kohen