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A republic unites ‘Meduza’ reports from the ground on Ingushetia's remarkable months-long protest movement

Meduza
Protesters in Magas on October 31, 2018, the day after the World Congress of the Ingush People met in Ingushetia’s capital
Protesters in Magas on October 31, 2018, the day after the World Congress of the Ingush People met in Ingushetia’s capital
Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Since the fall of 2018, residents of Ingushetia have held ongoing protests against a newly proposed border with Chechnya. On paper, there has been no formal border since the Chechen-Ingush ASSR split into two Russian federal subjects in 1991. On an objective level, a legal demarcation is necessary, but the border bill that the governments of both republics approved in the fall gave Chechnya more than seven percent of Ingushetia’s territory. As Ingush citizens protested, first against the deal itself and then against the government’s attempt to eliminate the need for a popular vote on it, both the region’s intelligentsia and Islamic fundamentalists took part. By April, that struggle against municipal, regional, and federal government forces had become a war of entrenchment: law enforcement agencies began searching and arresting opposition activists en masse. Meduza asked journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky to speak with members of the Ingush protest movement in Magas and Nazran.

Ingushetia has two capitals. Nazran is the unofficial one. Its successor, Magas, was built from scratch less than two and a half miles away as an administrative city, the newest and smallest capital of any subject of the Russian Federation. On March 26, a protest against a new referendum law swept Magas, and federal National Guard troops were called into the city. In early April, camouflage-painted Ural military trucks stood in Nazran’s side streets next to armed soldiers, the same federal troops who had tried to break up the protest a few days beforehand.

In one of Nazran’s cafes, you can find a group of young people who have dubbed themselves, albeit ironically, “atypical Ingush.” They don’t look much different from their peers in Moscow or any other big city but for the fact that many of the young women wear hijab. An economics student from Ingush State University reads Hesse while two young women sitting nearby carry on a lively argument about Salinger. A map hand drawn on a napkin imagines a subway system for Nazran, which doesn’t have one. The map is captioned “I’ve never been on the metro.”

When asked whether they participated in the protests, most of the group answers in the affirmative. “I was there so that no one will be able to say, ‘You didn’t do anything,’” says a young woman wearing a hijab. One of the café’s customers, who asked not to be named but said he works in advertising, says police officers searched his home the night before the last rally. They were looking for banners but didn’t find any.

“I work in Moscow, and I came back to the homeland specially,” says Adam, a young lawyer (he asked that his name be changed). “The protest was just one reason. The other was a beautiful young woman.”

“I should be the first reason!” his companion objects.

“I skipped the October protest,” Adam continues. “You’d think, they’re just shifting a little chunk of land around, and our nations are brothers. I don’t have anything against Chechens or Chechnya. Though I really don’t want to be, shall we say, in it with Kadyrov. Kadyrov and Chechnya are not the same thing.”

The new border between the republics cuts deep into Ingush territory.

What frustrates Adam most isn’t just Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s attempts to claim Ingush territory. He feels more strongly about the way Kadyrov’s Ingush counterpart, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, has tried to change the republic’s constitution to eliminate the need for popular votes on territorial changes. That change sparked the more recent Magas protests on March 26. In Moscow, Adam went to the rally that marked the anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s assassination. He says Caucasian protests are markedly different from the ones he’s seen in Moscow:

“Here, young people are much more fervent in their beliefs. But there are powerful factors that restrain them: our traditions and Islam. Religion doesn’t let you do whatever you please and stir up trouble. But if the alims, the scholars, decide that we’re being deprived of our home, they can declare jihad. It’s better not to go there. And for some reason, Caucasian governments have an idiotic habit of rounding up as much military equipment as they can. That happens in Moscow too, but not on the same scale. Here, you have a calm, civilized protest, but it looks like a war’s about to break out. Also, the local police work for the good of the people, not against it, which is pretty rare in Russia. What our protests have in common with Moscow’s is that they’re peaceful and they have acceptable, democratic demands. And the main thing that unites them is the fact that they’re totally useless. The government doesn’t give a shit there, and it doesn’t give a shit here.”

Between Chechnya and Ingushetia

On September 26, 2018, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Ramzan Kadyrov signed a new border agreement. In the Soviet era, the two republics made up a single administrative unit within the Russian SFSF: they were the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, and their capital was in the present-day Chechen capital, Grozny. In November of 1991, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ingush held a referendum to create a separate republic within the RSFSR. Boris Yeltsin, the president of what was then already an independent Russian state, signed an order approving the move, and the 1993 Constitution of the Russian Federation described two separate republics, Chechnya and Ingushetia. Nonetheless, there is still no officially demarcated border between the two regions, and that uncertainty has led to multiple territorial conflicts since the early 1990s.

The text of the 2018 agreement announces an “equal exchange of uninhabited territories in the Nadterechny District of Chechnya and the Sunzhensky District of Ingushetia.” However, independent calculations have demonstrated that the agreement gave Chechnya a disproportionately large quantity of land — one approximately 25 times the size of the territory Ingushetia received in return. The deal decreased Ingushetia’s area overall by seven percent, and for the most densely populated republic in Russia, that is a noticeable difference.

Ingush residents protest against a 2018 border deal with Chechnya.
Meduza

On the day that the agreement was signed, a massive, unplanned protest broke out in Magas. The flames of resistance quickly picked up oxygen when the Ingush parliament approved the deal on October 4. While legislation is typically edited in between three readings that are spread out in time, the three required votes for this bill all took place immediately, one right after the other. At first, parliamentary deputies announced to protesters that at least 15 of the 25 final votes had been against the border deal, meaning that it would fail. Then, the official numbers arrived: Yevkurov’s press team told TASS that 17 votes had been in favor. Several deputies soon released a statement saying once again that 17 votes were in fact made against the agreement but that some deputies’ votes were falsified, spoiling the process as a whole. Protesters responded to that announcement by declaring that they would remain in place in Magas indefinitely, 24 hours a day.

The fall 2018 protests brought together followers of Islamic movements that had previously been in conflict with one another. Sufi Muslims united publicly with Salafis, their primary ideological opponents. Akhmed Barakhoyev, a well-known Sufi elder and one of the protest movement’s leaders, said in one of his speeches that he had asked forgiveness from the Salafis and no longer considers them his enemies. The Ingush Committee for National Unity, the central coordinating body for the protests, included religious groups, human rights activists, and opposition organizations alike. The latter included the Yabloko party, the March movement, and the local opposition group Opora Ingushetii.

The Ingush ethnographer and historian Makka Albogachieva told Meduza in an interview that even blood feuds have fallen by the wayside in the face of the republic’s common struggles: “Everyone goes to the protests, sworn enemies included. But in this situation, nobody would raise a finger against a family member’s killer. The reconciliation commission stopped working because a truly frightening threat was hanging over all of Ingush society, and people aren’t paying any attention to personal problems. It was like this during the deportations when men would walk by the wagons and say, ‘Tell so-and-so, my blood enemy, that I have forgiven him the blood of my brother. I hope he is at peace and surviving out there in Siberia.’”

Throughout the October protests, which went on in earnest for two weeks, organizers kept Magas’s central square perfectly clean. Police officers prayed alongside protesters, and protesters fed police officers flatbread and gave them tea. Criticism of the regional government went hand in hand with pointed expressions of loyalty toward the Kremlin: Meduza’s correspondent observed protesters reading a birthday greeting for Vladimir Putin aloud.

Collective prayers during the protest in Magas. October 5, 2018
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
The October 2018 protest in Magas
Vladimir Sevrinovsky
Protesters and police officers in Magas’s central square. October 5, 2018
Vladimir Smirnov / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

In Chechnya, officials kept a close eye on the protests in Magas. Ramzan Kadyrov shifted from challenging the Ingush to try holding a protest in Chechnya to visiting an Ingush village in person to demand apologies for insults made doing the protest to asking for forgiveness himself. Ultimately, Ingush leaders and Kadyrov allowed one another to save face; they agreed not to trade insults, and the ‘strings of apologies’ that had trailed after every unplanned protest came to an end.

The fall 2018 protests concluded on October 30 with a meeting of the World Congress of the Ingush People. The gathering included deputies from teips, or family groups, within Ingushetia as well as representatives of the Russian and global diasporas. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was also invited to the congress, and although he did not accept it, he also did not interfere with the meeting in any way. Local government officials even allotted a venue in central Nazran to the event and sent police officers to provide security. A hearing of the Constitutional Court of Ingushetia was scheduled concurrently to the congress; the court ruled that the border agreement violated the republic’s constitution and that its merits should be decided through a popular referendum. Deputy Akhmed Nakastoyev read the court’s decision aloud to the World Congress, prompting applause and joyful shouts form the delegates. The next day, October 31, protest leaders decided to dissolve the crowds in Magas in advance of the protest’s planned end date of November 2. In an interview with RIA “Derbent,” Akhmed Barakhoyev explained, “The organizing committee decided that it’s fall, it’s cold outside, there’s no reason to keep the people here… we hope they get some rest at home, and the organizing committee will deal with the remaining [legal] questions.”

Later on, in December, the federal Constitutional Court of Russia practically overturned its Ingush counterpart’s decision, ruling that the land swap was in fact legal. The text of the federal court’s decision made clear that the regional court’s ruling was overturned at the request of Ingushetia’s head of government, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.

The kompromat war

The mass protests and public speeches that broke out in October came to a temporary stop, but the standoff between the Ingush opposition and its government continued in less public forms. Activists found thousands of ‘dead souls’ who were falsely assigned to government positions, and local authorities embarked on their own ‘kompromat war’ in turn. In response to public posts from the central megaphone of the opposition, the website and Telegram channel FortangaORG, anonymous users began saturating the Ingush Web with coordinated pro-government counterpropaganda using a variety of platforms, including the popular political channel Nezygar. The accusations were typical for cases like this: the messages claimed that protesters were paid by secret sponsors from abroad. That position aligns well with the regional government’s views: in an interview with Meduza, a vice speaker of Ingushetia’s People’s Assembly also hinted that the protests could not have developed on their own.

During the protests against the border deal, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s approval rating saw a significant drop. However, not all of his opponents supported the protest movement’s organizing committee. In conversations with Meduza, some Ingush residents chided the Committee for National Unity for being too harsh or politicizing current conversations in the region. Others criticized it for being unwilling to lean into the protests fully. Some protesters even quit the 2018 rallies after local authorities granted them legality. Elders publicly excluded government officials who supported the border agreement from their teips, a serious form of punishment in Ingushetia. A man who is excluded from his teip cannot receive guests or find willing suitors for his daughters.

However, a number of ‘scabs’ who did not break off ties with their influential neighbors also emerged during the protests. Some of them feared that rocking the boat would lead to bloodshed or to a violent crackdown as it would have in Chechnya, where protests on this scale are hardly feasible. Arguments even broke out in local minibuses or during weddings when congratulations for newlyweds bled into political slogans. That the confrontation would again shift into an active phase was inevitable. The catalyst for that shift ultimately emerged in a single paragraph of text.

A paragraph-sized roadblock

On March 14, 2019, the People’s Assembly of Ingushetia passed the first reading of a new version of the republic’s law on popular referenda. In the new bill, the following paragraph had disappeared: “A mandatory referendum of the Republic of Ingushetia will be held to decide questions regarding changes in the status or the title of the republic, its division or union with other subjects of the Russian Federation, and changes in its territory or borders in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation.” People’s Assembly Vice Speaker Askhab Sukiyev announced in a televised interview that the paragraph was excluded by coincidence as a result of a technical error. Few believed him, and all his interview managed to achieve was a new nickname for the vice speaker: because the Russian word for ‘paragraph’ is ‘abzats,’ he became Abzats Sukiyev.

On March 26, thousands of people reemerged onto the streets of Magas. This time, they demanded both the return of the lost paragraph in the referendum law and the resignation of the head of the republic. Unlike the previous fall’s protests, this one was approved by local authorities. However, the government legalized only one of the three days organizers had requested, and it was a Tuesday — a work day — with government approval extending only until 6:00 in the evening. Thousands of people gathered on Idris Zyazkov Prospect: opposition leaders claimed that the crowds reached 30,000 in total. Protesters traveled to Magas not only from all of Ingushetia but from other cities in Russia as well.

Protesters take part in the Dhikr in Magas.
Vladimir Sevrinovsky

At first, the protests mirrored their predecessors from the previous year: cellular Internet service was shut off in the city, and protesters took turns giving speeches, praying, and cycling through the Dhikr.

When official approval for the meeting expired, rumors began to spread through the crowd that law enforcement officers would attempt to disperse protesters by force using water jets. A group of about 200 especially persistent protesters decided to stay on the square until morning: the temperature was below freezing, and protesters were forbidden from lighting fires. Shortly before sunrise, law enforcement agents surrounded the square. A flight broke out that the government later blamed on protesters, who in turn blamed provocateurs they believed were planted from the outside.

The first attempt to storm the protesters began during morning prayers. Protesters drove it back using chairs, bottles, scraps of plastic tubing, and anything else they could get their hands on. The first charge was followed by a second, then a third. Rumors circulated that police and soldiers were planning to drive military Ural trucks into the crowd. The protesters noticed that there were no Ingush among the Russian National Guard soldiers ordered to break up the crowd. Local police did not participate in the clashes: they pushed soldiers away from the enraged crowd and helped older men avoid injury. Video recordings of the clashes show a thin line of Ingush police forming between protesters and National Guard troops.

The March 26, 2019 protest in Magas against Ingushetia’s proposed referendum law.
Yelena Afonina / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

When the National Guard’s attempts to disperse the crowd finally ended, demonstrators began walking from Magas to Nazran in columns, passing camouflage-colored banners that read “March 27: Russian National Guard Day.” A scattered group of young men who had heard news of the physical conflict hurried to join the protesters. Some of them carried batons or pieces of rebar.

Ingush police stand in the way of Russian National Guard troops.
IGO “DZURDZUKI”

At an intersection called Ekazhevsky Circle, where the Kavkaz highway meets the road from Nazran to the village of Ekazhevo, a group of activists broke off from the crowd and blocked the highway, which serves as the region’s central artery for ground transportation. For several hours, protest organizers tried to persuade them to disperse. By the time they succeeded, promising to send the activists’ demands to the Ingush parliament, it was already evening. Protesters dismantled their barricades and walked in a long column to the Nazran mosque (there is no mosque in Magas).

The protest was over, but it was obvious that neither the activists nor the government would give up the fight. Before long, a flow of subpoenas began to appear in the local branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee, confirming the severity of Yevkurov’s promise to “fight for all the organizers of these protests to be prosecuted.” The Ingush head of government added, “They should simply be caught and put in jail.”

“We Ingush can always find new leaders and regroup”

The Ingush Committee for National Unity is based in a tiny house made of bricks that have darkened with age. Not long ago, the organization was renting an office in a shopping mall, but when law enforcement officers began conducting near-constant searches both in their own office and in the neighboring facilities, the committee had to move out. The range of people that frequents this little house is seemingly endless: it stretches from human rights advocates from Opora Ingushetii to delegates from the Council of Teips and the regional muftiate. In the building’s only meeting room, circular signs stacked on the table depict horsemen in papakha hats above the slightly misspelled slogan #DAKANTSA! or “To the End!” Next to the signs is a plate full of blintzes with tvorog and raisins, a gift from the owners of a café sympathetic to the protests. Half a year ago, café employees fed thousands of protesters in Magas for free.

When the committee led the young protesters away from Magas after their skirmishes with law enforcement agents, its leaders promised to organize a new protest that would again be approved by the local government. The first petition they submitted, which requested permission for a protest on April 5, was declined: local officials wrote that the petition was legally required to be submitted more than 10 days before the date of the planned rally. The next petition, which named a later date, was also declined. Federal officials from the Yessentuki-based Central Investigative Directorate for the North Caucasian Federal District were brought in to handle the legal cases of those arrested in early April.

“I work in the memorial complex for victims of [political] repression. It’s very symbolic,” activist Zarifa Sautiyeva says with a laugh. After the 2018 protests, her position was cut, but with help from attorneys working for the Memorial human rights center, she got her job back in court. “We used to have a higher advisory committee, the Mekhk-Khel council. We Ingush can always find new leaders and regroup. That’s why there’s no chaos in our protests. If you compare them to the ones in Moscow, the people you’ll see in the square here are often older men, and they keep the younger ones from doing anything stupid. The elders look after the youth, and the youth take care of the elders. That’s the order of things. Our experience organizing weddings and funerals really comes in handy during these protests when you have to serve and feed hundreds of people and then clean up after yourself. We’re taught how to do that from a very young age. You should have seen the National Guardsmen’s eyes when our guys, after they had beaten the soldiers with chairs to hold off their advance, started walking in front of those same soldiers’ ranks and picking up trash! One of them just shouted, “Who are these people? What are they going to do next?”

The next time I saw Zarifa was in the protest leaders’ trial. She was fined 20,000 rubles (slightly more than $300) for “participating in an unsanctioned public event.”

The protest in Magas against Ingushetia’s new referendum law
Said Tsarnayev / Sputnik / Scanpix / LETA
Protesters pray during the March 26 protest in Nazran against the referendum law.
Musa Sadulayev / AP / Scanpix / LETA
The courtyard of the Magas District Court, where activists arrested on April 3 were taken to be held under guard
Vladimir Sevrinovsky

“My name is Alikhan Aushev. I have nothing to fear and no reason to hide. I am always here,” a muscular, bearded young man in a dark-colored jacket says, looking me straight in the eyes. “I was at the protest, and I was at Ekazhevsky Circle afterward. We stood there for 14 days in the fall, and they ignored us. When the people go out into the streets for a second time, they expect to have at least one of their demands answered over the course of a day. Because they’re depriving us of our freedom of speech. We’re demanding that they follow legal norms. No one wants to break into the presidential administration building. No one here is armed. Every time a protest is announced, the elders warn us, “If we even see a single knife, we’ll hold all of you responsible.” And they disperse us anyway. If they don’t fallow the Constitution of the Russian Federation here, does that mean we’re not part of the Federation at all?”

Alikhan’s friends nod their heads in agreement. They could almost be his brothers: they’re muscular and bearded, and they’re all wearing similar jackets. They’ve gathered to speak with me in a tiny studio owned by a local activist, a young woman. Nazran is crawling with soldiers and police, but they won’t start jailing people until tomorrow.

“I’ve worked in a lot of cities,” Alikhan continues. “Out there, people who go to protests don’t know each other. If they beat one person, the person next to them tapes it on their phone at best. And here, everyone’s related, friends, brothers, clanmates. Everyone says hello to everyone else in the morning. Never in their life would they let anyone touch their women or their senior citizens. No matter who storms the crowd. They would die before they did. And in the Internal Affairs Ministry, you have the same Ingush who eat with us, drink tea with us, dance at our weddings and our funerals. If someone in a helmet hits one of our elders, they’ll never forgive him. That’s why they brought people in from the outside. They don’t understand what’s going on here. Someone tells them, ‘march,” and they march. We were warned: “Either you disperse, or you get dispersed.” Naturally, nobody wants to leave under pressure. The head of the republic knows that, and so does the Internal Affairs minister — well, the former minister. That’s why, well, I won’t say that he blocked it, but he stood between the people and that order to disperse us.

“On the evening of April 2, mobile Internet service was turned off again throughout the republic. The next morning, activists’ homes were searched. Three opposition leaders [including Akhmed Barakhoyev, who made peace with the Salafis and who announced a hunger strike as soon as he was put in jail] and nine youth activists were taken to Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria. Files from the computers and phones that were seized from them started showing up online as anonymous kompromat. And then the pro-government Telegram channel The Mountainer’s Papakha called our invitation to the international Georgian Studies conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Tbilisi State University a ‘veiled call to come back to Georgia for on-the-spot training.’”

“A military route is practically unavoidable”

In early April, a long line of local residents lined up outside the Internal Affairs building in Nazran, all carrying closed cases on their backs. They had arrived to extend their firearms licenses: the night before, what can only be called a special operations team seized weapons from anyone whose license had expired: troops surrounded their houses and entered with machine guns in hand.

“I don’t feel very optimistic,” says sociologist Irina Starodubrovskaya, who recently co-authored a paper on the Ingush crisis with Konstantin Kazenin. “The leaders kept the protest peaceful and legal even though that was no mean feat, especially recently. Now, the government is weakening that leadership, removing it physically from the ability to influence others. Akhmed Barakhoyev, whom both the Sufis and the Salafis respect, has been handed ten days in jail. And he’s a big deal. On one hand, control over the protest is weakening, and on the other, this pressure on the leaders comes across to younger activists as an injustice, and it’s pulling them toward radicalism. Those two factors make for a very negative scenario. I don’t see a well-thought-out strategy here, and I don’t see a path toward resolving this conflict. I think the government is flummoxed. It doesn’t really know what to do, and it’s probably leaning on the National Guard because of its own weakness. In a case like this, a military route for the course of events is practically unavoidable.”

“None of our elders asked for someone to block the road. But people are just tired of this.” A note of despair enters Alikhan Aushev’s voice.

“Because no one sees us. The media is silent, they’re turning off the Internet. And people drive through on the highway from Dagestan, from Baku… The drivers listened to us, they were in no hurry. Nobody touched them. On the contrary, we gave them food and water. If someone was in a hurry, we showed them a detour. We waited until six in the evening for someone from the government to drive by. In the conditions they have, even someone from Piatigorsk could get here in a few hours. But nobody came, nobody asked why we were blocking the highway. No one even asked us to leave part from our own elders. And when our guys left, they picked up all the trash. Then why are they saying “it’s chaos, it’s lawlessness,” why are they ordering people put in jail? We just wanted someone to listen to us.”

Vladimir Sevrinovsky

Translated by Hilah Kohen