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‘The Kremlin has no need for such a soft governor’ Ingush government head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov says he's resigning because of ‘public disunity.’ Why is he really leaving?

Source: Meduza
Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Vida Press

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who leads the government of Ingushetia, addressed the residents of the republic on television yesterday to announce that he would be leaving his position imminently. Yevkurov has headed the region for more than 10 years, and his current term began less than a year ago, in September 2018. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev explains what the departure of the Northern Caucasian has to do with Chechen government head Ramzan Kadyrov and why finding a successor in Ingushetia — a region “tired of siloviki” — will be no easy task.

The Kremlin could have forgiven Ingushetia’s leader for massive protests, but it didn’t.

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who has run Ingushetia since 2008, announced on local television that he would step down from his position. “Everything that we have achieved, everything that we have now — it means nothing if there is no unity among our people. I see clearly that, today, the durability of this unity is being tested. I am not blind; I have not been blinded by power. Let’s gather up the courage to say that we — that is, the government that I represent — social organizations, and religious organizations are all responsible for the fact that we are so disunited today. Each of us has a choice to make between our own personal interests and the interests of the republic. I call on all interested parties to make their decision. I’ve made mine.”

Since November of 2008, I, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, have led the republic I call my Motherland.

Before all, I would like to thank you, my dear countrymen, for your support in all our undertakings to support the common good.

Together, you and I have traveled a tremendously long path over the years. Together with the institutions of law and order, we have defeated a phenomenon as threatening as terrorism, and we have minimized extremism. Most importantly, we have achieved peace. We have lost many worthy sons on this path — many true patriots of our nation. May our dead rest in peace.

With support from the federal capital, you and I have built and continue to build schools, preschools, hospitals, sports facilities, and roads. Our republic has taken the lead nationally in a number of statistical measures. Just days ago, we celebrated another great joy: the 500,000th resident of our republic was born.

However, not one of our victories, big or small, from our defeat of the evil of terrorism to our creation of infrastructure for our common home, would have been possible without our collective labor. Without the unity of the Ingush people in the achievement of new goals at every stage of the process. For this, I thank you.

Though we overcame hardships and build a peaceful life in our home republic, we were never satisfied with what we had achieved. Every day, we worked together to accomplish our most important task: increasing the welfare and prosperity of every Ingush family. We proved that we have the ability to achieve our goals. Together, we will accomplish this task as well.

Dear residents of the republic!

Everything that we have achieved, everything that we have now — it means nothing if there is no unity among our people.

On September 9, 2018, I was elected by deputies of the People’s Assembly to lead the Republic of Ingushetia for yet another term.

By law, my authority will expire in 2023, four years from now.

As I have already said, we have development programs for our republic, we have plans, and we have the certainty that we will put those plans into action.

However, one of the most important conditions for those accomplishments is the unity of our people. I see clearly that, today, the durability of this unity is being tested. I am not blind; I have not been blinded by power.

Let’s gather up the courage to say that we — that is, the government that I represent — social organizations, and religious organizations are all responsible for the fact that we are so disunited today. Each of us has a choice to make between our own personal interests and the interests of the republic. And each of us, I repeat, each and every one must act according to his upbringing and his ideals.

I call on all interested parties to make their decision. I’ve made mine. As an Ingush, as a patriot, as a military officer who has sworn to defend his motherland, I have decided to ask the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, to release me from my duties as the head of the republic before the end of my term.

Having made this difficult decision, I promise you that I will continue to do everything possible to ensure the flourishing of our great country, Russia, and our motherland, Ingushetia.

In my heart and my soul, I will always remain with Ingushetia, with my people, with every one of you!

It has been my honor!

Translated by Hilah Kohen

The fact that Yevkurov, who has been going through a political crisis since last fall, decided to leave his position as head of the republic came as a surprise. A source close to the presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District told Meduza that just a week ago, there were “still no signs or leaks of information” regarding Yevkurov’s resignation.

This information was corroborated by another Meduza source close to Russia’s presidential administration. “Rumors began spreading a few days ago,” he says. “Despite the fact that there aren’t direct elections in any of the Caucasian republics except for Chechnya, planned resignations and appointments of leaders usually occur in March or April. A personnel change in June is therefore a sign of an emergency decision, not a planned one. In order to ensure that the deputies’ choice [of a regional head] in the Caucasus goes over without a hitch, there have to be difficult conversations with clans, families, etc. At this stage, posts and positions are already being preliminarily distributed.”

According to a Meduza source close to the presidential administration, the position that will soon become a “bargaining chip” in the voting process for the new head of the republic in Ingushetia’s Parliament (so that the process goes off “without a hitch”) is the position of Senator, the federal representative of Ingushetia’s executive branch. Currently, this position is occupied by Musa Chiliev, the former Prime Minister of the republic; after the new head of the republic is chosen, the head will have the opportunity to suggest a different regional envoy to the upper house of the Russian Parliament. “In the Caucasus, a seat in the Federation Council is not about influence or even about immunity; it’s about status. It’s important which family holds the position. If status has to be given to someone different, the family that loses its status is supposed to receive something that’s more or less of equal value in return,” explains the correspondent.

This same source believes that the reason for Yevkurov’s abrupt departure is the tense situation that arose as a result of a border deal between Ingushetia and Chechnya (Meduza’s last in-depth piece about the conflict came out in April 2019). “The Caucasus is the sort of place where things can flare up and die down very quickly. But in this case, things got heated and haven’t died down. The problem isn’t that people took to the streets — the problem is that they haven’t left,” he concluded.

Protests against the establishment of new borders between Ingushetia and Chechnya have been ongoing since fall 2018. On September 26, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who had recently been reelected as head of the republic, signed an agreement with Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya, to change the border between the two republics.

Residents of Ingushetia considered the territorial exchange that resulted from this agreement to be unequal (the republic surrendered over 7% of its territory to Chechnya), and on October 4, thousands of citizens took to the streets to protest in front of the Ingush Parliament building. On that day, deputies were supposed to confirm the signed agreement regarding the border: According to official voting results, the agreement was ratified in Parliament, but some deputies stated that the the vote had been falsified and that a majority of the parliamentarians had in fact voted against the agreement.

By the next day, the protest in Magas, the republic’s capital, had already attracted tens of thousands of people. On several occasions in October 2018, Chechen delegations arrived in Ingushetia headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, who threatened the leaders of the protest. In order to resolve the crisis, meetings were held in the republic with Aleksandr Matovnikov, the presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, and Andrey Yarin, the head of the Presidential Domestic Policy Directorate.

On October 30, Ingushetia’s Constitutional Court declared the border agreement with Chechnya to be unconstitutional. The protests ceased, as activists felt that they had achieved their goal. However, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov appealed the regional high court decision to the Russian Constitutional Court, and in December 2018, the federal court declared the new border to be legal. On March 26 – 27, large-scale protests swept the republic again, and they were accompanied by clashes with security forces. The reason for these protests, in addition to the border question, was the Ingush government’s decision to change the regional law on referenda: a requirement that all territorial changes be approved by a popular vote was set to be eliminated. Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s resignation was one of the protesters’ demands. Spontaneous protests continue in Ingushetia to this day.

What else worked against Yevkurov?

A source close to the Russian presidential administration claims that Yevkurov’s political position was weak even before protests began. The decision to reappoint him in 2018 only appeared obvious at first glance, Meduza’s source argued — he was most likely reappointed by inertia. “Yevkurov is a Hero of Russia; he has a good relationship with Vladimir Putin. But people are tired of him in Ingushetia; problems that are present throughout the Caucasus exist there as well: there’s corruption, and federal funds are going who knows where. But there was no open opposition or hatred — nothing flared up. So they reappointed him.”

A political strategist who worked with the presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District several years ago also pointed out that Ingushetia has for many years not been considered a problematic region: “We [the presidential envoy’s team] didn’t really get involved there. It was a quiet region — compared to Dagestan at that point — that Yevkurov more or less controlled. There were some worries and doubts about Chechen aggression toward the Ingush [due to the territorial dispute] but not about internal affairs in the republic.”

Kaloy Akhilgov, a lawyer who was Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s press secretary until 2010, explained that people in the republic expected Yevkurov to resign in 2019. It was assumed that it would happen no later than the fall. “There’s logic in the resignation happening now — in the fall, we’ll have direct elections for municipal leaders. Why would anyone run with an unpopular leader?” argues Akhilgov. In Akhilgov’s opinion, Yevkurov committed “political suicide” when he signed the agreement regarding the border with Chechnya: “Prior to this incident, half of the republic was not against him staying in power. There were questions about corruption and personnel decisions, but around half of residents believed that he generally calmed the region in terms of terrorist activity and that things have become safer.”

Alexey Malashenko, a political scientist who specializes in the North Caucasus, suggested that it was Yevkurov’s “leadership style” that led to his resignation. “Here we have a Soviet lieutenant who looked for compromise [including on the question of the border with Chechnya], and in today’s Russia, this is not accepted. Another one of his mistakes was that he got involved with Islam. Ramzan Kadyrov (who appeals to religion in Chechen politics based on the image of his father, a preacher – Meduza) — that’s one thing, but it’s a whole other issue when Yevkurov, a secular leader, involves himself in religion,” Malashenko reiterated.

Malashenko is certain that Yevkurov’s resignation was instigated by Moscow and that mass protests are the reason for it: “An anti-Yevkurov opposition appeared [in the republic]. Society split, Yevkurov turned to repression [against the activists] and stopped managing the situation.” As a result of the protests in Ingushetia, over 200 administrative cases have been opened; of the 26 people charged in these cases, 22 are currently being held in detention facilities.

The new head of Ingushetia will not have it easy — and Ramzan Kadyrov is the big winner.

Kaloy Akhilgov argued that residents have gotten tired of Yevkurov’s style. He took office as a former soldier whose main task was the fight against terrorism, and that they are “tired of siloviki.” Akhilgov argued that “The preferable option [for a successor] would be a economist with a team and a development program.”

Alexey Malashenko did not attempt, even in general terms, to predict who might be the next leader of the republic. “I don’t know of any noteworthy new leaders among the Ingush. The appointment of an outsider could lead to rejection: Ingushetia, unlike Dagestan, is a monoethnic republic. One potential option would be to appoint a local and have a ‘second secretary’ posted to him,” the expert argued, referring to the Soviet-era practice of appointing Russians to be the de facto leaders of regions nominally run by locals. He did not rule out a third potential course of events: Yunus-Bek Yevkurov “will be asked to stay by Ingushetia’s deputies” and by the president of Russia — and Yevkurov will agree.

Malashenko added, “He [Yevkurov] wanted to do things right, to come to agreements, to get away from pressure. On the other hand, the Kremlin has no need for such a soft governor. In the end, everything fell into in the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov [and his leadership style in the Caucasus]: Yevkurov is a good person, but look where his soft touch and his attempts to compromise [with his neighbors and with local elites] got him.”

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Daniel Shapiro

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