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Arrests follow Ingush referendum law protests

3 April 2019
Russian National Guard (Fortanga.org)

Three leaders and several participants of Ingush protests against the land swap deal with Chechnya were arrested this week.

Following the renewed protests on 26–28 March, the authorities have cracked down on government critics who demanded the government cancel the recent border deal with Chechnya and the resignation of the republic’s head, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov.

According to Russian media outlet Caucasian Knot, law enforcement agencies have arrested nine individuals, sentencing them to ten days of administrative detention for an ‘unsanctioned’ public gathering.

Among those arrested were three members of the Council of Teips (clans) — a respected social institution of elders in Ingushetia — that led the recent protest rallies.

One of the co-chairs of the council, Malsag Uzhakhov, was fined ₽150,000 ($230).

Two others, including former Interior Minister of Ingushetia Akhmed Pogorov (2002–2003), were fined ₽20,000 ($305) each.

Ingushetia fired the latest interior minister Dmitry Kava and disbanded a local police unit following reports the unit had sided with protesters against the Russian National Guard on 27 March.

Authorities have also searched the houses of around 15 government critics, including the residences of Beylal Yevloyev, an MP in the local parliament, the National Assembly, and the republic’s Muslim spiritual leader, Mufti Isa-Khadzhi Khamkhoyev.

Security forces have also begun investigating others for ‘incitement to mass unrest’ and for using violence against police.

According to Ingush rights group Mashr, during the court hearings of the Ingush elders on 3 April, local bailiffs were removed from the courts and replaced by officers of the Federal Bailiffs Service.

On 31 March, Ingush authorities refused to grant permission for protest rallies to continue from 5–9 April, citing a lack of prior notice.

Government critics also claimed that several law enforcement units were dispatched to Ingushetia after the 26–28 March protests to seize arms from locals, something that the authorities denied, saying they were only conducting ‘planned’ checks for overdue permits.

During the last week, a number of Ingush critical of the government complained about the jammed internet connection on mobile phones, including on 3 April.

Protests against the changed referendum law

The protests re-erupted a week ago after Yevkurov proposed changes to the Law on Referendum.

The amendments would have given Ingush leadership the legal right to ‘rename, split, or merge’ Ingushetia with other subjects of the Russian Federation without a popular vote.

Critics, including the Council of Teips (clans), the Ingush National Unity Committee, the Pillar of Ingushetia movement, rights group Mashr, and the regional branch of Russian opposition party Yabloko, claimed it was another step in Yevkurov’s attempts to go forward with the September 2018 agreement between him and the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

According to the land swap deal, ratified by the National Assembly in October, Ingushetia would transfer 340 square kilometres (about 9% of its territory) to Chechnya.

Opponents to the deal resorted to both street rallies and legal challenges, with varying success.

Chechen authorities had openly claimed territories in eastern Ingushetia for a number of years, despite a 1993 Chechen–Ingush agreement that left most of Sunzha District within Ingushetia.

The Chechen claims, which refer to Soviet maps from the 1930s, continued even after Ingush President Murat Zyazikov and Chechen President Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov (the father of the current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov) confirmed the existing borders in 2003.

Between 1936–1993, Chechnya and Ingushetia existed as the Chechen–Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the border between them was not demarcated.

In October 2018, the Constitutional Court of Ingushetia ruled that the 2018 deal contradicted the law on referendum, something that dictated the Ingush authorities to amend the law.

Nevertheless, the October ruling of Ingushetia’s Constitutional Court was trumped by the Federal Constitutional Court two months later.

Additionally, on 3 April, several days after the mass protests, the Magas District Court of Ingushetia dismissed a lawsuit by several MPs seeking annulment of 4 October vote.

Faced with a growing opposition, Yevkurov decided to rescind the draft initiative on referenda, but this did not prevent street protests from breaking out on 26 March.

A night of protests and a motorway blockade

On 29 March, while meeting with the head of the National Security Council of Ingushetia, Yevkurov lambasted opposition groups for radicalising young people and said they might not be able to control these ‘hotheads’ later.

Criticism from Yevkurov followed a peaceful but loud protest that occurred the previous night as a number of Ingush raced cars around Nazran, beeping and waving Ingush flags in opposition to the controversial border deal.

On the previous day, around 1,000 protestors blocked the federal motorway leading to Nazran for several hours, insisting that the government cancel the Chechen–Ingush border deal and that Yevkurov resign.

Members of the Council of Teips, one of the groups involved in mobilising the protests, put out a video on their social media channels later that day insisting that the motorway blockade was not their idea and that they did not recognise those who participated.

They said they eventually persuaded the protestors to unblock the road into Nazran.

A demonstration in Magas

Leaders of opposition groups also had to calm down an anti-government rally a day earlier, when hundreds of Ingush fought off riot police with sticks and stones in the centre of Magas, the capital of Ingushetia.

The special purpose unit of the Russian National Guard tried to disperse the crowd on the morning of 27 March after some 200 Ingush spent the night protesting.

According to the North Caucasus branch of Russia's Investigative Committee, ten law enforcement officers sustained injuries during the scuffle.

The 26 March rally in front of a state-run TV channel in Magas, attended by around 20,000–30,000 Ingush, was sanctioned until 18:00.

While the leaders had declared it ‘open-ended’, following the altercations with the special forces the Ingush National Unity Committee, one of the groups that organised the protest, persuaded a number of rally participants to go home with a promise of another sanctioned demonstration in several days.

Nevertheless, some left the area only to continue the protests by blocking the motorway.

Following the brawls with police, activists critical of the government hailed the Ingush police units, alleging they ‘stopped the advance’ of special forces with their armoured vehicles.

Some on social media platforms also praised recently dismissed interior minister Kava for allegedly refusing to use force against the rally, and one local police officer for allegedly writing in his police report that he was refusing to fulfil his duties.

On 28 March, the Ingush Interior Ministry called the photographed report ‘fake’. Nevertheless, four days later, they confirmed to Russian news agency Regnum that they had disbanded the unit, ‘transferring’ its members ‘to other units’, in addition to firing 17 officers.

On 30 March, the government website reported about Yevkurov meeting the new ‘acting interior minister Yury Muravyev’.

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