A land swap signed on Wednesday between the Russian republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya has sparked protests in Ingushetia, as details of the agreement have remained secret. The leaders of the two republics hailed the agreement as an end to a long-running land dispute.
The heads of the two republics said the deal would bring an end to a dispute that reignited after the fall of Soviet Union. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Chechnya fought two wars of independence with Russia, while authorities in Ingushetia remained loyal to Moscow. This led to the breakup of the previously common Chechen–Ingush Autonomous Republic.
At a signing ceremony on Wednesday in the Ingush capital Magas, Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov insisted that the final demarcation of the borders would put an end to ‘politically provocative speculation by open enemies of the Vainakh people’. Vainakh is a common self-denominator of the Chechen and Ingush people, who have deep cultural and linguistic ties.
‘I was asked who the winner [in this deal] was. I consider questions like this to be aimed against the unity [...] of the Chechen and Ingush people’, Kadyrov said in a post on Telegram after the ceremony. ‘We are brothers, we are Vainakh people, and this should be kept in mind by whoever thinks of dishonouring the Chechen or Ingush peoples’, Kadyrov warned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s representative in the North Caucasus, Aleksandr Matovnikov was also present at the ceremony.
Chechen authorities have 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 authorities agreed to hand over two villages to their neighbours in 2003.
Recent construction work by the Chechen authorities to connect their south-western Galanchozh District to neighbouring Ingushetia with a new road led to accusations in Ingushetia that Chechnya was attempting to annex a part of their territory.
On Monday, a group claiming to be ‘representatives of social, religious and political’ groups in Ingushetia released a video widely shared online complaining that the Ingush authorities had failed to explain why Chechnya was building a road in Ingushetia’s Sunzha District guarded by armed Chechen police.
Protests in Ingushetia
The Head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, praised the agreement as an ‘unprecedented’ success story of peaceful resolution of a conflict in the region. ‘Two sides, two subjects of the Russian Federation [...] sat at the negotiation table and [...] strengthened borders between regions, between two brotherly republics. We managed to avoid a conflict and possible bloodshed’, stated Yevkurov at the signing ceremony.
Before the agreement was signed, over 100 people took their to the streets in Magas to condemn the upcoming exchange before it was formalised.
Protests in Magas on Wednesday (The Magas Times/VK)
On Wednesday, according to local reports, police set up roadblocks outside the city’s entrances and dispersed the crowd using batons detaining several people. Mobile internet access was reportedly jammed throughout Ingushetia.
On Tuesday, a group of protesters gathered outside the administrative building in the north-eastern Ingush town of Sunzha, near the border with Chechnya. Police prevented a rally in the town the following day.
Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the media on Wednesday that it was too early to comment but that the president had been informed of the situation.
On Thursday, Yevkurov announced via his Instagram channel that he had ordered his government to ‘explain to people’ the benefits of the deal.
As of Thursday evening, official government websites had not published the text of the agreement.
Also on Thursday, Magomed Mutsolgov, the Chair of Ingush rights group Marsh, told online Russian news site The Insider that the deal gave Chechnya control over the Erzi sanctuary of Sunzha District, which he claimed contained oil deposits.
A painful land dispute
For many Ingush, the issue of territory is especially painful because after the Ingush returned from the Soviet deportations in the mid-1950s, a part of western Ingushetia — Prigorodny District — was in North Ossetia.
Ingushetia’s attempts to reclaim the territory led to a bloody conflict in 1992 and the ethnic cleansing of Ingush people in North Ossetia.
In 2013, Chechen security forces — under the pretext of searching for a group of militants — entered the Ingush village of Arshti, which Chechen authorities claim is a part of Chechnya. The clash between Chechen and Ingush security forces that ensued left six Ingush police officers injured.
The incident led to a deterioration of relations between the heads of Ingushetia and Chechnya. The first meeting after the incident between Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and Ramzan Kadyrov took place in 2015, allegedly after the intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
‘The border conflict has no solution’
Frequent rumours of a possible unification of the two republics have also led to tension between officials in Chechnya and Ingushetia. The authorities of Chechnya rarely comment on the issue but frequent interventions by Chechnya into the internal affairs of Ingushetia have intensified tension.
[Read on OC Media: a dispute between the former mufti and the head of Ingushetia and the role of Ramzan Kadyrov]
Chechen historian Dzhambulat Suleymanov told OC Media earlier in September that ‘the border conflict has no solution’, because ‘they want to divide the undividable, a single nation, which the Chechens and Ingush comprise’.
He added that the problem wasn’t raised during the period of the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in the 1990s, when Ingushetia remained under Russia’s control because the status quo was maintained by the leaders of Chechnya and Ingushetia.
Suleymanov said that as both Chechnya and Ingushetia are now regions of Russia, ‘this conflict should not appear at all, but no, it bursts out with periodic regularity’.
He also said that ‘independent Chechnya and Ingushetia would peacefully solve this issue once and for all. We have nothing to argue about when we are united and free in our decision making — without the Russian factor’.
Ingush journalist, historian, and poet Aslan Kodzoyev told OC Media earlier in September that it was difficult to evaluate the situation on the Chechen–Ingush border since the authorities of both republics had not commented on the issue. According to him, the ‘war’ takes place only online, and there will be no official information on this topic until the end of local elections on 9 September.
He claimed tensions on the border were a result of the Chechen authorities’ aspirations to absorb their neighbouring republics to establish a ‘Greater Chechnya’.
‘The expansionist appetites of Chechen nationalists and politicians include not only Ingushetia but also neighbouring Daghestan’, he said, adding that ‘this expansionist ideology is rooted in Ichkerian politicians, the heirs and successors of which are nowadays the politicians and rulers of Chechnya’.