One year ago today, a clash between protesters and security forces in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, marked the beginning of some of the worst persecutions of activists in Ingushetia since the collapse of the USSR.
‘On the morning of the 27th, we were dozing’, Tamerlan (not his real name) recalled. ‘When we heard the noise of heavy vehicles’.
The noise they heard was the national guard, moving in on their position in armored trucks.
The protesters had been gathered since the day before. They were rallying against an agreement signed in September 2018 that transferred 9% of Ingushetia’s territory to neighbouring Chechnya.
The vote in the republic’s parliament approving the deal was also widely seen as rigged, with several Ingush MPs announcing that their votes had been stolen.
[Read more on OC Media: Court in Ingushetia considers ‘falsified’ vote on Chechnya land deal]
The new wave of protests marked half a year since the agreement was signed by Ingushetia’s then-head, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and Chechnya’s head, Ramzan Kadyrov.
It was sparked by Yevkurov’s proposals to change the constitutional law on referenda, excluding the necessity of a referendum for the transfer of land.
According to the constitution of Ingushetia, any transfer of land from the republic requires a referendum, but no referendum was held to approve the land deal with Chechnya.
[Read on OC Media: Chechen–Ingush land swap sparks protests in Ingushetia]
When the proposals were presented, the protestors hit the streets. It was an almost unparalleled social mobilisation in the republic, and was followed by one of the heaviest state crackdowns since the Soviet period.
The night of the protest
The protests had been given approval for a one-day rally, on 26 March, and that day, as many 30,000 had gathered.
Abdul-Khamid Yevloyev was among those who protested that day. He said that the authorities gave the green light to the protestors to stay overnight.
‘It was promised that the permission for the rally will be issued’, he told OC Media, adding that the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ingushetia, Dmitriy Kava, arrived at the rally in the evening and ‘confirmed’ that the protestors had permission to stay.
‘I now understand that these promises and their failure to fulfill them, all the actions [by the security forces] in the morning — all this was a planned provocation’, he said.
Tamerlan said that security officials blocked protesters in at a site in front of the television building in Magas.
The protest leaders, he said, tried to talk with the leaders of the Interior Ministry, which was nearby, but they did not respond.
‘The military behaved aggressively, and gave us an ultimatum to leave the square within 5 minutes’, he recalled.
According to Tamerlan, about half of the protesters were elderly people. When the National Guard moved in on the elderly, the youth rebuffed them, he said.
After two attempts to storm the square with police personnel, according to Tamerlan, they decided to use armored vehicles to disperse the crowd.
‘At that moment, the Ingush regiment of the patrol service [traffic police] stood between the crowd of protesters and the National Guard’, Tamerlan said. ‘They were fired because of this.’
[Read on OC Media: Protesters ‘fired from jobs’ in Ingushetia]
According to Tamerlan, after the clashes with the National Guard, even more people came to join the protest and to help their compatriots.
He said he believes the authorities eventually entered into a dialogue with protest leaders because they realised that it would not be possible to disperse the protesters without bloodshed.
[Read on OC Media: Turmoil in Ingushetia as protests re-erupt and interior minister ‘sacked’]
Despite the relatively peaceful end to the protests, a week later, the authorities in Ingushetia came down hard on the demonstrators.
According to the Federal Civil Society Support Group, an informal association of people aimed at promoting direct-action civic initiatives in Russia, 40 criminal cases were opened, with more than 20 activists sentenced to time in prison. Additionally 209 administrative-detention sentences were imposed.
Many public organisations also reported various types of pressure from the authorities and some were forced to shut down for good.
All the participants to be prosecuted were charged with using violence against government officials. Protest leaders also received charges of ‘organising’ the violence.
[Read on OC Media: Arrests follow Ingush referendum law protests]
In December, the first trials began. Khuseyn Guliyev, one of the lawyers working for the defendants, told OC Media that his clients received from 4 to 23 months of imprisonment minus time served in pre-trial detention.
Ramzan Uzuyev, another lawyer for the defence, told OC Media that the cases brought against the protestors were ‘identical’ and based on testimonies of anonymous witnesses and ‘victims’.
Uzuyev described the case as ‘legal lawlessness’.
The protest leaders have additionally been charged with participation in, and the creation of, ‘an extremist organisation’.
[Read on OC Media: Eight protest leaders in Ingushetia accused of creating extremist group]
‘Ordinary activists pose neither interest nor threat to them. They will punish those with organisational capabilities’, Dzhabrail Kuriyev, a lawyer representing Malsag Uzhakhov told OC Media.
Uzhakhov heads the Council of Teips (clans), which also came out against the land deal.
He said he believes that the authorities came down hardest on the organisers because ordinary activists ‘pose no threat to them’, and that the protest leaders are being treated with particular harshness so as to serve as a warning to others.
After the arrests, the Prosecutor's Office of Ingushetia filed a lawsuit to liquidate the Ingush Committee of National Unity, an organisation that aimed, among other goals, to ‘uphold the interests of the Ingush people’ by ‘protecting territorial integrity’.
Meanwhile, the Neotlozhka volunteer group, which had provided aid for the arrested activists, announced they were closing after pressure from the security services.
‘Autonomy and alternative jurisdiction’
Irina Starodubrovskaya, an academic and expert on the North Caucasus, told OC Media that she does not believe that the protest potential in Ingushetia has been suppressed — only that it has changed tactics.
‘People really do not want new rallies — they believe that the situation could get out of control and that blood will be shed’, she said.
‘The protest takes other forms — the letters from the teips (clans) about boycotting the vote [on amendments to] the Constitution are an example of this’.
According to Starodubrovskaya, Ingushetia, especially its younger generation, is now characterised by a mass ‘disappointment in any state structure’.
She said people had lost faith in the state’s ability to ‘ensure legality, justice and embody the interests of the people’.
As a result of the loss of state legitimacy, she argues, people are leaning on other solidarities and practices.
‘I’ve never heard so much about the importance of traditions, adats, teips, as in [my last] visit [to Ingushetia]’, she said.
This does not mean that ‘society is trying to return to the past’, she said.
Instead she said that many are now driven by ‘a desire to find a foothold when the state is perceived as a hostile force — to provide autonomy and alternative jurisdiction within those structures that have roots that are not connected with this state’.