The Head of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, has announced he is stepping down, citing ‘disunity in society’. Yevkurov leaves his post following eight months of unprecedented mass protests in Ingushetia over a land deal with neighbouring Chechnya.
‘I made my own decision. As an Ingush, a patriot, I decided to appeal to President Vladimir Putin for my early resignation from the office of the head of the republic’, Yevkurov announced on 24 June.
In his televised address, the 55-year old retired Major General, who was awarded the Hero of Russia medal in 2000 for military operations in Kosovo, boasted of defeating terrorism, ‘minimising’ extremism, and ensuring peace and development in Ingushetia.
Like Yevkurov, the previous three Ingushetian leaders were also Russian generals of Ingush ethnicity.
In June 2009, shortly after being appointed, Yevkurov narrowly survived a suicide bomb attack in Nazran.
His achievements, he added, would mean ‘nothing’ if there was no unity of the Ingush people.
While chairing the government session on 25 June, Yevkurov denied that he had stepped down under pressure from the opposition.
The day after the announcement, opposition group the Ingush National Unity Committee said that Yevkurov’s resignation was a ‘sign of Putin’s attention’ to the problems in the region. The group demanded the immediate revision of prosecutions of ‘over 30 most active participants of popular protest’ against Yevkurov's deal with Chechnya.
In a post on Russian social network VKontakte, Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov characterised Yevkurov’s decision to step down as that of a man of strong character, who according to him helped Ingushetia to recover in the most difficult times.
‘Celebrations’ in Ingushetia
Yevkurov is the second leader of Ingushetia to leave their post early: in 2008, he replaced Murat Zyazikov, who was fired by then–President Dmitry Medvedev following the murder of government critic Magomed Yevloyev.
Hours before announcing his resignation, Yevkurov hosted Putin's representative in the North Caucasus, Sergey Matovnikov, in Ingushetia.
Some local residents were reported celebrating the news of his resignation in the streets, with occasional gunshots in the air, Ingush flags, dancing, fireworks, and car drifting — a popular hobby among young people in the republic — all reported.
Anonymous Telegram channel Baza, which is dedicated to Ingushetia, claimed in the late hours of 24 June that police mobilised in the republic in response to the noisy celebrations.
Talking to Russian journalist Maksim Shevchenko on 24 June, Kaloy Akhilgov, Yevkurov’s former spokesperson, insisted that jubilation would be appropriate once ‘we achieve the restoration of direct elections’.
President Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, told journalists on 25 June that Yevkurov’s resignation request ‘was not a surprise’ for them and that the president would decide on it in due time.
Provided Putin accepts his resignation before 1 July and submits candidates for a replacement to the Ingush parliament, the People's Assembly, the assembly could vote on 8 September for the next head, Russia’s Central Election Committee said.
A controversial land deal and a crackdown on opposition
Daghestani journalist Malik Butayev noted on his Facebook account after the news broke that while ‘Yevkurov explained his resignation with polarisation in society’, he had brought unity by making ‘those from Karachay–Cherkessia to Daghestan follow developments in Ingushetia with a sense of sympathy and support’
Yevkurov was confirmed by the People’s Assembly after then-president of Russia Dmitry Medvedev formally submitted his candidacy. Until 2011, the highest-ranking executive official in Ingushetia was called the ‘President’.
The very first month of his third term, which would have expired in 2023, was derailed by a controversial land deal with Chechnya in late September.
He had publicly dismissed a proposal to revisit the Ingush–Chechen border in 2012, warning that it ‘would lead to conflict’.
The same year, Yevkurov rebuked Kadyrov for violating Ingushetia’s borders by conducting an anti-terror sweep in the Ingush village of Galashki. In response, Kadyrov reproached Yevkurov for ‘sympathising’ with the militants.
Despite the spat, both leaders agreed to make a land exchange deal in 2018.
By signing the deal with Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Yevkurov agreed to transfer 340 square kilometres (about 9% of Ingushetia’s territory) to Chechnya.
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.
Between 1936–1993, Chechnya and Ingushetia existed as the Chechen–Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and the border between them was not demarcated.
Yevkurov tried to sell the agreement with Chechnya, signed on 26 September 2018, as an ‘unprecedented’ success story of peaceful resolution of a conflict in the region.
Popular distrust towards Chechnya in Ingushetia grew in early September after Chechen authorities began constructing a road connecting their south-western Galanchozh District to Ingushetia.
On 4 October, after Ingushetia’s People’s Assembly passed a bill to formalise ceding part of its territory in the Sunzha District of Chechnya, several MPs claimed the vote was rigged and joined public protests against the deal in the capital city of Magas.
Opposition groups took the case to the court. In October 2018, they successfully challenged the agreement in the local constitutional court, which decided the process would violate the law on referenda. However, it was overruled by Russia’s Federal Constitutional Court in December.
Protests intermittently broke out in opposition to the deal in the following months, culminating in late March with the largest mobilised crowds rallying against the deal.
The protests were led by the Council of Teips (clans), the Ingush National Unity Committee, the Pillar of Ingushetia movement, rights group Mashr, and the regional branch of Russian liberal opposition party Yabloko.
Protesters called on Yevkurov to resign, something he explicitly refused to do, and demanded the reintroduction of direct elections for the Head of the republic.
After protesters clashed with riot police in Magas on 27 March and blocked the main motorway in Ingushetia, authorities started prosecutions against several opposition members and also denied a permit for renewed protests promised earlier to them for 5 April.
The ensuing crackdown on opposition leaders and activists resulted in over 30 arrests. Probes were opened into civil society groups including the Council of Teips, that was deregistered, rights group Mashr, and the local branch of the Russian Red Cross.