Protests in Magas, the capital of the Russian Republic of Ingushetia, entered a second day on Friday after a controversial land swap deal with neighbouring Chechnya was approved in a secret vote in the National Assembly. Several MPs in the regional parliament claimed the vote was falsified while the Ingush Constitutional Court declared the deal unconstitutional.
On Friday morning, people again began gathering on Magas’s central Idris Zyazikov Avenue.
Several local bloggers reported that Russian National Guard units from neighbouring republics attempted to enter Magas for a second time in the early hours of Friday, but were blocked by local riot police.
Mobile internet access has remained blocked throughout the republic for the past two days.
Thousands took to the streets on Thursday in a march led by horse-riders waving Ingush flags and elders.
Protesters eventually gathered around 100 metres from the Government and National Assembly buildings on on Idris Zyazikov Avenue after being blocked by security forces.
Demonstrators were protesting a vote that day in Ingushetia’s National Assembly to approve a land swap signed by Ingush head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and his Chechen counterpart Ramzan Kadyrov.
The controversial deal would hand over part of Ingushetia’s southern Sunzha District to Chechnya.
According to the official result of the vote, 17 MPs voted in favour of the deal, four spoiled their ballots, and four voted against it.
However, four MPs joined the protesters shortly after the vote and declared that it had been rigged. The four told protest organisers that only four MPs voted in favour, with 15 voting against, one abstaining, and four spoiling their ballots.
They also said the secret nature of the vote was contrary to the constitutional norms.
Soon after, Yevkurov briefly emerged to meet with protesters in the street but was met with an angry response. After being pelted with water bottles, security forces began firing their weapons in the air and Yevkurov retreated inside the building.
On Friday afternoon, 12 MPs announced they would seek a rerun of the vote, but need 15 MPs in order to gather a quorum.
‘Those who call you traitors are traitors’
Thursday afternoon, protesters erected tents along Idris Zyazikov Avenue, brought benches and chairs, and organised food and drinks. The size of the crowds continued to swell into the evening.
At around midnight, a video appeal from Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was posted on Instagram in which he called on people to go home. He also appealed for those who were already at home ‘to take their elderly and young off the street’.
Yevkurov spoke of the vote as a done deal, and did not address accusations it was fraudulent.
Yevkurov also addressed MPs, who he said had been accused by some of ‘treason’.
‘Many are trying to make traitors out of you. You are not traitors, you are patriots of your republic, your great country. And those who call you traitors are traitors.’
Constitutional court demands referendum
The land swap with Chechnya has met with widespread opposition in Ingushetia since it was announced.
The agreement was signed in Magas by Kadyrov and Yevkurov on 26 September in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District.
Hundreds took to the streets in two days of protests, with police dispersing the crowds with batons and making a number of arrests.
[Read more on OC Media: Chechen–Ingush land swap sparks protests in Ingushetia]
After the signing of the agreement, a number of Ingush activists appealed to MPs to reject the ‘traitorous bill’.
Many Ingush taips (clans) also publicly condemned the bill, appealing to MPs to vote against the transfer of Ingush territory to Chechnya.
The Ingush authorities responded to the criticism by dismissing state employees who had campaigned against the bill on social media.
The day before the vote, Ingushetia’s Constitutional Court called the bill a violation of the law On the Referendum of the Republic of Ingushetia, according to which any territorial changes should be decided by taking into account the opinion of society through a referendum.
What’s in the deal
According to the bill, a part of Ingushetia’s Sunzha District will be handed over to Chechnya. The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has claimed the disputed area to be part of Chechnya’s Galanchozh District.
As of 5 October, the full text of the new law hasn’t been published on the website of Ingushetia’s National Assembly and it’s unclear how much land will be swapped between the two republics.
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 President Murat Zyazikov and Chechen President Akhmat-Khadzhi Kadyrov (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 wasn’t demarcated.
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.
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.