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Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009

Ingushetia has been widely labelled as ‘the new Chechnya’ last week. The unwelcome sobriquet came on June 23, the day after a suicide car bomb struck the motorcade of Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, President of Ingushetia, severely wounding him (Guardian, June 22). The bomb was packed with 70 kilograms of TNT and exploded exactly five years after an audacious insurgent raid on Nazran, in Ingushetia, killed dozens of people and destroyed the republic’s Interior Ministry.

The response from both Moscow and the neighbouring republic of Chechnya was swift and uncompromising. President Medvedev ordered a “pitiless” response and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov declared that the retaliation would be “ruthless”. Controversially, he has (allegedly) been ordered by the Kremlin to assume responsibility for counter-terrorism in Ingushetia, a month after the security forces of the two republics agreed to step up co-operation in hunting down insurgents.

There has been speculation for months that President Kadyrov would use his growing authority, the increasing reluctance of the federal authorities to intervene in the North Caucasus and the chaos in Ingushetia to increase his influence there, or even to push forward a merger of the two republics (as was the case under the USSR). The bomb seems to be the perfect opportunity for him to do so.

The attack was claimed by the Riyadus Salikhin, the Reconnaissance and Sabotage Battalion of Chechen Martyrs (Reuters, June 28). This notorious suicide squad was behind the tragic Beslan school siege of 2004 and was believed to have been disbanded after the death of its leader Shamil Basayev in 2006. In April 2009, Doku Umarov, the self-declared ‘emir’ of the North Caucasus (“Caucasus Emirate”), declared that the unit had been reactivated and was behind two attacks earlier this year (Kavkaz Center, May 17).

The re-emergence of the Riyadus Salikhin suggests that Doku Umarov’s warning of “a year of offensives” was accurate. The reports that trickle out of the region also seem to show that the number of attacks has increased, particularly since Chechnya announced a formal end to its 10-year counter-terrorist operation in April. Judging the capabilities of the insurgents is, however, very difficult: both the resistance and the government tend to inflate the number of rebels (for very different reasons). Nonetheless, it seems that the flow of recruits to the mountains is at least as steady as ever, and official estimates in early 2009 suggested at least 480 rebels across the region.

However, the attack on President Yevkurov and the general upsurge in fighting across Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan (and to a lesser extent in the three republics to the west of the North Caucasus) does not mean that Ingushetia is ‘on the brink of civil war’ or becoming the ‘new Chechnya’. The situation in the republic is extremely bad, and the level of violence is of course shocking. But comparison with the war in Chechnya, although understandable, is flawed.

Firstly, the broader political context is very different. The first Chechen war had many causes, but it arose in a Russia which was far weaker than it is today. Political infighting, an undisciplined army, a ruinous economic and social situation, and the still-recent shock of the USSR’s collapse allowed the conflict in Chechnya to escalate. The situation today, despite Russia’s many flaws, is far different. The Kremlin is far stronger, richer, and confident than during the 1990s – its control over the levers of government, both federally and locally, is sufficient to stop Ingushetia moving towards Chechen-style independence. For another thing, the independence movement in Ingushetia lacks both the popular support and the political backing that it did in Chechnya.

Secondly, the security situation is also far different. Ambushes and roadside bombs may wear down the federal and local forces stationed in Ingushetia, and brutal counter-insurgency methods have hardly made them popular, but the rebels are unable to inflict the kind of losses that they did in Chechnya. Weapon stockpiles are (more) secure; Russian forces are better trained and equipped; and continuous aggressive counter-insurgency has forced the rebels into small, shadowy bands. Their ability to organise large-scale joint offensives seems to have diminished since 2004, when the Nazran and Beslan raids took place. Indeed the phenomenon of recent years has been the use of small-scale jamaats, in this context a military unit, scattered across the region.

This indicates the third difference – that the North Caucasian insurgency is now almost entirely Islamist, having transcended its nationalist origins with the pronunciation of the ‘Caucasus Emirate’ by Umarov in late 2007 and the deaths of most of the Chechen old guard. As well as being an ideological decision – national boundaries are considered meaningless in the Emirate, which is united by Islam – this is also a pragmatic one. As discussed, small autonomous units are far more effective than a single concentrated force. Focusing on a single republic misses the point that the rebellion is now far wider than that.

The attack on President Yevkurov is troubling not because it implies increasing capabilities on the part of the Ingush insurgency (although the reactivation of the Riyadus Salikhin is alarming) but because of the event itself: the removal from local politics of a highly qualified, tough, and pragmatic man who may have helped to stabilise Ingushetia, given the time. His removal suggests a power vacuum within regional politics, which Ramzan Kadyrov may try to fill.

If he does – perhaps by being given a limited formal role in supervising counter-terrorism operations, and a much larger informal one of overseeing the republic’s security – then Ingushetia is likely to suffer the same fate as Chechnya. It will become peaceful, in places, but at a huge human cost. If Ingush politicians manage to select a replacement who is opposed to Kadyrov - such as former president Ruslan Aushev, who has been arguing with the Chechen leader since the attack (Jamestown Foundation, June 25) – then tensions between the two republics will rise. Mutual suspicions would hamper cooperation and divert politicians away from real problems, and would hand the insurgents another victory.

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