“One can lead a column to Prishtina every day”

Interesting when two hobbies cross-connect. One: that odd, isolated episode at the end of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when a Russian unit based in Bosnia suddenly rushed through Serbia and occupied Prishtina airport just ahead of the advancing NATO troops. — It ended up being an empty gesture, but only just; the Russians were ready to funnel thousands of soldiers into the airport, and would have if Hungary and Romania hadn’t stood firm and kept their airspace closed. And it wasn’t entirely without consequence: it re-established Russia as the Great Power Protector of choice for Serb nationalists, a position it still occupies today.

Two: Russia’s problems in Ingushetia. Ingushetia is a province in the northern Caucasus next to Chechnya, and it’s just a hell of a mess. It’s full of refugees, the economy has collapsed, bombings and shootings are a constant background drumbeat. Nobody pays much attention to the North Caucasus — it’s formally part of Russia; the Chechens are quiescent at the moment; Shamil Basayev is dead, and the Beslan atrocity didn’t seem to lead to anything — but Ingushetia is a bubbling low-intensity conflict with the potential to erupt into something nastier.

And where they connect: the current President of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, was the commander of that Russian unit that sprinted to Kosovo. He’s also an ethnic Ingush, which is a bit unusual — the last couple of Ingush Presidents were not. [Later correction — they were Ingush, though born and educated outside the province.] Yevkurov was appointed by Moscow late last year to replace the notoriously corrupt, unpopular, and none-too-competent incumbent. The timing was interesting: just a couple of months after the Georgia conflict. Ingushetia is next door to South Ossetia and just a short drive from Georgia. In retrospect it looks like Moscow decided it could no longer afford to have a loyal-but-hated tool running things in this strategic region, and decided to appoint the most plausible possible Ingush instead.

It’s damnably difficult to get straight news out of Ingushetia — the Russian authorities don’t encourage foreign journalists, while the local government is oppressive and pretty paranoid — but it looks like Yevkurov is trying to make a go of it. He’s much more popular than his predecessor (not hard), and he seems to be peripatetically competent:

On the Ingushetiya.org website, one of Yevkurov’s critics ridiculed the President for his absurd appearance. The national skullcap worn in combination with a suit and tie was a demonstration of bad taste, the critic said, born out of a desire to please everyone. But in fact, to some extent Yevkurov’s appearance revealed his program of action.

He is at once an Ingush and a government official. The combination of these roles does not cause him the slightest discomfort… He constantly makes the rounds of the villages, where he meets with the elders, whose opinions in the vast majority of cases are weightier and more authoritative than the views of the government’s representatives…

The President reconciles blood enemies, he promises to exculpate men who have embezzled of state property if they give back what they have stolen. It goes without saying, of course, that none of these actions bear any relation to Russian law, and on certain points may even contradict it…

But it is not only traditional social structures that interest Yevkurov. He has long and detailed discussions with everyone. The new President has serious grievances about his compatriots. He believes that they are helping the armed underground. In his many statements on this subject one can detect the operational information that has been supplied by the law enforcement agencies, and indeed he does not conceal the fact that in his views on the mujahedeen he prefers to align himself with the security forces rather than the Ingush population. Against such aiding and abetting, and against the underground resistance itself, he intends to conduct a merciless war.

In his four months in office, that war hasn’t much advanced. After a brief lull, violence has resumed. And the armed separatists, though a small minority, are determined, and not without popular support:

The mujahedeen see no difference between Yevkurov and his predecessor. For them, both are representatives of the kafirs who have occupied the territory of the North Caucasus. It is said that this is more or less how Amir (Emir) Magas, aka Akhmed Yevloyev, aka the Military Amir of the Caucasus Imarat (Emirate), expressed himself at a secret meeting with Yevkurov… The Ingushetian President has denied that the meeting ever took place, but people in the republic persist in claiming that it did, and that it took place in the village of Galashki in the house of kinsfolk of the so-called “Colonel Khuchbarov” who led the school seizure in Beslan.

Whatever the truth may be, after nearly four months in office Yekurov has failed to achieve any visible progress in the fight against the underground. The number of attacks and acts of sabotage has not diminished and sometimes seems even to have increased. Neither governmental authority nor threats have been of any avail…

Sermons on moral purity, social equality, service to Allah, a heroic death for the sake of high ideals against a backdrop of moral decline, corruption, greed and selfishness find a keen response in the souls of these [Ingush] young men. On public transport, at markets, in all the places where people discuss pressing issues, one can hear them singing the praises of the mujahedeen and their heroic struggle. Their mobile phones show video clips of sermons or battle scenes. The names of the fighters are known by heart, using apt turns of phrase, the young men discuss events that have taken place in their daily lives, their experiences of combat. The underground is imbued with a romantic atmosphere. There is fullness of life, there are ideas and ideals.

Yevkurov’s success is not entirely in his own hands. For one thing, the insurgency is driven in part by oppressoin, and much of the oppression is coming straight from Moscow: FSB teams breaking into peoples’ homes to conduct “cleansings”, and such. A lot of young men have disappeared in Ingushetia in recent years, and they’re not expected to come back, and much of that is the work of federal authorities who don’t answer to Ingushetia’s President. Another problem is that almost all of Ingushetia’s budget comes from Russia’s central government, and times are tight. From this distance, it looks like cutting Ingushetia’s budget would be almost insanely stupid — the province is a powder keg, and patronage is one of the very few tools the government can use to keep the Ingush quiet — but who knows?

It’s clear that Yevkurov understands the gravity of the situation:

Though there was a brief lull in the violence after he took office, Yevkurov still faces an immense security challenge.

The administrative capital, Magas, is ringed by paramilitary police in body armor and wielding Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Six police were killed in another part of the region this month when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded.

Yevkurov said he had asked Moscow to allow him to increase police numbers by more than a half and that this year the local interior ministry’s budget was up 40 percent.

He won Russia’s highest military honor for leading an audacious 1999 operation to seize Pristina airport from under the noses of NATO forces advancing into Kosovo. But he said the job he has now is more daunting.

“One can lead a column to Pristina every day, but of course here in the republic, things are far more difficult,” he said.

A major uprising in Ingushetia would be a very bad, lose-lose situation: Ingush separatists couldn’t possibly win, but a great many people could get killed, and a great deal of poison and misery sowed for future generations. Better to prevent it, if possible. So, fingers crossed for President Yevkurov.

4 thoughts on ““One can lead a column to Prishtina every day”

  1. “He’s also an ethnic Ingush, which is a bit unusual — the last couple of Ingush Presidents were not.”

    Actually, both of his predecessors – Murat Zyazikov and Ruslan Aushev – are ethnic Ingush.

    Murat Zyazikov

    Ruslan Aushev

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