In its 2018 Annual Forecast, Stratfor identified protests in Russia, as well as infighting between major power players such as Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and other members of the Russian government, as key challenges to the Kremlin. A controversial land swap agreement between Chechnya and Ingushetia highlights these challenges for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A long-running dispute between two of Russia's restive Caucasus republics isn't going away — even if the territories' leaders have finally signed a deal to end the disagreement. On Oct. 30, Ingushetia's Constitutional Court struck down a law that paved the way for a land swap between the republic and neighboring Chechnya in Russia's North Caucasus region after the legislation prompted protests in the territory.
Chechnya and Ingushetia have disagreed on the border between their territories since 1992, when the joint Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was split in two. For more than a quarter century, authorities in the two republics failed to solve the issue until Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov announced a deal on Sept. 26 following closed-door negotiations. However, the agreement has sparked anger in Ingushetia because the deal will give Chechnya around 20 times the amount of land that Ingushetia will obtain, leading to persistent protests in the regional capital of Magas. And demonstrations have intensified since Ingushetia's parliament approved the deal on Oct. 4 — particularly after a number of lawmakers said someone had tampered with their votes.
Central Russian authorities, who have publicly emphasized the need for a peaceful resolution to the quarrel, have been careful to avoid taking sides in the dispute, in part to avoid the perception of undue interference. For the Kremlin, however, the dispute's potential for escalation is a cause for concern, leading Moscow to dispatch the presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus Federal District to Ingushetia last week to help resolve the matter. During his visit, the plenipotentiary advised the republics to take the issue to court.
The leaders of the two republics, Kadyrov and Yevkurov, will play key roles in shaping the the dispute. Yevkurov, for one, finds himself between a rock and a hard place: If he sticks by the deal in spite of the court ruling, popular calls for his resignation will intensify. But if he reneges on the deal, he could provoke a reaction from the mercurial Kadyrov — who has previously threatened to grab Ingush territory for Chechnya. On Oct. 28, the Chechen president adamantly stated that the issue was now closed and that the two republics would implement the deal. If Kadyrov remains firm in his stance, he could ignite a direct confrontation between Chechnya and Ingushetia that would echo some of the conflicts that occurred after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Moscow's careful positioning on the dispute could change rapidly if tensions grow between the two republics. The Kremlin is well aware of how problems between different Russian regions — particularly in the volatile North Caucasus — could harm the country's overall stability, especially at a time when Russia is locked in an intensifying confrontation with the United States and the West. More strife in the North Caucasus could also create space for a rise in violent extremist organizations in the region, which might force Russia to dispatch extra forces and resources to the area as it did in previous decades. Moscow, accordingly, may be forced to pressure one or both of the leaders to accept a deal to maintain the peace. Depending on its course of action, however, Moscow will have to be careful not to completely alienate the powerful strongman of Chechnya and upend the delicate arrangement in the formerly restive republic.