Russia Tries to Manage Chechnya's Ambitions

6 MINS READSep 17, 2012 | 10:30 GMT
Russia Tries to Manage Chechnya's Ambitions
Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov (R) and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev in Tsentoroi, Chechnya on June 19

Tensions are rising between the Russian North Caucasus republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia once again. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov appears to be attempting to retake lands in Ingushetia — enough area that Chechnya would nearly swallow the neighboring republic — in the coming months. The Kremlin does not want to see the powerful Chechen regime strengthen further, because Kadyrov has proved to be unwieldy in the past. However, the Kremlin will not attempt to upset Kadyrov, one of the most important elements of stability in the Caucasus — particularly with the Olympics to be held in Sochi in a year and a half.

Chechnya and Ingushetia have bickered constantly throughout their long history, so tensions between the republics are not new. Though more than 50 ethnicities can be found in the Caucasus, the Chechens and Ingush are both from the Vainakh ethnic group and speak the same language. Soviet leader Josef Stalin merged Chechnya and Ingushetia into the autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingush in 1934. In this merger, Ingushetia lost key parts of its territory — an area that is now North Ossetia — making its merger with some of the Chechen lands key to the creation of the current Republic of Ingushetia.

However, Moscow never attempted to make such mergers cohesive — mostly to maintain some internal tension to keep the new regions from consolidating — and the Kremlin never clearly defined the regions' administrative borders. Thus, when Chechnya and Ingushetia split in 1992, many traditionally Chechen lands were considered part of Ingushetia — an issue that has spawned regular disputes in the past two decades.

The two Ingush regions under dispute are Sunzha and the majority of Malgobek, which make up approximately 75 percent of Ingushetia's territory and contain about 66 percent of its population. Moreover, the other two regions that make up Ingushetia are not geographically connected; without Sunzha as part of Ingushetia, the republic would be broken in two. Before 1934, Ingushetia could remain in one piece without Sunzha because of the territory that is now North Ossetia. Since there is no motivation to make North Ossetia part of Ingushetia again (the idea sparked a war in 1992), then Ingushetia's existence depends on continued control of Sunzha and Malgobek, despite Chechnya's historical claims to the lands.

District Map of the Russian Republic of Ingushetia

Locator Map - Ingushetia

Kadyrov is now claiming that Chechnya has not been able to formally protest the loss of the two regions to Ingushetia after the 1992 split because Chechnya was embroiled in major wars with Dagestan and Russia for the majority of the past 20 years. Now that Chechnya is a relatively stable and strong republic — and on good terms with Moscow — Kadyrov believes the Kremlin should finally consider Chechnya's claims on its former territory. Moreover, Kadyrov claims to have historical documentation proving his republic's claims on the regions.

Previously the Kremlin ignored Kadyrov's claims because Moscow sees them as a ploy to strengthen Chechnya's position in the region. Moscow and Grozny have a close relationship, and the Kremlin has allowed Chechnya to have its own military and has subsidized a great deal of the Chechen economy, but there are limits to how much independence Russia wants Chechnya to have. The Kremlin knows that Chechnya historically has tried to dominate its neighbors. Moscow has tried to keep Ingushetia independently strong in order to balance Chechnya's influence in the region. Chechnya is traditionally stronger and more consolidated than its North Caucasus neighboring republics, with a stronger security force and government. Moscow has tried recently to support a more united Ingushetia, but the republic is inherently fractured and weak.

Moreover, an inherent mistrust remains between Moscow and a population that fought two bitter wars against the Russian government in the past two decades. The Russian state does not want to allow Chechnya to gain large amounts of territory and population.

Kadyrov's Plans

In recent months, Kadyrov has taken matters into his own hands. He has been trying to foster pro-Chechen sentiment in Ingushetia by placing pro-Kadyrov religious figures and local politicians in Sunzha. The Chechen president has also attempted to install one of his men, Sultan-hadzhi Mirzayev, as chairman of the Coordinating Council of Muslims that oversees the North Caucasus — a move Moscow blocked.

Now Kadyrov claims that his Chechen forces have launched a series of special operations in Galashki, Ingushetia, to counter the Islamic insurgency there. Ingush authorities deny the claim. It is difficult to sift through the disinformation from both sides on whether Chechen forces are going into Ingushetia, although Kadyrov for years has asked for Moscow's permission to be Ingushetia's security guarantor, and it could be that Kadyrov has stopped seeking Moscow's approval.

Following a suicide attack in the Ingush village of Sagopshi on Aug. 19, Kadyrov declared that he was the leader and protector of the Vainakh people. Kadyrov claimed that Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov was unable to protect the people, so Chechnya would have to.

Consequently, the Kremlin has been forced to finally step in, taking the tensions between Chechnya and Ingushetia more seriously. Russian Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus Alexander Khloponin on Sept. 7 called on Ingushetia and Chechnya to "sit down and speak calmly." Khloponin warned that interethnic conflict would break out if the issue was not carefully handled. Khloponin has suggested that both Chechnya and Ingushetia come up with proposals based on their respective assertions in the territorial dispute and present them to the Kremlin by the end of the year.

Previously, the Kremlin allowed the North Caucasus republics to resolve border issues on their own, not wanting to get embroiled in such volatile negotiations. Now that the Kremlin has stepped in, the Constitutional Court of Moscow said Sept. 3 that it might allow the borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia to shift in a compromise between the two republics.

The Kremlin's Stance

Although the Kremlin has tried to stay out of this issue, it must balance Chechnya's arguments and Ingushetia's wishes with several important events on the horizon. In just 17 months, the Winter Olympics will begin in Sochi — a city 483 kilometers (300 miles) from Chechnya. There has been great concern about the instability and violence in the Caucasus affecting the Russian games. Kadyrov and the Chechen Brigades are one of Moscow's most effective tools to keep stability in the Caucasus, so the Kremlin cannot afford to alienate Kadyrov right now. Thus, Moscow will try to draw out the border negotiations while keeping the peace. In the end, the Kremlin most likely will not grant Kadyrov's demands because Moscow wants to ensure that Chechen influence in the Caucasus is restricted and that Ingushetia's independence is maintained.

However, Kadyrov could see this as the prime time to push the issue, since Grozny holds the key to preventing instability in the region ahead of the Olympics. This is why Russia could consider using its own military forces to pressure Chechnya and Ingushetia to keep the peace. There are rumors on rebel and security websites that Russia has been shifting the focus of its forces in the region from Dagestan to the Chechen-Ingush borderlands. As proved in the past, Moscow is willing to step in should this issue start heading toward open conflict, but a major security intervention in this region could also lead to a dangerous backlash.

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