Thirty kilometers of emptiness span from North Ossetia's Vladikavkaz to Ingushetia's Nazran. And although it's just a short ride between these two regional capitals, their residents are worlds apart. Vladikavkaz is relaxed with traditional European architecture, wide streets, contemporary music and women in modern dress. But as we approached Nazran, I found myself asking: “Is this Kabul?” As I looked out the window of our vehicle, I saw a small fenced stone city, women in head scarfs, two military helicopters and a heavily armed base.
“'No,” the local driver told me. “It's Ingushetia. A blossoming heaven.”
An Ingush murder
The death of the owner of the Ingushetia.ru Web site Magomed Evloev seemed epic, even for Moscow's traditionally cynical onlookers. The Ingush government – and particularly the republic's President Murat Zyazikov – had a strong dislike for Evloev. He faced numerous charges against the state. The authorities also pushed to close his popular Web site, which served as a crutch for the local opposition. But even though the Moscow City Court deemed Ingushetia.ru an extremist informational resource, Nazran's attempts to shut down the Web site were fruitless as it was based in the U.S.
However, earlier this year, the situation took an unexpected turn. Although Evloev had been living peacefully abroad, he decided to make a visit home to see his relatives. Carrying a case with around three million rubles, his colleagues say, he headed to Ingushetia. Local Ingush still debate whether Evloev was taking money home to help the opposition or he had received financial assistance from the West.
But by some odd coincidence, Evloev ended up in the same plane as Zyazikov. His relatives received an SMS shortly after his plane took off that read : “I'm flying with Murat.” Later, I asked Ingushetia's Public Prosecutor to speak with the stewardesses who had been on board to see if Zyazikov and Evloev had argued during the flight. But regardless of what happened, the police, headed by Interior Minister Musa Medov, met Evloev as soon as the plane landed and arrest him. He was then driven off by an entourage of vehicles.
The events then unfolded as is local tradition. Evloev's colleagues who were waiting to meet him at the airport sped off after him. They stopped several cars, dragged police officers from their vehicles and proceeded to beat them. But they couldn't find their leader. At about the same time, Evloev was shot in the head in another car and taken to the republic's hospital where he died. The bullet entered his skull near the temple. He had little chances of survival.
The Public Prosecutor's Office said one of the police officers mishandled his firearm and accidentally shot Evloev in the head. But in Moscow, it was clear what happened. Local political scientists weren't at all surprised. Just another opposition figure death, they said. The Caucasus isn't a place for discussion.
While reading Ingushetia.ru carefully, which Evloev used to criticize the local authorities, one finds unexpectedly high-caliber PR akin to the Voice of America in the 1970s where Soviet news was split into bad and worse.
For example: “Zyazikov and his inner circle live well. Their vision of their personal life is reflected in pretty booklets and custom-ordered publications in the press. But the local government isn't worried about economic poverty and ruin, and the sicknesses of the people. The tuberculosis ward at the republic's hospital doesn't even have a CAT scanner. Ingushetia.ru is continuing its promotion: 'Zyazikov! Buy the republic a CAT scanner!' If the hospital doesn't receive a CAT scanner by the end of the month, Ingushetia.ru will collect signatures and appeal to [Russian] President Dmitriy Medvedev.”
Now imagine what happens when an Internet pimple like this one pops up in the local media in a republic where there are only two or three newspapers loyal to the Ingush authorities. There may be numerous opposition Web sites on the federal level, which the Kremlin treats condescendingly, but in the regions, the authorities are very serious about keeping the media playing field clean.
The rule of “appearance first” dictates in the power vertical. At all costs, Moscow must look favorably upon Ingushetia. And the Internet has an extremely disloyal quality. One can write as much as the day is long about official successes, but one click of the mouse is enough to create the appearance that the Web site was designed to say: "Get out of here Zyazikov!” It would be interesting to find out who was interested in propagating such an idea on Ingushetia.ru. Evloev's biography gives much food for thought.
Evloev was once Russia's youngest public prosecutor. Under Ruslan Ausheva, Ingushetia's former president, Evloev was considered was of the republic's most important strongmen. As Evloev told KP himself in an interview in 2001, Ausheva “offered me high positions, commended me and made me an example for others.” But suddenly, after Zyazikov took office, Evloev quit the government and joined Ausheva's opposition. In an interview with KP, Evloev said: “Instead of fighting the criminals, the Ingush authorities started befriending them.”
In short, Evloev criticized the local authorities for maintaining too liberal relations with criminals. But interestingly, Evloev had once had friendly relations with the republic's criminal groups himself.
In Vladikavaz, I received several criminal cases against Evloev from the days when Ausheva ruled the republic at my hotel room. The first case accused Evloev of taking a suspect from jail during a manhunt. The suspect was later found dead. The second case was an interrogation where Evloev fired a bullet into the wall several inches from the suspect's head. His colleagues took the gun and Evloev screamed: “You've destroyed my strategic plan!”
It was during the 2002 presidential elections in Ingushetia. Evloev hoped to advance his political career. He made what seemed to be the wise choice and showed his support for Zyazikov. However, after the elections, Evloev was ousted from politics. Later, he wrote on his Web site that: "It was a big mistake. Not only my own, but my friend Musa Kelgov's, too. He helped Zyazikov return from exile in Astrakhan and did nearly everything to support his candidacy as president.” Evloev felt betrayed and returned to the opposition camp in hopes to restore Aushev to the post of president.
Although the former public prosecutor once criticized the government for maintaining too soft a stance on numerous issues, his new motto was: “Who will protect the Ingush from the special forces?” Evloev knew what the Ingush wanted to hear. The opposition's claims against Zyazikov could be summed up with: “He allowing us to be killed!”
Russians are used to hearing about bombs exploding and people being shot in Ingushetia. But outside the republic, these are unimpressive statistics – and the usual course of the evening news. But a total of 114 terrorist acts took place within 8 months last year in Ingushetia – a territory the size of the Moscow district. Twenty-eight police officers were killed and 84 wounded. Ten soldiers were also killed and 35 injured. The Ingush Public Prosecutor said only 30 terrorists were killed during this period.
I remember how an Ossetian who lives on the Ingush border told me: "You see the road over there? Nearly every night for two years I can hear combat equipment rolling into Ingushetia!"
“There are criminals everywhere! Don't believe anyone!” Two federal special forces officers from the Far East told me at the Ingush Public Prosecutor's Office. They were outfitted with automatic weapons, handguns, bulletproof vests and knives. They've done half their service in the Ingush 'hot spot,' with three months to go. They're here on contract and receive 500 rubles per day. They've already lost two close friends. The local police isn't engage in special operations, as they fear blood revenge, regardless of what they say.
“We shouldn't have come here,” they said.“Snipers were shooting at the market. There are 'hunters' everywhere. We finally found the guys a week ago. We got to their village at 05:00 in the morning, but only received the command to proceed at 10:00. They were already gone.”
I went to speak with the local Memorial law firm to get an objective view on the situation. They were of an entirely different opinion.
"The Ingush prosecutors try to get to the places where the operations are taking place,” said the center's Director Tamerlan Aliyev. “But they aren't allowed. The 'suspicious' homes are blown up – as well as the innocent and guilty inside. And when they finally enter they see the criminals weren't even there to being with.” I understood why the special forces officers had said: “We shouldn't have come.” "The federal officers only want one thing – to get home alive,” Aliyev said. “They think all the Ingush are criminals. It's easy to understand them. But what should we do about it?"
When they heard I was from Moscow, an older Ingush man cornered me angrily. His two sons had been killed during a federal operation. He has gone to various courts trying to get official papers documenting what happened. But he says the judges simply run away. They don't know how to help him. He screamed at me and I thought: “Where should this old man go? Who will listen to him?”
Suddenly, he knocked some sense into me with an unexpected statement:
“You're from Moscow, right!” he said. “Go write that 80 percent of the Ingush want to separate from Russia because of what's happened!”
“Come on, don't exaggerate,” Aliyev said smiling.
It was nighttime in a suspiciously quiet Nazran. I heard shot being fired somewhere outside the city.
“Today everything's fine, peaceful,” a man from Grozny said, staring out the window in the hallway. He had already been in Nazran for two days, pacing the empty, heavily guarded Asa hotel where an entire group of Ren TV journalists were kidnapped last year. He is the former head of the Nashi movement. After Evloev's murder, he was called to Nazran to organize a local pro-Kremlin youth event. He says it's something like a talisman for the authorities – a demonstration of loyalty. He loves playing on the people's conscious. He wants them “to believe a little bit, not just stand there waving flags.”
“It's going to be hard here,” he said. “The Ingush are feisty. This isn't Chechnya.”
Evloev's colleague, Magomed Khazbiev, met me at his fortress – several homes surrounded by a sturdy wall. It seemed they were ready to fight off an attack that could last several months.
"I received calls from different villages, and they say: 'Let's take some police officers hostage and go to the central square,” he said, sitting beneath a portrait of the opposition leader, former Ingush President Aushev. “But I said: 'No.'”
I was taken aback by the statements Khazbiev made. He said the authorities make the police kill innocent people so the Russians will send more forces into the republic to support the current regime. He said the Ingush were talking about leaving Russia. He said the opposition is looking for a country that will agree to give the Ingush passports. He said Zyazikov's days are limited and there would be revenge for Evloev's death.
“Think about what you're saying,” I said. “Russia's Criminal Code is still functioning – and there's an article for 'conspiracy to kill.'”
“What do I have to do with anything?” Magomed said. “Evloev's father Yaxkhya declared 'pkhya' yesterday (Ingush for 'blood revenge'). Zyazikov isn't the least bit interesting for me anymore.”
Caucasus special effects
I met Ruslan Martagov at the Ingush organs. Martagov was the print minister under Dudaev. Today he's a political scientist.
Martagov said Aushev's compromising attitude towards rebels turned Ingushetia into a nest of terror that Moscow and Zyazikov now have to deal with. Wahhabists are using the opposition forces to dismantle the ruling regime. But if Moscow takes the bait and changes the republic's leader, Ingushetia will face the same fate as Chechnya in the 1990s.
“Couldn't the local authorities just have sat down at the negotiation table with the opposition and reached an agreement in a civilized manner?” I asked.
“Why?” he said.
“Well, for example, Evloev may still be alive. The opposition would have grouped together under one leader. Then they would have tried to stay away from Magas (the head of the local terrorist group) to protect their status. The authorities would have listened to the opposition, and cleared the way for protecting the rights of the people. At the end of the day, the republic's leadership wouldn't have to worry about blood revenge.”
“There's no one to negotiate with. If the opposition wants to talk – they can speak with Moscow!” he said. “You're talking about 'revenge?!' You Moscow journalists really love the special effects in the Caucasus!”
Not long after, Zyazikov's cousin Bekhan was killed in Nazran. The president's home was also attacked by grenade launchers.