Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, pretends that this republic is a haven of stability. Not so, says Tom Parfitt: the Ingush are subject to a campaign of murder and repression

Among the first-class passengers who flew into Ingushetia’s Magas airport from Moscow on the afternoon of 31 August were two grey-haired men in suits. The pair avoided each other’s gaze. One was Murat Zyazikov, 50, a former KGB officer and president of Ingushetia, the small Muslim republic which borders Chechnya in southern Russia. The other was Magomed Yevloyev, 36, an outspoken critic of Russia’s brutal rule in Ingushetia, founder of the ingushetiya.ru website, and Zyazikov’s great nemesis.

The fates of the government bureaucrat and the government critic, which had been so closely bound up with each other, were about to diverge. Once the plane had touched down and the passengers offloaded, Zyazikov was ushered into a waiting Mercedes and swept away. Yevloyev meanwhile was met by a team of armed police. They bundled him, protesting, into their vehicle and drove off. Within 20 minutes Yevloyev had been shot in the temple. His near-lifeless body was dumped at a hospital where he died hours later.

Officials in Moscow and Ingushetia’s police say that Yevloyev’s death was the result of an accidental shot when he tried to grab an officer’s weapon. But too many unarmed people have died in Ingushetia while ‘putting up armed resistance’ for this to be at all believable. Yevloyev, a former state prosecutor who turned to journalism by chance, was almost certainly killed because his popular website provided one of the few sources of independent information about government murder and corruption. The website was a thorn in Zyazikov’s side. Officials tried to close it down, citing anti-terror laws, but nonetheless tens of thousands of readers continued to access it via mirror sites and mobile phones. So Yevloyev had to go.

‘They killed our colleague in a dastardly and open way,’ Magomed Khazbiyev, a friend of the dead man, told an angry group of protesters in Nazran, the main town of Ingushetia, the next day. ‘If the federal authorities do not intervene in what is happening, we have the right to demand Ingushetia’s secession from Russia.’

The distressing thing about the affair is that Yevloyev’s death was far from being a one-off. It was an entirely predictable tragedy, just the latest example of Russia’s murderous grip on the republic. Yes, Ingushetia is part of Russia, but it has its own separate identity. Ingush people have an exquisite sense of honour and hospitality. Vainakh society, which they share with their brother nation, the Chechens, is historically egalitarian. They are Sufi Muslims, not fanatics, who wear their belief lightly. Ingushetia should be, could be, a great example of a free and modernising republic within the mother country’s benign embrace. Instead, through a mixture of neglect, intimidation and violence, the Kremlin has turned what was once one of its most loyal provinces into a disaster zone which could yet spark a new war in the Caucasus. If Russia wants to protect its citizens — as it says it did in Georgia’s breakaway republic of South Ossetia last month — then it must first act to stop the terror on its own turf.

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And the terror is relentless. Since the beginning of this year about 80 policemen have been murdered in Ingushetia, along with a series of security personnel, government officials and ethnic Russian civilians. Zyazikov, of course, claims that Islamic separatists are responsible for many of these deaths, and he uses this excuse to send masked teams of security agents to ‘liquidate’ people they say are fighters or fanatics. At least 40 people were murdered in extrajudicial killings in 2007 alone.

It’s true that militant rebels killed a lot of the policemen. But some of the murdered men were brave officers — ordinary local plods — who had clashed with the Federal Security Service (FSB) over its savage campaign to rub out suspects without trial or investigation. Just remember, many of the so-called terrorists were unarmed young men who were shot at home or in the street and human rights groups estimate a further 158 people have disappeared without trace since Zyazikov took office in 2002. Protests are regularly dispersed by baton-wielding police and shortly before Yevloyev’s death one activist was beaten so badly that friends say his head ‘looked like a crushed watermelon’.

Then there was the case of Apti Dalakov, a 20-year-old student from the town of Karabulak, ten miles east of Nazran. On 2 September last year Apti and a friend were walking away from a computer club in the town when two vehicles pulled to a halt. Out jumped about 30 armed men from the security services, some in camouflage and some in civilian clothes. Terrified, Apti and his friend fled between apartment blocks. One of the men caught up with Apti, pushed him to the ground and shot him in the back of the head. Several witnesses then saw the operative place a grenade in Apti’s dead hand.

‘They framed him,’ says Apti’s uncle. ‘He was wearing a T-shirt and a skin-tight pair of jeans. You couldn’t have got a matchbox in his pocket, let alone a grenade. They watched him visiting the mosque, decided he was an extremist and killed him. Then they blamed him for a whole series of bombings and attacks. It helps them fulfil their quotas. No arrest, no trial, just murder — boom, and the person’s gone.’

‘Ingushetia is out of control,’ says Timur Akiyev, director of the Nazran office of the human rights group Memorial. ‘The law enforcement agencies act with complete impunity. They murder, beat and kidnap. It can’t go on.’ Well — it goes on. But as it does, the situation increasingly gives the lie to Moscow’s boast of guaranteeing stability in the Caucasus.

To arrive in Ingushetia (population 470,000) is to understand the extent of Russian myth-making. The Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, and Zyazikov repeatedly claim that Ingushetia is a paragon of stability and growth, but this is fantasy. President Zyazikov lives isolated in a fortified complex called Magas (‘Sun City’) but appears regularly on state television giving glowing reports of ‘gasification’ and house-building in his republic. The reality is that Ingushetia, a patch of scorched steppe that rears into stunning mountains to the south, is poverty-stricken and terrorised. A few miles across the border in Vladikavkaz, the capital of the neighbouring Russian region of North Ossetia, shoppers glide though department stores and stop for a break at the Vogue Café. Nazran, by contrast, is a big dust-glazed village of broken pavements and potholed roads where sheep graze on the verges and a sprawling bazaar is one of the few sources of peaceful work.

‘The only job I could find was lifting 50kg boxes in the post office for 1,500 roubles [£35] a month,’ a young man called Timur told me. ‘Before that I worked for 4,000 roubles as a security guard at the hospital. Every night the police brought dead boyeviki [rebel fighters] to the morgue and dumped them. Blood everywhere. And the boyeviki don’t abandon their own. They came at night, tooled up with automatics, to get the bodies. Was I going to protect dead men without a weapon for 4,000 roubles a month?’

So Zyazikov — a Kremlin appointee — and Medvedev are thick as thieves, colluding in this fantasy about Ingushetia’s success, and one of the chief reasons is that Zyazikov delivers stunning election results. Last December Ingushetia reported an absurd 99 per cent vote for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party in elections to the state duma. The official turnout was 98 per cent. Before his death, Magomed Yevloyev ridiculed these results
and helped organise a petition of 80,000 Ingush (half the electorate) who said they had not even cast a ballot.

Clearly, militant rebels do exist in Ingushetia and they are a problem for Russia, but the irony is that they are radicalised by the repression. They may have some foreign financial support (and a few have called for an Islamic caliphate across Russia’s North Caucasus region). But it’s really a lack of jobs, endemic corruption, crude prejudice against Muslims and — most of all — extreme brutality on the part of the security services that are the chief factors driving young men to take up arms.

‘It’s a natural response if they come at night in masks, they take your brother, your father, your uncle and you never see him again,’ says Magomed-Sali Aushev, one of several moderate politicians who could provide an alternative to the current regime. ‘You fight back to defend your dignity.’

Increasingly, it is not just desperate young men who are becoming radicalised. The Ingush have a sharp sense of history. They feel oppressed and humiliated. Like the Chechens, they were deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944 by Joseph Stalin, returning home only in 1957. Ingushetia stayed out of Chechnya’s drive for autonomy in the early 1990s, but a conflict with North Ossetia was brutally extinguished with help from the Russian army, leaving hundreds of Ingush dead or exiled from their homes.

Now anger is rising again. Yevloyev’s relatives have declared a blood feud against key government figures whom they blame for his death. The political opposition is weak but calls for independence could gain ground. If Russia wants to preserve its territorial integrity — as it professed to do in South Ossetia — then it must stop terrorising its own citizens.

Tom Parfitt is a correspondent in Moscow for the Guardian.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated