Moscow-backed land swap opens old wounds in volatile Caucasus
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Dattykh (Russia) (AFP)
Looking at the lush green hills around his native village in Russia's Ingushetia region, 59-year-old Ruslan says that even if this does not seem like much, it should still belong to his people, not their neighbours in Chechnya.
"I was born here and lived here," said Ruslan standing in the deserted village of Dattykh.
"This is mine, even if it's just mountains or swampland, mine should be mine, while theirs should be theirs."
The area around Dattykh has become a symbol of pride and national identity for the small, impoverished North Caucasus region of Ingushetia, after its leader signed an agreement with Chechnya's Ramzan Kadyrov to redraw the borders without consulting ordinary people.
The agreement, overseen by President Vladimir Putin's emissary to the Caucasus on September 26, draws the boundary close to Dattykh, giving Chechnya a chunk of territory that many Ingush consider theirs.
Furious at Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, thousands have rallied in the region's main city Magas since October 4, with the elderly and the young keeping overnight vigil near the parliament building demanding that authorities render the deal void.
The regional issue is a manifestation of decades-old frustration over a lack of political representation and Moscow's arbitrarily-drawn borders in the multi-ethnic, war-scarred region.
Territory around Dattykh had seen its share of hardship as its population was moved when Russia's military was fighting with separatists in Chechnya after the breakup of the USSR in 1991.
The Ingush stayed loyal to Moscow, but many paid a price.
"When Russian soldiers came through here after we left, they killed livestock... they didn't let us go back," said Ruslan, a former driver at a state farm who did not give his last name.
To this day, the area is full of Russian military checkpoints and the village has no permanent residents.
Meanwhile the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia -- which were a single region in the Soviet era -- was never officially confirmed.
- People 'insulted' -
Protesters in Magas initially said their grievances were directed at the regional authorities.
But as the rally dragged on they expressed incredulity that Moscow has not intervened on their behalf, while state television made no mention of their week-long rallies.
"People are waiting for a decision... but nobody will ever accept any ceding of Ingush territory," said Vakha Khadziyev, an Ingush actor and one of the protesters.
"People were confused, they don't like to be kept in the dark."
"Why is each time something concerns Ingushetia, the law stops working?" asked Yelizaveta.
Many at the protest alluded to historic injustices towards Ingushetia, which had already lost a large swathe of territory when the Soviet government decided to give the region's Prigorodny district to neighbouring North Ossetia after deporting ethnic Chechens and Ingush over allegedly collaborating with the Nazis in 1944.
After the breakup of the USSR this led to bloody ethnic strife in Prigorodny, causing hundreds of deaths.
- 'Only wild animals left' -
Yevkurov had a plastic bottle hurled at him at the protest last week prompting his guards to fire in the air. He has kept away from the rally ever since.
The Ingush leader however flew to Dattykh on Wednesday and was filmed by the Rossiya 24 state channel there.
"Before there were (Islamist) militants here, and nobody else!" he exclaimed. "Now.. only wild animals are left. There is nothing to discuss!" he told AFP.
Analyst Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya said that even an empty chunk of land can be hugely symbolic.
"Land in North Caucasus is the most painful issue," Sokiryanskaya, who heads the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Center, told AFP. "Every ethnic group has a concept of a historic homeland, its own territory" and the colonial and Soviet redrawing of regional boundaries has been very painful.
"People felt themselves insulted" by a decision that ignored the citizens, but the protest also manifests "accumulated frustration in society," from unemployment lack of accountability of the authorities, she said.
Solidarity between activists, parts of the elites and security forces, different generations and religious movements at the protests is unprecedented, Sokiryanskaya added.
"They have all come together to defend Ingushetia's nationhood and territory."
To date, the rally has been peaceful and many are hoping for an intervention from President Vladimir Putin.
"Putin should make a decision, one that is wise rather than supportive of somebody's ambitions," Yelizaveta said, hinting that the Kremlin's policies tend to favour Kadyrov, whose region has received a lot of financial support from Moscow.
"For the president of Russia, all regions should be the same, he should not have favourites," she said, noting that Russian state television hardly mentioned the protest.
"All Russian media are silent, but they covered Kadyrov's birthday for an entire day... they think it's more important."
© 2018 AFP