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Dispatch

Another Murder in Russia's Secret War

The death of a millionaire opposition leader in Ingushetia is just more evidence that the region is at war.

A few weeks ago, I visited the home of Maksharip Aushev -- the 43-year-old scion of a wealthy and politically influential family in Ingushetia -- on the night of his youngest son's wedding. It was a festive occasion despite the unrest in Russia's volatile North Caucasus, and hundreds of relatives and friends danced in the courtyard of the brick mansion in Nazran. But Aushev, a cousin of the former Ingush president, Ruslan Aushev, did not join in. He felt more like talking to reporters about the epidemic of violence in his republic.

His eyes were dark and his face serious as he described the abductions of his nephew and son two years ago. Aushev, a millionaire nicknamed the "Marble Magnate," devoted his money and connections to raising protests throughout Ingushetia. He hoped to spur the regional president at the time, Murat Zyazikov, to do everything he could to save his son from the separatist insurgents. "My son was rescued from a secret jail in Chechnya," Aushev told us. "I decided I would lead the opposition and help relatives of all the other victims in the republic."

As the wedding continued into the night, young men began to shoot Kalashnikovs into the sky in celebration. Aushev continued to speak to us, blaming the federal security service and police for committing some of the abductions and murders. He complained that the local president, "no matter how much we all like him," did not have any power over the "bandits." Plus, he feared, corrupt bureaucrats had been paying the insurgents protection money, eroding any semblance of civil order in Ingushetia.

Later that night, Aushev walked out to the balcony to watch fireworks. Sad and quiet, wearing a traditional Ingush black wool top hat, he stared into the distance without smiling. "The rebel leaders charm the hearts of all young people in the republic," he said. The Kremlin couldn't possibly counter them.

Last Sunday morning, Aushev was shot dead while driving his car.

Aushev is the third person I've interviewed in the past two years gunned down in cold blood in Ingushetia or one of its neighboring provinces, Dagestan and Chechnya. All three regions are mostly Muslim, highly politically unstable, and lie near Russia's southern border with Georgia. Violence is endemic, I know too well. In July, for instance, thugs dragged Natalya Estemirova, an indomitable human rights activist, and a dear friend of mine, into a van. She was later found riddled with bullets.

Whether anyone admits it, Ingushetia is a war zone. In Ingushetia, Dagestan, and Chechnya, each a semi-autonomous area, radical separatists seek to destabilize the region. They commit kidnappings, murders, summary executions, and bombings in spite of crackdowns and arrests. They fight against Russian police and state forces, or, at least, the ones they haven't infiltrated and corrupted.

In Ingushetia, the Kremlin has responded by appointing regional governors and sending police and military reinforcements. (It's arguably worse in Chechnya, where the Kremlin sent in troops in the 1990s that only left this year.) In 2002, Moscow appointed Zyazikov, whose brutal crackdowns sometimes seemed worse than the violence he hoped to stem. Unrest escalated, and last fall, President Dmitry Medvedev named Yunus-Bek Yevkurov president of the region instead.

This appointment pleased Aushev. At the time, he had taken over the management of the opposition Web site, ingushetia.org, after the loss of his partner, Magomed Yevloyev -- who died from an "accidental" wound to the head, according to official state publications, received while being driven in a police car after his arrest.

But seeing that the Kremlin was at least attempting to stop the escalating violence between the state and the insurgents -- violence whose perpetrators seemed less and less easy to tell apart -- Aushev slowed down his opposition activity. He hoped that Yevkurov's lighter hand would help slow down the killings and abductions. Aushev also took a job as a human rights representative for the Kremlin.

Still, the secret war metastasized. Yevkurov did nothing to stop it. Bloody reports from Ingushetia, Dagestan and Chechnya continued to flood news wires. At one point, Russia was losing more police officers and soldiers in these regions than the United States was losing troops in Iraq. Then, in June, Yevkurov nearly died in an assassination attempt. Soon after, a suicide bomber rammed a van into a five-story police station in the Ingush capital of Nazran, killing 20 and injuring 138 more. Insurgents killed a judge and a former prime minister as well.

The law forces meant to stop this violence resorted to more bloody tactics in response. Medvedev continued to hold that government was making process towards peace, a risible assertion. Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of Moscow's Helsinki Group, feared that escalation might spur regional outbreaks of fighting. "People stand against the state measures, as they see no signs of authorities improving their methods. People are killed and kidnapped. Our leaders do not like to admit their mistakes," Alexeyeva told me. "All they say is that things are beautiful in Russia -- by their blind management they push these burning problems into the corner. They risk that the problems will be out of control."

All the while, young people in Ingushetia continued to join the insurgency, the best source of jobs in the region. Magomed Mutsolgov, the head of human-rights group Mashr, which is headquartered in Karbulak, Ingushetia, agrees. "People are pushed into a corner. Their friends, relatives and opposition leaders are abducted or killed. Many join the insurgency, as they see no alternative," he told us, sitting in his office, which is lined with portrait photographs of the missing.

He notes that 175 people have been kidnapped or disappeared in the region since 2002. Mutsolgov himself has been threatened multiple times; once, he was nearly gunned down outside of his house: "By killing us they would not mute people, as there are hundreds of relatives willing to pay revenge for their loved ones," he said, hopefully.

And so, the violence in Ingushetia escalates -- and nobody in Moscow wants to do anything about it. Aushev, at least, believed as much. The day before his murder, the famed opposition leader and millionaire appeared in a documentary on television. While he steered his car, he noted, "Both corrupt bureaucrats and insurgents have the same goal in Ingushetia today: To sabotage president Yevkurov."

The next day, he died.

Thousands of local people came to his house to pay respects. The opposition leader, Magomed Khazbiyev spoke at the ceremony. "They kill you here for defending human rights. They kill you here for opposition activity," he later told me over the phone. "The blame lies on the government, law enforcement, and President Yevkurov, the government of this country, and its bandit methods.

"The people give the government a week to find the killers of their hero. If the president does not keep his word, a civil war will start in the republic, as that was the last drop of our patience."

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