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
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."