NAZRAN, Russia — In Ingushetia, a rugged outpost on Europe's southern perimeter, people lower their voices when they talk about the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB. Sometimes they just call it "the organization with three letters."
For at least eight years, this tiny republic has lived in fear as one of the most unstable spots in the troubled North Caucasus -- even worse, in recent times, than neighboring Chechnya. But the violence is not just the fault of Islamist militants, acting with financial support from jihadists overseas. In truth, it is overwhelmingly homegrown, the result, in large part, of an ongoing campaign of repression by Russia's security services, dominated by the all-powerful FSB.
During the Soviet period, the Ingush and Chechens (brother nations known collectively as the Vainakh) shared a republic here at the edge of the Eurasian steppe, where hamlets are scattered through the forest-cloaked foothills of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the two nations went their separate ways, and Ingushetia stayed mostly out of the two wars in the 1990s fought between separatists in Chechnya and the Russian army.
Around 2002, however, the continuing guerrilla war in Chechnya began to spill into Ingushetia. In 2004, Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev led an attack on police stations and other buildings in Nazran that left 98 people dead, including many civilians.
In response, Russian security forces began extending their ruthless zachistki ("cleansing" sweeps) onto Ingush soil. The sweeps gave way to targeted assassinations and kidnappings of suspected guerrillas by squads of mask-wearing commandos. Russian law demands that prosecutors are informed of any detention within 12 hours and that a suspect is allowed to meet a lawyer before questioning -- but the siloviki, or security chiefs, were breaking these laws on a regular basis.
In 2004, security forces whisked away at least 24 men who were never heard from again. Such flagrant abuses quickly swelled the ranks of the insurgency in this tight-knit, patriarchal society where poor treatment of a relative is not easily forgiven. By 2007, the militants were launching almost daily attacks in Ingushetia, strafing police cars and firing on security posts in Nazran and other settlements.
In a republic with the highest unemployment rate in Russia (now 53 percent) -- its largest town, Nazran, little more than a sprawling village -- this constant, open warfare became a self-feeding inferno. Bespredel, most Ingush called it the last time I was here, in the summer of 2008: a Russian word that translates roughly as "beyond all limits" or "extreme violence."
After a policeman shot a prominent opposition leader in the head at point-blank range in Ingushetia's airport later that year, the Kremlin finally realized it had to act to stop the rot. It appointed a new president to the region, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, a decorated and decisive former army general who looked liked he had the nerve to straighten things out.
There was a major setback in his first year -- a suicide bomber ramming a Toyota Camry packed with explosives into his car on his way to work -- but Yevkurov recovered and in November 2009 made a crucial decision. At a meeting with the republic's siloviki in his fortified compound, he warned them to rein in their excesses, which, he said, were only spurring the militants.
"To be fair to the president, there was a lull in fatal abductions and extrajudicial killings for about a year from that moment," Timur Akiyev, director of the Nazran office of Russia's human rights group Memorial, told me last week. "Then the siloviki couldn't hold on any longer and they went back to their old methods."
Yevkurov's peace ended abruptly. Until the autumn of 2010, things had looked promising. Out of 14 cases of abductions reported to Memorial in the first 10 months of the year, all the victims were eventually released or charged with crimes. (By contrast, in 2009, four people were later found dead or reported killed and five disappeared out of 13 abductions.)
Then on Nov. 22 of last year, Dibikhan Pugoyeva, from Pliyevo village in central Ingushetia, tried calling her 17-year-old son Magomed Gorchkhanov, who was visiting friends in Nazran. Unable to reach his cell phone, she called the wife of an acquaintance who was meant to be driving her son and one of his friends home -- and heard that the car had been shot at and set on fire by FSB agents. The acquaintance was dead, and the two passengers were missing.
In a panic, Pugoyeva and her relatives began making calls to the prosecutor's office and the police. No one had any information. At the morgue in Nazran, a friendly policeman on guard told her that only the driver's body was inside. Two boys had leapt out of the car and been taken into FSB custody, he said. The FSB denied this.