The republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia have finally agreed on a border - but it has triggered unrest, and that unrest fits neatly into Russia's strategy of chaos-as-containment in the former Soviet republics.
The political impasse between the republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia has provoked some of the most protracted public protests in recent history.
In September, the Republic of Ingushetia, Russia’s smallest autonomous region, saw thousands of demonstrators take to the streets in reaction to a territorial dispute with Chechnya.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union two efforts have been made to establish an administrative border between the republics. Both came in 1993 from the Chechen and Ingush presidents at the time. Both these efforts were nullified by the Russian invasion of Chechnya one year later.
On September 26, the heads of Chechnya and Ingushetia signed an agreement securing a border between the two Russian federal republics. Moscow backs the measure.
The border dispute has been simmering since the two Muslim majority republics were carved out of the former joint Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, the secret agreement—settled behind closed doors—has sparked anger in Ingushetia because the current territory exchange gives Chechnya around 20 times the amount of land that Ingushetia had.
An official statement on the Ingush government’s website says the border revisions “will only affect mountainous wooded areas.”
However, Chechnya appears to be getting more land in the deal including contested areas.
After the agreement was approved, it sparked anger in Ingushetia and led to unprecedented demonstrations in the Ingush capital of Magas.
The constitutional court asserted that the bill was a "violation of constitutional law and any changes to territorial integrity must be decided by a referendum."
So what is the reason behind the sudden agreement between the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov and his Ingush counterpart, Yunus-bek Yevkurov?
Chaos in the North Caucasus
The North Caucasus republics have little political or fiscal autonomy. The Kremlin considers the seven Muslim republics of the Northern Caucasus region—Adygea, Dagestan, Karacheaevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Chechnya, and Ingushetia—a dynamic challenge to its territorial integrity.
The main driver of Russian foreign policy has been the country’s perennial quest for a strong state with a charismatic ruler that can guarantee domestic order.
Regional officials in these republics are primarily appointed by the Kremlin, which diminishes their legitimacy and accountability. Assemblies that elect a leader from Kremlin-approved candidates choose the head of the republics.
With its diverse indigenous ethnicities, Putin uses unresolved post-Soviet borders to create chaos and distract people from the main problems the Kremlin is facing. The resulting atmosphere allows the Kremlin to position itself as a “security provider” and “internal peacekeeper”.
Under the leadership of current President Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya emerged as an important political machine in the Northern Caucasus.
One clear demonstration of Kadyrov’s ambitions has been his ongoing attempt to interfere in Ingushetia’s domestic politics - significantly on religious and territorial issues. Kadyrov, who is very much Putin’s man, publicly threatened protesters in Ingushetia which exacerbated tensions on October 26.
Putin’s administration is defined by instability and the ability to instigate chaos. Conflict on Russian territory is the precondition for Russian security as long as Moscow can manage that war.
The perception of instability is particularly strongly in the troubled republics of the North Caucasus where Putin launched the second Chechen War, following his presidential election, which destroyed the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
From that moment on, Putin learned how to use war and conflict to further his reputation.
In 2002, Chechen militants seized a Moscow theatre, and during the three-day calamity, Putin refused to negotiate with the hostage-takers further boosting his image as “a man of action” and increasing his approval ratings by 30 per cent.
A strategy of chaos is not new; the Kremlin has long sought to sow domestic instability among its neighbouring states to enhance its security.
Territorial dispute is a problem, ‘again’.
The territorial dispute is part of an imperial foreign policy implemented by a Kremlin interested in furthering inter-ethnic disputes. Russia is a self-proclaimed “security provider” in all internal conflicts.
Provoking conflicts in the North Caucasus is beneficial to the centre which gradually seeks to strengthen its power.
According to the Human Rights Analysis Center, the dispute between Chechnya and Ingushetia is artificially provoked and is being externally forced.
Then, it is imperative to ask what are the main troubles the Kremlin is facing that require it to distract people?
Putin and his circle's approval ratings have been declining for the last two years. Russians are increasingly concerned at the state of the country’s potentially destructive foreign policy and the state of its economy.
Putin’s election campaign left people expecting higher salaries, pensions, living standards and new solutions to Western sanctions. Instead, their retirement age has been raised.
According to a poll by the Levada Center, Putin has backtracked on pension reforms in Russia by pushing through a hike in retirement ages by signing them into law.
In September, 41 percent of Russians said that the country was heading in the wrong direction. Putin’s image has changed inside Russia in the past few months and has gradually forced him to increase his popularity through whatever means necessary.
For now, Putin may get away with pension reform and his low popularity ratings.
Even though people see the border issue between North Caucasus republics as closed, it is likely that the Kremlin will attempt another regional provocation to further its own interests once again.
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