Chechen land grab in Russia further decreased the territory of Ingushetia
Locals of the small North Caucasus Republic of Ingushetia, Russia, took to the streets over an uneven land treaty with Chechnya in October.
Unlike protests elsewhere in Russia, the demonstrations were peaceful and supported by elite, and even the local police. Thousands of protesters demanded the resignation of longtime leader of the Republic of Ingushetia Yunus-bek Yevkurov in Magas, Ingushetia’s capital.
The peaceful protests started on October 4 in Magas, lasted two weeks, and paused on when the “official” protest permit expired. On October 18, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov threatened that he would kill any Ingush protesting on Chechen soil. The next day an unidentified military convoy was recorded heading to the Ingush capital.
The Northern Caucasus region is infamous for bloody military conflicts throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, including two Chechen wars that helped Putin rise to power. At the time of this report, no casualties were incurred, but the harsh rhetoric of Kadyrov suggests an escalation of the situation is possible.
New Border Agreement
The leaders of Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov and Republic of Ingushetia Yunus-bek Yevkurov signed a new border agreement in late September 2018. The agreement was ratified by their respective parliaments and ceded large parts of Ingushetia, the smallest Republic in Russia, to its eastern neighbor Chechnya.
The way the deal was made, without public debate or much transparency, caused outrage in Ingushetia. The local Ingush people, fearing Chechnya could wrest control over much of their homeland, took to the streets on October 4. The protestors’ main demands were for the agreement to be reversed and Yevkurov to be held accountable for it.
The topic of territory is highly sensitive for the Ingush people, as many feel deprived of the Prigorodny district, which was part of the deal. Prigorodny belonged to Ingushetia prior to their deportation by Stalin in 1944 and currently is a part of North Ossetian Republic. In 1992, a short conflict broke out between Ingush and North Ossetians over the Prigorodny district, and resulted in most of North Ossetia’s Ingush population — estimated in between 30,000 and 60,000 — driven back to Ingushetia.
In 2013, another incident was reported when 300 special forces from the Chechen Interior Ministry entered a village in Ingushetia. This unannounced act of aggression resulted in confrontation with the Ingush police forces. The long story of territorial conflicts might have influenced the Ingush leaders to settle for an unfair land deal.
The first protestors appeared on October 1, when locals held mass motor rallies in protest against the change of the border. The next day, law enforcement searched the house of Ingush activist Ruslan Mutsologov, who is the leader of the Russian opposition party “Yabloko” youth branch in Ingushetia, as well as a number of other activists’ houses. On October 3, Ingush Members of Parliament called on residents to abandon protests, and some protestors reportedly received warning letters from the Prosecutor’s Office.
On October 4, thousands of protesters jammed the streets of Magas in peaceful protest to demand the land exchange be revoked. On the same day, a column of Russian OMON (federal special purpose police forces) drove into the city, blocked the streets, and set up a perimeter around the crowd.
А вот улица с другой стороны квартала, где находится парламент pic.twitter.com/Kc4BKMe21m
— Liza Fokht (@lizafoht) October 4, 2018
On the same day, OMON were recorded firing automatic rifles into the air in an attempt to break up demonstration near the local parliament in Magas.
Law enforcement firing automatic rifles into the air in an attempt to break up demonstration near local parliament in Magas, Ingushetia (Russia) over transfer of territory to Chechnya (also in Russia). https://t.co/z1M4JN2ofo
— Andrew Roth (@Andrew__Roth) October 4, 2018
Geolocation confirmed the incident took place next to the People’s Assembly of the Republic of Ingushetia. The protest were on Prospekt I. Zyazikova street, while OMON troops blocked the street towards the Bashnya Soglasiya monument.
The same video was posted by Russian media outlet RBC, which suggested that the footage was genuine. Russian media outlet Oreanda.ru reported one of the protesters threw a bottle, which triggered the OMON forces to shoot warning shots, seen in the video. No open source evidence was found to confirm those details.
On October 5, videos and photos emerged of the local police joining the crowds in prayer to show support for the cause.
On October 6, a researcher with Amnesty International was “abducted, beaten, and subjected to terrifying mock executions.” He was later released. The researcher, Oleg Kozlovsky, was reportedly kidnapped while monitoring the protests. Kozlovsky tweeted on October 15 that his kidnappers brought him to a remote place where he was stripped naked and punched. The kidnappers reportedly broke his rib, took photos of him, and threatened to rape him.
The Size of the Crowd
Pro-Kremlin news media reported that only 2,000 people gathered to the “unsanctioned demonstration.” In order to offer an estimation for the actual size of the crowd, @DFRLab used an open source crowd-measuring tool from the website mapchecking.com.
Two aerial photos from October 5 and October 13 were used to estimate the size of the protesting crowds.
вот вам фотография с автобуса, на которой можно разглядеть «пару десятков» протестующих pic.twitter.com/rX7VhMatxZ
— Liza Fokht (@lizafoht) October 5, 2018
On October 5, the crowd was protesting on Prospekt I. Zyazikova street, close to the building of the People’s Assembly. Two photos taken from slightly different angles allowed to estimate the approximate size of the crowd.
The online crowd-measuring tool then allowed for an estimate of the approximate number of people at the protest. This tool requires the area of the protest and the density of the crowd in order to estimate a headcount. At an approximation of 1.5 person per square meter, 10,466 people were estimated at the protest. This was a significantly higher number than local media estimates, which would have left about three square meters per person for this area.
The same process of geolocation was used for the photo taken October 13. The geolocation of the picture suggested that the crowd gathered on the same street, but clustered closer to the TV channel Ntrk “Ingushetiya” building.
The online crowd-measuring measuring suggested that roughly 11,784 people were at the protest on October 13 at the same estimated density.
Both measurements must be considered approximate, as the crowd density was difficult to measure and it was clear where the crowd ended. Nonetheless, this measurement tool demonstrated that the crowd was likely as much as five times larger than what RT suggested.
Possible Further Escalation
On October 7, Ingushetia’s first President Ruslan Aushev joined the protesters expressing his support for the cause. His appearance, reportedly, further increased the numbers in the crowd.
On October 17, activists announced that protests in the capital, Magas, were put on hold as the official permit approved by the authorities has expired. On the same day, Akhmet Barakhoyev, who is one of the main organizers of these protests, announced that another rally will be held from October 31 to November 2. The upcoming three-day rally was approved by the authorities.
These protests were not taken kindly by the neighboring Chechens. On October 18, a video of Kadyrov promising to kill every Ingush that will protest on Chechen. The video where Kadyrov addressed the Chechen Parliament was published on the Romb News Twitter account. Kadyrov’s rhetoric harshened since October 4, when he threatened the protesters in Ingushetia and said that the demonstrators “will be held accountable.”
Кадыров наконец отреагировал на протесты в Ингушетии: раз вы настоящие мужчины, попробуйте провести митинг на моей территории. pic.twitter.com/ifjRKe3BXN
— ROMB (@romb_news) October 18, 2018
On October 19, a large military convoy was recorded moving towards Magas. A civilian video published on Twitter argued that a large convoy of troops were heading to the capital and the comments beneath the video argued that these troops were sent to maintain order in the capital.
— Korolev Aleksandr (@ArbagoKorolev) October 19, 2018
Geolocation of the video confirmed that the convoy was moving in the direction of Magas. The video was taken from a building overseeing a highway, only a few kilometers away from the Ingush capital.
The video lacked details on what kind of troops were heading toward Magas. Nonetheless, the trucks recorded on the video resembled Russian Ural military trucks used by the OMON troops. Similar looking trucks were photographed on October 4 in Magas.
On the night of October 19, Ramzan Kadyrov personally visited an Ingush village elder who criticized his rhetoric srriving in a 50 vehicle convoy. Kadyrov crossed the border to Ingushetia without permission to meet Mukhazhir Nalgiev in the village of Surkhakhi.
The two week long protests in Ingushetia were put on hold on October 17. The local population remained adamant about their demands to reverse the land swapping deal, but no aggressive measures were yet reported.
The situation appears to have stabilized after the protests stopped, but Kadyrov’s harsh rhetoric suggests that the deal will most likely not be reversed. A military convoy sent to Magas a few days after the protests were halted also signify that the order will be maintained by force rather than discussion. Furthermore, on October 19, Kadyrov himself with a 50 vehicle convoy crossed the border and visited a Ingush elder who criticized his rhetoric.
The further implications of these protests remain unknown, but the local population fears that more land grabs, Chechen provocation or even bloodshed is possible in the future. If history serves as an example, the protest could even turn into a new military conflict in the North Caucasus.
@DFRLab will continue to monitor and report on the situation in Ingushetia.
Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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