Battle Over Ingushetia's Future Escalates

Ingushetia's leadership contest will be between a supporter of regional autonomy and a Moscow-backed general.

Battle Over Ingushetia's Future Escalates

Ingushetia's leadership contest will be between a supporter of regional autonomy and a Moscow-backed general.

Alikhan Amirkhanov, a deputy from the Russia's State Duma, was the surprise front-runner after the first round of voting in presidential elections in the Russian republic of Ingushetia on April 7, after the favourite was forcibly removed from the ballot.

Amirkhanov was awarded 33 per cent of the vote, while Murat Zyazikov, a general from the intelligence service, the FSB, who enjoyed broad support in Moscow, won 19 per cent. They will meet in a run-off vote on April 28.

But the elections have been notable so far more for who was not standing than for who was. The ballot did not include Ingushetia's first president, former army general and Afghan veteran Ruslan Aushev. He remains popular in the small North Caucasian republic, but stepped down early from his post at the beginning of the year. Nor did it include another popular figure, interior minister Khamzat Gutseriev, who was removed from the contest two days before the vote.

The Ingush are closely related to their ethnic kin and neighbours, the Chechens. And Aushev consistently pursued an independent line from Moscow, criticising its military action in Chechnya, keeping up contact with the republic's separatist leadership and welcoming tens of thousands of Chechen refugees into Ingushetia. However, in the last three years he came under heavy pressure from Moscow.

"[Aushev] could stay in his post only if he carried out Moscow's orders," said Musa Zurabov, former prime minister of Ingushetia. "So he left, although it's true he did leave behind his team - Amirkhanov and Gutseriev."

Gutseriev, who enjoyed the support of Aushev, was accused of breaking election rules chiefly on the grounds that he had not given up his post as interior minister in order to contest the election. His case was debated for 14 days in Ingushetia's supreme court.

According to Alexei Vasilyev, a lawyer who observed the case, at issue was a decree of President Putin, issued at the beginning of 2002, on division of powers between the centre and the regions. According to one interpretation, a local minister should step down from his post to fight an election, according to another he has the right to stay in his job. Gutseriev's case was transferred to the Russian supreme court, which found against him and removed him from the ballot.

Gutseriev's departure left the race clear for Amirkhanov, who did almost no campaigning, but was considered loyal to Aushev, and Zyazikov, who is deputy plenipotentiary of the Russian president in the Southern Federal District. The preferences of the centre became clear when one of the Russian central television channels showed Zyazikov shaking hands with Putin.

The head of Zyazikov's election campaign, Zelimkhan Yevloyev, accused Amirkhanov's supporters of buying votes, alleging that "for a vote for Amirkhanov people were paid between 500 and 1000 roubles (17 to 35 US dollars) at polling stations".

However, election observers from Russia's Central Electoral Commission said they had not noticed these activities, while supporters of Amirkhanov made counter-accusations that Zyazikov's campaigners had stuffed ballot boxes. They alleged that 33,000 unused ballots were filled out in favour of Zyazikov and in this way, the general managed to overtake another pro-Aushev candidate, the ex-president's brother, Mukharbek Aushev.

"Zyazikov was level with Mukharbek Aushev and a little behind him, when he suddenly surged ahead and came in second, which guaranteed him a place in the next round," said an Amirkhanov supporter. "In the end Aushev was 2,000 votes behind."

Complaints of a different kind came from the head of the organisation The Chechen Committee of National Salvation, Ruslan Badalov, who said that tens of thousands of refugees from Chechnya, registered in Ingushetia, were not allowed to vote.

"Chechen refugees are interested in who will become president of Ingushetia, just as much as the native Ingush population," said Badalov. "This will decide whether they remain in Ingushetia or whether they will have to return to Chechnya, where, as before, war is continuing."

Badalov said that Aushev had supported the claims of Chechens to remain in Ingushetia, but that if a new leader loyal to Moscow came to power in Ingushetia their fate might change.

According to immigration statistics, around 160,000 people fled Chechnya for Ingushetia at the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999. According to Ingushetia's electoral commission, only 14,000 refugees, registered as "internally displaced persons" and mainly Ingush by nationality, had the right to vote. But other legal experts point out that Russia's electoral law gives the right to anyone temporarily registered in another Russian region to take part in its elections.

The second round of the election promises to be a bitterly contested fight between a candidate promising to continue Ingushetia's tradition of autonomy and one who will bring it closer into line with Moscow.

"The conflict which is developing will not be anything new for Ingushetia," said former prime minister Zurabov. "Ruslan Aushev, an independent regional leader, who came to power during the Yeltsin era, frequently acted against the recommendations of Moscow and Putin who was pursuing the policies of a strong federal centre."

The fight for the final result has already started. According to local police officials, two days after the first round of voting, a group of masked men broke into Amirkhanov's campaign headquarters and smashed it up. The men said that they were from the Rostov branch of the FSB and had been sent there by the Southern Federal District, of which Zyazikov is deputy head. However, its leadership denied any involvement in the incident.

Roza Musayeva, a resident of Nazran, said that she and many of her neighbours were worried about what would happen next. "The elections have hardly passed and terrible things are already happening," she said. "On Sunday my husband went to vote in the elections, but next time he does not want to go."

Timur Aliev is a freelance journalist, based in Nazran, Ingushetia.

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