The law on local self-government in Chechnya and Ingushetia recently passed by the Russian parliament has lent a new twist to the on-again, off-again Chechen demands for the merger of those two republics.
Those demands, which have been raised inconclusively at intervals over the past several years, have now been superseded by the need to delineate formally the administrative border between the two republics in order to expedite the holding of local elections in 2009.
But the Ingush are reluctant to revert to the border that existed prior to January 1934, when the two separate regions were merged to constitute a single Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Oblast, as doing so would entail ceding territory to Chechnya.
The Chechen pressure for a merger with Ingushetia dates from mid-2002, shortly after the election of Murat Zyazikov as Ingushetian president. Zyazikov consistently rejected the proposed unification of the two republics, which Chechen officials argued would serve to stabilize the North Caucasus and "remove hotbeds of tension."
In April 2006, then-Chechen parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov went even further, proposing the creation of a North Caucasus krai that would comprise not only Chechnya and Ingushetia, but also Daghestan. Daghestan's parliament chairman, Magomedsalam Magomedov, swiftly pointed out that any such merger would have to be put to a referendum in all three republics, and that most of the population of Daghestan would certainly reject it.Political Hurdles
Rumors of a possible merger of Chechnya and Ingushetia resurfaced this fall, but Russian presidential-administration department head Oleg Govorun dismissed them as totally unfounded, according to kavkaz-uzel.ru on October 29. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov was quoted the same day as saying he is against unification. And within days of his confirmation in late October as Zyazikov's successor, Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov likewise ruled out any merger of Ingushetia with Chechnya, regnum.ru reported on November 11.
On December 17, the Chechen Republic's official website, chechnya.gov.ru, posted an appeal to the Ingush people released by the office of Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev, who is very close to Kadyrov. That appeal recalled that following the split in 1992 of the then-Checheno-Ingush ASSR, an intergovernmental commission was established to delineate the border between them, taking as the basis for discussion the border that existed prior to the creation of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Oblast in 1934.
At that time, the Sunzha Raion and part of the Malgobek Raion, both of which are currently part of Ingushetia, were part of Chechnya. A separate Sunzha Cossack Okrug existed from 1921 until 1929, when it was subsumed into the then-Chechen Autonomous Oblast.
The commission duly prepared several alternative proposals, all predicated on the pre-1934 border. But in 1993, the presidents of the two republics, Djokhar Dudayev and Ruslan Aushev, signed an agreement affirming that they saw no pressing need to formalize the border at that juncture, and that if and when such a need arose, they would do so without any interference from any third party, meaning from Moscow. The border issue was thus still unresolved when the first Chechen war began in December 1994.
'Unity And Brotherhood'
The Chechen appeal dismissed the Ingush claims to Sunzha and Malgobek as unfounded and legally unsubstantiated, and accused the Ingushetian leadership of adopting an "unconstructive position" and thus jeopardizing implementation in Chechnya of the new federal legislation.
The appeal further explained that the Chechen leadership has repeatedly proposed a merger of the two republics, "not because we do not recognize the right of the Ingush people to an independent existence, and not because we cannot live" without them, but from "a feeling of unity and brotherhood" between two ethnic groups that "share a single history, culture, language, and faith." (In fact, Chechen and Ingush are distinct languages, although so close as to be mutually comprehensible.)
But since those proposals invariably met with anger and rejection from the Ingush side, the Chechen appeal reasoned, the sole solution is to formalize the separation of the two republics. Chechen human rights organizations therefore insist on the swiftest possible resumption of talks to that end, in an atmosphere of "justice, honesty, wisdom, and tolerance."
The editors of the independent Ingush website ingushetia.org, which reposted the Chechen appeal, expressed concern on December 17 that the Chechen leadership should advance such territorial claims "at such a crucial moment for us," meaning when Yevkurov is valiantly seeking to reverse the damage inflicted on the republic's economy by years of corruption and mismanagement under Zyazikov and to reach out to and seek common ground with those Ingush political leaders who spearheaded the anti-Zyazikov opposition. The editors called on "the fraternal Chechen people" not to fall for the "provocations" of "politically short-sighted leaders" and thereby risk damaging the centuries-old friendship between the Chechen and Ingush nations.
A further complicating factor, according to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, but one that neither side has yet mentioned in the renewed dispute, is that in recent years the Ingush have been quietly settling in mountain villages in Achkhoi-Martan Raion in the extreme southwest of Chechnya that were subjected to such merciless aerial bombing during two successive wars that the inhabitants fled and have not returned. Sharip Asuev of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this analysis