The standoff is increasingly being perceived as a proxy conflict pitting Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, his protege, Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and Russian Military Intelligence (in which Yevkurov made his career) on the one hand, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, and the Federal Security Service (FSB) on the other. But what may have been a further attempt last week to trigger a new exchange of barbs between Yevkurov and Kadyrov failed to elicit the desired reaction.
Since Kadyrov's appointment in March 2006 as Chechen prime minister, his trusted henchman, parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, has periodically argued either that Chechnya and Ingushetia should again be combined into a single federation subject, or that the border between the two republics should be formally demarcated in such a way as to give back to Chechnya parts of the Sunzha and Malgobek Raions of present-day Ingushetia that were Chechen territory prior to the creation in January 1934 of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR. Ingush leaders have consistently rejected both scenarios.
Kadyrov's claim in June 2009 following the failed assassination attempt against Yevkurov that President Medvedev had tasked him with the overall coordination of the counterterror operation launched along the border between the two republics only served to substantiate Ingush fears of a power bid by Kadyrov.
Tensions and mutual criticism between senior figures in both leaderships reached a new peak in late November after Yevkurov incautiously commented in a November 20 interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" that the influx of Chechen displaced persons into Ingushetia following the Russian military onslaught on Chechnya that began in December 1994 precipitated a steep rise in crime. Abdurakhmanov categorically rejected that statement as "not just slander, but an insult to the honor of the entire Chechen people." Abdurakhmanov responded that in fact the displaced persons simply moved to Sunzha and Malgobek, "which are part of the Chechen Republic." He added that the division of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR was undertaken "unilaterally," without consulting the population, and he affirmed that "none of the borders imposed during the Stalin, the Khrushchev or the Tsarist era interest us."
Yevkurov did not formally respond to Abdurakhmanov's statement, but Abdurakhmanov's Ingushetian colleague Makhmud Sakalov issued a statement defending then Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev's efforts to cope with the influx of fleeing Chechens. Echoing Soviet-era rhetoric, Sakalov went on to affirm that "the eternal brotherly relations" between the Chechen and Ingush peoples will prevail over "inappropriate" mutual accusations.
Kadyrov for his part weighed in with accusations that Ingushetian police and security personnel are not providing adequate support for their Chechen colleagues engaged in the ongoing counter-terror operation along the border between the two republics.
Against that background of intense mutual mistrust and hostility, Interfax on January 12 circulated a report implying that Yevkurov visited the Chechen villages of Goragorsk and Aki-Yurt the previous day and issued instructions to Deputy Prime Minister Bamatgirey Sultygov to oversee the construction of housing on Chechen territory.
According to Yevkurov's official website, however, Yevkurov traveled on January 11 to a district of Ingushetia that borders on Chechnya and inspected the site for construction of housing "not far from the border with Chechnya" for Chechens who fled to Ingushetia during the fighting of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 and have no desire to return to Chechnya.
On January 13, the official Chechen news agency Grozny-Inform reproduced the Ingushetia.ru report of January 11, appending a brief statement noting that it had received numerous questions from other media outlets whether Yevkurov met with Kadyrov during his purported visit to Chechnya. Grozny-Inform said that "according to the information available to us," the two republic heads have not met so far this year. It also quoted Goragorsk municipal head Adam Tutayev as saying outright that no senior Ingushetian official had visited Goragorsk.
It remains unclear whether the Interfax report, which was datelined Magas not Grozny, was inadvertently sloppy writing; a deliberate attempt to provoke an over-reaction from Grozny; or intended to create an opportunity for the Chechen authorities to demonstrate forbearance by not rising to the bait.
Meanwhile, in a lengthy interview on January 12, Kadyrov accused Yevkurov of engineering his exclusion from the commission established to resolve the long-standing dispute between Ingushetia and neighboring North Ossetia over Prigorodny Raion. Kadyrov added that "problems remain" with regard of Sunzha and Malgobek, and the solution to those problems "is clearly visible"
Such veiled threats would be of little significance but for the underlying perception that Medvedev and Putin are backing Yevkurov and Kadyrov, respectively. What is more, Kadyrov increasingly comes across as the more experienced and effective statesman of the two. Granted, it is questionable whether Yevkurov could have done more in terms of solving purely economic problems (failure to do so was the rationale he gave for firing his young and capable Prime Minister Rashid Gaysanov in September). But he has also failed either to make much headway against entrenched corruption, or to persuade Medvedev to rein in the police and security forces deployed to Ingushetia from elsewhere in the Russian Federation, who continue their indiscriminate killing.
The most prominent recent victim was respected public figure Maksharip Aushev, who initially threw his support behind Yevkurov, but later expressed his disappointment that Yevkurov had failed to deliver on his promises, and that the population was fast losing all hope that he could improve the situation.