Violence is spiking in Russia's southern republic of Ingushetia, as almost daily attacks against police, officials, and ethnically non-Ingush residents have some experts fearful that the tiny region could quickly destabilize.
Through two post-Soviet wars between Russian forces and separatists in neighboring Chechnya, Ingushetia has remained loyal to Moscow. But now, assaults against federal forces in the republic are on the rise.
A month ago Moscow tripled its security forces in Ingushetia in response to a wave of attacks by insurgents that hit the motorcade of President Murat Zyazikov, a local headquarters of Russia's FSB security service, and a column of Russian troops. Mr. Zyazikov, a former FSB general, escaped unharmed, but a top aide and several soldiers were killed. In response, federal forces have launched a security crackdown that some experts warn could precipitate mass rebellion.
"What makes this situation so dangerous is that the federal forces ... are killing randomly and calling the victims terrorists," says Yulia Latynina, one of the few investigative journalists still reporting on the northern Caucasus. "An uprising is drawing near."
The Moscow-based international human rights group Memorial, nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, says at least 400 people disappeared without a trace in Ingushetia between 2002 and 2006, and the pace of repression has since accelerated. "How can we talk about human rights if security forces can burst into private houses at night and seize peaceful people, and can stop a person at night on a street to beat or even to kill without ever presenting any identification document or without presenting any charges?" says Memorial activist Usam Baisayev, reached by phone in Nazran, Ingushetia.
One eyewitness account in an August report by Memorial detailed such treatment after the FSB office was attacked. Evloev Yakhya, a resident of Ali-Yurt, said men in camouflage broke into his house at dawn, dragged his wife from the bathroom at gunpoint, and forced him to the floor, kicking him. "They shouted, 'You killed our guys ... shooting came from your village ... you will pay for it," he recounted. "They did not even look into my passport. They threw it on the ground."
When asked about human rights abuses in Ingushetia, Alexei Volkov, a deputy in the State Duma and a member of the Security Committee, told the Monitor, "I know nothing about that.... Nobody has complained to the Duma."
Anonymous gunmen have carried out at least four attacks against non-Ingush families and shepherds in the past two months, which Russian media blame on Arab jihadists trying to trigger an even tougher security response from Moscow. The Moscow daily Vremya Novostei, quoting intelligence sources, reported this week that Al Qaeda emissaries are active in Ingushetia, training insurgents and paying up to $5,000 per attack. Other experts say it's likely that international jihadists are exploiting the situation, but that they are not driving it.
"Our special services like to make declarations about ties between the organizers of some of these actions and global terrorism," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of the online journal Agentura.ru, which monitors the secret services. "But the real roots of the problems in Ingushetia are local."
Russian authorities blame the republic's destabilization on "outside forces," including an armed incursion led by Chechen rebel warlord Doku Umarov. "I believe these provocative actions constitute an attempt by certain forces in Russia and abroad to turn Ingushetia into a scene for reaching some of their narrow objectives," Ingush president Zyazikov told the independent Interfax agency last week. "Someone is very unhappy that Ingushetia is on the road to development."
But others blame Moscow for replacing Ingushetia's popular leader, Ruslan Aushev, with Zyazikov in dubious 2002 elections. "Zyazikov, compared to Ingushetia's previous leader, is rooted in Moscow, not Ingushetia," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Yerevan, Armenia. "He has no local authority."
Chechnya appears to have been pacified under Kremlin-appointed president Ramzan Kadyrov, whom experts say has imposed a harsh but predictable order. Last week Mr. Kadyrov offered to help Ingushetia restore peace.
"Kadyrov is running Chechnya better than the federal forces are running Ingushetia," says Ms. Latynina. "At least he kills with purpose, not randomly." She adds that Moscow, increasingly fearful of Kadyrov's growing power in Chechnya, is unlikely to give him a free hand to intervene in Ingushetia.
But the crisis in Ingushetia is growing fast, and the Kremlin's dilemma along with it.
"The difference between Chechnya and Ingushetia is that Chechnya wanted to separate from Russian while Ingushetia was an absolutely pro-Russian republic," says Mr. Baisayev. "But [today] the very same people who were loyal to Russia under Aushev' s rule are now ready to take to arms and struggle against Russia.