BACKGROUND: In the past, it has been up to the Ingush voters to elect their presidents, of which Ruslan Aushev(1993-2001) and Murat Zyazikov (2002-2008) were legitimized this way. In later years, only those appointed by the President of Russia were allowed to run, which applied to Zyazikov as well as Yevkurov. However, in April 2008 the Kremlin ruled that Ingushetia’s president should again be elected among several nominated candidates. Consequently, the People’s Assembly concluded that the head of Ingushetia shall be elected by the Parliament.
The main argument against allowing direct presidential elections though a popular vote is that the high level of tension in the North Caucasus makes campaigning too risky. Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that the culture of the Ingushetian people makes them distinctive in a way that prevents them from holding a regular presidential election. Yevkurov, the candidate favored by Kremlin, had the same opinion, possibly due to concerns over the potential results of a popular vote.
As many observers predicted, Yevkurov won the elections by receiving 25 out of 27 votes. He was subsequently inaugurated and made a mandatory oath of affirmation. Along with tremendously multiethnic Dagestan, virtually mono-ethnic Ingushetia remains the only republic of the Russian Federation to have a president elected by parliament.
IMPLICATIONS: Yevkurov has never been in a secure position since the very beginning of his political career, and the Kremlin has been highly mistrustful of him. When he started his first term in office, violent rebel actions inside Ingushetia’s territory rose significantly, and Yevkurov survived one assassination attempt. Additionally, Yevkurov has been forced to face Ramzan Kadyrov, the ambitious leader of the neighboring Chechen Republic. Yevkurov has long been aware of the fact that the Kremlin favored Kadyrov.
However, things have changed as the Kremlin has stated that Yevkurov is the Kremlin’s favorite and will be the sovereign ruler of Ingushetia, at least for this year. Although Kadyrov is viewed as Putin’s principal ally in the region, Putin indirectly supported Yevkurov on several occasions. Some observers believe that the Kremlin aims to change its overall strategy in the region. Since Yevkurov prefers soft power over violence to tackle Islamism and rebellions, making him the new North Caucasian leader might ensure a long-term benefit for the Kremlin. Kadyrov’s ruthless approach to the insurgency no longer seems effective and the Kremlin’s support for him risks becoming counterproductive.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s potential decision to support Yevkurov over Kadyrov remains hypothetical. Earlier this year, observers anticipated that the Kremlin might get rid of Yevkurov with the help of Kadyrov. In the end however, the Kremlin decided to keep the North Caucasian representatives in their places. Observers believe that the Kremlin will back Yevkurov, at least until the Winter Olympics are launched in Sochi. Nevertheless, the Kremlin’s support for Yevkurov is restricted to the inner territory of Ingushetia. On the one hand, Putin backed Yevkurov as a presidential candidate. On the other hand, taking the whole North Caucasus region into account, the link between Kadyrov and the Kremlin is much stronger. By supporting Yevkurov, Putin has most likely signaled to Kadyrov that he should stay away from the internal affairs of Ingushetia, at least until the end of the Olympics.
The prospect of Yevkurov assuming a leadership role in the North Caucasus region is almost inconceivable. Ingushetia is the smallest North Caucasian republic, while Chechnya constitutes the most populous nation of the region. In short, unlike Yevkurov, Kadyrov controls a pivotal territory in the region. In addition, despite Kadyrov's heavy handed and violent exercise of political power, he still enjoys a significant degree of popular support. The author's own experience during several visits to the North Caucasus supports this claim. Indeed, many Ingush would prefer a Kadyrov-like ruler to a soft leader. Most people believe that exercising hard power has proven to be more effective in the short term. Yevkurov's determination to instead use soft power has, however, gradually lowered the number of victims to violence in Ingushetia.
Even though Yevkurov's strategy might be successful in tackling the issue of armed Islamic violence, he has not managed to eradicate or even diminish the level of corruption and nepotism. The public, and in particular those who are not part of Yevkurov’s clan, are aware of the fact that Yevkurov has accomplished little in this regard.
Although electing the president via the parliament was intended to prevent radicals from resorting to violence, Security Chief Ahmed Kotiev was killed on August 27. Besides being a high ranking official, Kotiev was an essential component in Yevkurov’s plan for tackling extremism and radicalism. Ingushetian “Boyeviks” (bandits in the Russian parlance) have claimed responsibility for the murder. Despite the fact that this was not the first attempt on Kotiev's life, the security chief refused to have bodyguards protecting him. Kotiev's predecessor Bashir Aushev, cousin of the former president Ruslan Aushev, was also killed in 2009. Unlike Aushev, who employed ruthless tactics against Boyeviks while also prosecuting innocent people, Kotiev promoted a policy of prevention and reintegration. Nevertheless, blood revenge might have been the motivation for Kotiev’s murder and he had worked as security chief long enough to make some enemies. However, the fact that the assassination took place before the elections is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Having been elected president, Yevkurov continues to pursue his main objectives of dealing with radical Islamists while simultaneously retaining the Kremlin’s confidence and support. In addition to the struggle for influence in his own republic, Yevkurov also has to face Kadyrov in a clash over the means for conducting counterinsurgency in the North Caucasus.
CONCLUSIONS: Yevkurov won the elections, meeting the expectations of most observers. The Kremlin gave the deputies of the People’s Assembly a clear sense of direction by backing Yevkurov before the elections took place. By voting for Yevkurov, the deputies fulfilled the only possible scenario. Yevkurov can now count on the Kremlin's backing, at least in the short term. As far as Kadyrov's interventions into Ingushetia’s internal affairs are concerned, it is likely that Yevkurov will have the Kremlin's support in this regard as well. Nevertheless, things might change drastically once the Winter Olympics in Sochi are over. Ingushetia, like other North Caucasian republics, has to bear this in mind. Yevkurov will have to stay alert to the risk that North Caucasian Islamists led by Doku Umarov could act to disrupt the Winter Olympics. If Umarov strikes, the Kremlin might retaliate in a brutal manner. From Adygea to Dagestan, all North Caucasian politicians and observers worry that such events will take place. The assassination of Kotiev is a reminder that even the highest ranking officials are vulnerable to insurgent attacks.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Tomah Šmíd is assistant professor at Masaryk University. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in 2010-2011.