On October 25, 2009 Maksharip Aushev, an Ingush businessman and civil opposition leader, was murdered by unknown gunmen who sprayed his car with more than 60 bullets.
Shortly before his death, filmmakers Dom Rotheroe and Antony Butts spoke with him for their film on the conflict in the Russian republic of Ingushetia.
Recently, the Russian republic of Ingushetia has become the most dangerous place in the Russian federation. Endemic corruption combined with a battle between Islamic extremists and unaccountable Moscow-backed security forces has plunged the area into violence.
The conflict has left many Ingushetians in despair; their human rights suppressed and their faith in the authorities in tatters. It is a cycle of bloody atrocity and counter-atrocity that seems to have no end.
While the Ingush stayed out of the Chechens’ recent wars for independence from Russia, this did not prevent the violence from finally spilling over.
In June 2004, rebels attacked Ingushetia’s main city of Nazran and killed scores of security officials.
With Russia by then pretty much in control of Chechnya, Chechen rebels wanted to spread the war into neighbouring Muslim republics. And in Ingushetia discontent had been growing ever since Vladimir Putin, the then Russian president, installed the unpopular Murat Zyazikov as president there in 2002.
|Maksharip Aushev led mass protests against abuses by the government’s security forces|
Trapped in the middle of the decade-long dirty war are 500,000 Ingush.
Maksharip Aushev, a businessman and civil opposition leader, told us that he carries a gun “because it’s dangerous out there”.
“At any moment they can turn up in camouflage and kidnap you – and then you’ll just be disappeared.
“Although the gun will not protect you at least you’ll manage to do something so they don’t torture you, don’t take you away – so you don’t just go missing like most people usually do here,” he said.
Things changed for businessman Maksharip three years ago when his nephew, who had refused to become an informant, and son were snatched off a train by security forces. They were taken to Chechnya and tortured.
“As soon as my son and nephew were abducted, I stepped out,” he explained, saying that he never wanted to be involved in politics but felt forced into it.
Maksharip blamed the Russian security forces (FSB) and rallied public protests, which led to the release of his son and nephew.
In the process he also kicked off widespread civil opposition to the regime and became one of the most outspoken leaders of the opposition to Zyazikov, a former KGB officer and an ally of Putin.
According to Magomed Mutsolgov, the co-founder of the local human rights group Mashr, it was after Zyazikov became president that anyone even vaguely suspected of opposing the regime began getting visits from the security forces.
Mutsolgov co-founded Mashr when his younger brother disappeared four years ago.
“Altogether we have had over 500 cases of kidnapping. Some of those people were found dead,” he says.
‘Nothing left to lose’
The violence has been increasing exponentially. Mashr estimates that 212 people were killed in 2008. By August 2009 that number had already been reached.
Yet violence by the security forces is only one side of Ingushetia’s mayhem. In the last seven years, Islamic militants have killed over 200 policemen, soldiers and government officials.
|A truck packed with explosives rammed through the gates of a police compound [AFP]|
The most devastating attack happened in August 2009 when a suicide bomber drove a truck into Nazran’s main police station, killing 24 people and injuring more than 160.
In recent years religious extremists among the rebels have turned the war for Chechen independence into a jihad for a Sharia-based emirate covering all of Russia’s Caucasian Muslim republics.
They have also started targeting civilians whom they deem un-Islamic.
Recently, two sisters, aged 52 and 60, were shot to death in a roadside kiosk, supposedly for selling alcohol.
“They are psychotic. Putting seven, eight bullets into women. What Sharia law are they talking about?” the victim’s sister asks.
“We have nothing more to be afraid of. We have gone through all this and are ready for anything. We have lost our parents, husbands. What else can we be afraid of? We have nothing left to lose.”
Yet even this family lay the final blame less on the militants than on the authorities and the lawlessness and corruption they believe Zyazikov fostered.
Ingushetia is not only Russia’s most violent republic. It is also its poorest.
“Zyazikov declared that over 70 factories had been built in the republic, that the unemployment problem had been solved, etc etc. We risked our lives trying to prove to the Russian government that there were no factories, that the huge amounts of money allocated to us were simply being fiddled away by Zyazikov and his people,” Maksharip said.
|Yunus-bek Yevkurov, right, replaced Murat Zyazikov, left, as Ingush president [AFP]|
By October 2008, opposition to Zyazikov had grown to such a pitch and the violence and corruption had become so brazen that Moscow finally replaced him with the popular ex-general, Yunus-bek Yevkurov.
The new leader set out to tackle the corruption and violence and brought advisors from the civil opposition into his administration.
He also sacked some corrupt officials, tried to initiate talks with the rebels and gained the public’s trust.
But then, on June 22, 2009, his presidential convoy was rammed by a suicide bomber.
Yevkurov ended up in a critical condition in hospital.
In his absence, and with the Kremlin demanding even better results against the rebels, allegations of extra-judicial executions by the security forces began flooding in.
Many believe it is Russia’s FSB, the former KGB, that is orchestrating the cycle of violence in Ingushetia.
Their agents have even been caught firing on Ingush policemen, raising suspicions that Moscow is deliberately keeping the fractious north Caucasus destablised in order to justify its controlling military presence.
Others believe the motive is also the money that those in power can make from conflict.
“As the Russian saying goes, ‘It is good fishing in troubled waters.’ These kind of civil wars are started to make it easier to steal money,” Maksharip said.
Suspicion of the FSB here is reminiscent of Soviet times. Several human rights campaigners have been killed in the north Caucasus in the last few years.
|About 150 people have been missing in Ingushetia for several years|
Aslambek Paev, a human rights campaigner, told us: “Everything is monitored. You have to be very careful and observant when you work. Probably I’m the next one.
“What difference does it make for us? We know we’re dead anyway, that sooner or later they’ll kill us.”
Yevkurov recovered from the attack on him and returned to office.
He has since sacked his entire cabinet for making problems worse in his absence.
But it is yet to be seen how far his promised reforms will go – or indeed how effective they can be in a land which both the militants and elements of Russia’s power structures seem determined to keep on the boil.
One month before his death, the security forces had stopped Maksharip’s car and attempted to take him into custody after he left a government meeting.
He escaped only because a crowd of motorists, including an aide to the governor, surrounded him.
“If I had been a half-metre closer, they would have tied me up and I would have disappeared without a trace,” he told Caucasian Knot, a website that covers the region.
Yevkurov has reached out to human rights activists and the opposition, offering them a degree of protection, but Aushev’s killing suggests that he, and by extension the Kremlin, may be losing control over the overlapping law enforcement agencies fighting a growing Islamist insurgency in the region.
Though deep in mourning, Maksharip Aushev’s family agreed to our film being broadcast. His assassination highlights the continuing perils faced by anyone who seeks to defend basic freedoms in Ingushetia, raising fears of further violence in the region.
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