Magas, the capital of the southern Russian region of Ingushetia, has been at the center of fresh controversy in the volatile North Caucasus region of late.
For nearly a week, people have been gathering in the city center to voice their anger over a land-swap deal signed by Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and his Chechen counterpart Ramzan Kadyrov on September 26.
Many Ingushetians object, considering it a bad idea to cede prime real estate for remote mountainous terrain. Protesters are demanding that Yevkurov step down, blaming him for inking the deal and failing to seek public input first.
There is no sign of the protests abating. On October 10, crowds gathered for the seventh straight day, joining demonstrators who two days earlier had moved their tents and benches from the central square to a site in front of the state radio and television company. They have permission from the city authorities to continue their sit-in there until October 15.
A man in Magas prepares a meal for protesters.
The protesters have organized hot food delivery at their camp and have been giving speeches nearby close to the central Idris Zyazikov Avenue.
RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reports that women, not always active in public life in the Muslim world, are turning out in large numbers as well.
What's The Deal?
The agreement aims to finally settle a border dispute that has been brewing since the two Muslim majority republics were carved out of the former joint Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1992, a year after the Soviet Union collapsed.
The current territory-exchange agreement is part of a larger deal to demarcate the border between the two republics.
There have been attempts in the past to clear up the border mess. In 1993, the then-leaders of the two republics, Ruslan Aushev (of Ingushetia) and Dzhokhar Dudaev (Chechnya) signed an accord to demarcate the border, but tensions persisted. Another deal was reached in the early 2000s but failed to hold.
The latest deal was approved by the Ingush parliament on October 4, despite claims by several lawmakers that the vote was falsified.
Besides the protesters, the region's Constitutional Court ruled that the land-swap agreement was unconstitutional.
Why Is It Controversial?
For the Ingush, any deal to cede lands is a 'painful issue,' explains Aleksandre Kvakhadze, an expert on the region at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies.
Ingushetia lost control of the disputed Prigorodny district to North Ossetia in 1992 following a conflict that left some 600 dead, predominantly Ingush.
'Since this conflict, any suggestions of a change to the borders is a very sensitive and painful issue for the Ingush,' says Kvakhadze.
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Kvakhadze says Chechnya appears to be getting more choice ground in the agreed deal, including a contested area of Ingushetia's Sunzhensky district.
However, few if any firm details on what in fact is part of the swap have been publicized.
The Caucasian Knot news website suggests that the land swap is more of a land grab by Chechnya. In an October 9 report, the website said Chechnya was getting more than 26 times more territory than Ingushetia.
Citing an unnamed cartography expert, Caucasian Knot said Chechnya would acquire 26,800 hectares of Ingush territory -- all uninhabited -- while Ingushetia would get about 1,000 hectares of land.
Why Did Ingush Leaders Agree?
In August, construction workers guarded by Chechen security forces built a stretch of road in Ingushetia's Sunzhensky district, according to Support for Ingushetia, which was cited by Caucasian Knot on August 30.
In the process, according to the NGO, a rare type of tree was cut down and valuable topsoil destroyed in a nature reserve.
It also said there was an attempt to establish a Chechen border post in the settlement of Arshty, nearly two kilometers inside Ingushetia.
Arshty has apparently been in Kadyrov's crosshairs for a while now.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)
In 2013, some 300 Chechen Interior Ministry special forces informally known as Kadyrovtsy entered the Ingush village without permission from Ingush authorities, sparking clashes with police forces there.
The latest Chechen actions may have stirred Ingush fears, suggests Kvakhadze, convincing leaders there to settle for the disadvantageous land deal, hoping it might be the best way to avoid a further escalation and even possible bloodshed.
'The Ingush believed that Kadyrov would violently take over these territories because this agreement was preceded by incidents when Kadyrov's armed groups -- so-called Kadyrovtsy -- were entering Ingushetia, including Arshty,' Kvakhadze told RFE/RL.
Ingush women are also turning out in large numbers to protest.
Ingush officials appeared to take steps to avoid escalating the situation, and in mid-September Yevkurov said that the situation on the border was 'under control.'
Will The Land Deal Sate Kadyrov?
According to Kvakhadze, Kadyrov is eager to expand his influence and possibly Chechnya's territorial footprint in the region, with a sliver of land in neighboring Daghestan a possible future target.
'Ramzan Kadyrov, if we read his old statements, he was always concerned about the destiny of the Novolaksky district, which used to be part of Chechnya before the deportation of Chechens [by Soviet leader Josef Stalin during World War II] but after that it was unified with Daghestan and now it's administered by Daghestan. Kadyrov and his officials many times have expressed claims to Daghestan over this district.'
Ingush officials were eager to see Moscow mediate the dispute, with Kadyrov and Yevkurov agreeing in 2012 to negotiate their border issues at the federal level.
The Kremlin, however, has been conspicuous in its absence from the dispute.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said recently that 'the Kremlin is closely following the situation,' but added that it's up to the two regions to reach an agreement on the issue.
Kadyrov's stature in Russia as a whole may be influencing the Kremlin's calculus, according to Kvakhadze.
'We know that Kadyrov is not only the leader of one North Caucasus republic. His influence goes beyond the borders of Chechnya. He has an impact in other regions of Russia, especially through Chechen organized crime groups, or ethnic Chechens who are serving in Russian law enforcement structures and his business interests can be seen in Moscow and other big cities of Russia,' explains Kvakhadze.
'So, Kadyrov became a leader at the federal level, not just the republic level. So, he has backing in the Kremlin, first of all.'
Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL.
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