By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 31, 2008
MOSCOW, Oct. 30 -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev replaced the governor of the violence-plagued province of Ingushetia on Thursday, dismissing a former KGB colonel who has been accused of orchestrating a campaign of killings and abductions against his critics.
The decision to remove Murat Zyazikov, who was seen as an ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, came amid escalating violence in the southern region neighboring Chechnya and two months after a leading opposition leader there was shot to death while in police custody.
The Kremlin press service gave no reason for the dismissal. In a statement issued after business hours, it said only that Medvedev had accepted Zyazikov's resignation and appointed a senior military official to succeed him temporarily.
In an interview with the Interfax news agency, Zyazikov said that his departure was voluntary and that he would be taking a position in Moscow.
Since his appointment in 2002, Zyazikov has been struggling to contain a low-grade Islamist insurgency in Ingushetia, perhaps the most volatile of the impoverished ethnic republics of Russia's northern Caucasus region.
Aleksey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the Kremlin appeared to have lost confidence in Zyazikov's ability to control the situation, which has been complicated by Russia's recognition of nearby South Ossetia as an independent state after the war with Georgia.
Ingush and Ossetians fought an ethnic war in the early 1990s, and relations between the two communities remain strained. "Putin and Medvedev have to worry about it getting worse," Malashenko said. "Zyazikov would have remained a negative because he had lost control of the situation. His popularity was equal to zero."
Insurgents in Ingushetia have staged bombings and other attacks against security officers and local authorities, and human rights groups have accused Zyazikov of making matters worse by responding with arbitrary arrests and violence.
Local prosecutors said this week that 52 security officers in Ingushetia had been killed in attacks this year and 150 had been wounded. During the same period, government forces killed 48 members of "illegal armed groups."
Opposition activists in Ingushetia had been lobbying the Kremlin to fire Zyazikov for months, arguing that his tactics were alienating the population and strengthening the insurgency. More than 80,000 people signed a petition this summer urging Medvedev to replace Zyazikov with the province's former governor.
Discontent peaked after the Aug. 31 slaying of Magomed Yevloyev, an Ingush businessman and opposition leader who owned a news Web site critical of Zyazikov. Police seized Yevloyev at a local airport after he shared a flight from Moscow with Zyazikov.
Magomed Khazbiyev, an Ingush activist and former colleague of Yevloyev's, praised Medvedev for dismissing the unpopular governor.
"We are glad that it has happened," he said, arguing that if officials stopped abusing their powers, the insurgency would lose support. "By firing Zyazikov, Medvedev made it clear to us that the Kremlin did not need all this violence, kidnapping and killings, and that all of it was going on only due to Zyazikov and his people."
In a meeting last month with a prominent human rights activist, however, Zyazikov blamed the violent tactics employed by government forces in Ingushetia on security officials assigned to the region from the FSB, the domestic successor agency of the KGB.