The softer hand

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 12, 2009

MAGAS, RUSSIA -- When the Kremlin appointed him president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov promised a new approach to fighting the Islamist insurgency that has made this splinter of land the most volatile of Russia's Muslim republics.

His predecessor tried to crush the rebels with a campaign of torture, abductions and killings. But Yevkurov pledged to rein in the government's security forces, saying their abuses were helping the rebels attract recruits. He reached out to human rights groups and his pro-democracy critics. And he offered a limited amnesty to the militants.

Now, a year after taking office, Yevkurov and his experiment in moderation are at a crossroads. Instead of retreating, the insurgents have stepped up their attacks, while the security services continue to kidnap and kill with impunity, activists say. With the assassination of a leading opposition figure last month, public anger is climbing toward a boiling point.

There's a lot riding on Yevkurov, who represents an alternative to Moscow's traditional emphasis on heavy-handed security tactics in the troubled North Caucasus. If he falters, the government is likely to clamp down again, strengthening local autocrats such as Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin's strongman in neighboring Chechnya, and risking a full-scale war. But if he succeeds, Russia's leaders might see a way to end the cycle of violence that has made the region a human rights disaster zone and an obstacle to serious reform of the nation's security services.

Yevkurov himself acknowledges that he has yet to make much of a difference. "There is nothing special to boast of," he said at a news conference Tuesday devoted to his first year in office. "Everybody hoped that Yevkurov would come and it would all be settled. But, as we can see, this has not happened."

A career soldier, war hero and native son of Ingushetia, Yevkurov, 46, is one of the few regional governors in Russia appointed by President Dmitry Medvedev, who has struggled to set himself apart from his powerful patron and predecessor, Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister.

Hopes soared when Yevkurov took office, in part because his predecessor, Murat Zyazikov, a former KGB official with ties to Putin, was so unpopular. Yevkurov promised to attack rampant corruption, resettle refugees from the region's wars and investigate crimes by the security forces.

But in June, a suicide bomber struck Yevkurov's motorcade, putting him in a coma. Two months later, as he prepared to leave the hospital, another suicide attack leveled a police station, killing at least 24 people and injuring 200 others. The fate of his effort to defeat the insurgency by wooing the public suddenly seemed uncertain.

In an interview at his heavily guarded presidential palace, Yevkurov covered burns on his hands as he vowed to stay the course. "I don't have any anger or wish for revenge," he said softly. "On the contrary, I want to continue a dialogue with the public, including the criminals, so that they realize what they are doing and take the right track."

He said he will continue "doing things completely differently" from his predecessor, who employed harsh security measures and was fired by Medvedev after a public outcry over the killing of a prominent opposition figure.

After the slaying of another opposition leader, Maksharip Aushev, last month, though, critics are asking whether Yevkurov has the clout to stand up to the security structures, which even he has acknowledged may have been involved.

"The situation isn't getting any better. In fact, it's getting worse," said Magomed Mutsolgov, director of the human rights group Mashr, which assists people whose relatives have been kidnapped or killed by the authorities. He said killings and abductions have continued, but he praised Yevkurov for meeting regularly with activists and allowing them to publish newspapers critical of the government.

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