The Russian Constitutional Court’s Review of the Chechen-Ingush Land Swap

Written by: Jared Lang

On November 27th, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation began to review the controversial land transfer deal between the Russian republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya. The deal itself is much-debated, but the fact that the federal Constitutional Court is weighing in on the issue almost overshadows the deal itself in importance. The deal and the controversy that surrounds it reveal certain elements of Russian society including the abuse of institutions by individuals, the growing vocal elements of civil society, and the government’s power.

On September 26th, the leaders of the Chechen and Ingush republics signed a deal meant to secure and officially delineate the contested borders between the two. Yunus-bek Yevkurov, the Ingush leader, declared that this deal affirms the border between the two regions that has existed “since Ingushetia’s independence” and simply added “a few small revisions at the bottom” that, according to the Ingush government’s press release, “will only affect mountainous wooded areas”. Still, conflicting reports from news and governmental sources coupled with an incursion by a force of Chechen construction and security forces 15 kilometers into the Sunzhensky District of Ingush territory, culminated in protests of the deal throughout Ingushetia. 

Two causes for opposition rest in the Ingush historical identity and in the terms of the deal itself. According to a regional expert at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, any concession on land rights currently held by Ingushetia harkens back to its 1992 conflict with South Ossetia, in which it lost the contested territory and hundreds of Ingush lives.“Any suggestions of a change to the borders,” the expert claims, “is a very sensitive and painful issue for the Ingush.” Aside from these historical scars the Ingush people still bear, the terms of the deal itself are fiercely opposed by Ingush residents for its clear promotion of Chechen interests at the expense of Ingush interests. The Caucasian Knot reported that, if the deal is enforced, Ingushetia would relinquish approximately 26 times more territory than it would receive from Chechnya. Even without the historical trauma felt regarding land concessions, a deal in which one side gives up 26 times as much as it receives from a supposed equal partner cannot be supported by those negatively affected by the deal. 

Protests raged across Ingushetia for weeks after the deal’s ratification on October 4th until, only 26 days later, the Ingush Constitutional Court finally ruled that the deal violated Ingushetia’s Constitution. The presumed unconstitutionality of the deal comes from its ceding of territory, its violating of the constitutional provision of the preservation of Ingushetia’s borders, and of its lack of consideration for the views of the territory’s residents. The Court also required a public referendum be held to determine the public opinion of the deal. This ruling was meant to be the final binding verdict. Upon appeal by the Ingush leader, however, the Russian Constitutional Court decided to hear additional arguments. This move by the Court was entirely unexpected, and indeed questionable, as the federal Constitutional Court cannot legally function as an appellate court on the regional constitutional courts. The attorney representing the deal’s opposition actually received a threatening text message suggesting he recuse himself from the case. Outside the court proceedings itself, several solitary protesters were detained by police the day before the hearings began in St. Petersburg despite the fact that those single-person protests are protected under Russian law. Moreover, since an application for a referendum on the deal was submitted, as stipulated by the Ingush court, the originators of the referendum have been pressured by authorities.n Ingush activists claimed they have been“exposed to blatant blackmail [and] are threatened with dismissal from work as well as pressure on their relatives”.

This situation unveils certain worrisome aspects of Russian society, namely, as the abuse of institutions and the government’s power. Two likely reasons for this deal’s approval expose the trends of abuse of institutional power and corruption. First, keeping with the assumption that shady dealings are standard, it is possible that the Ingush leader and legislators who approved this deal are benefitting from it in some way that is not public knowledge. Secondly, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader and a powerful figure known to be personally supported by Putin and connected with “Chechen organized crime,” has long pursued these territories, even using his security forces to advance into Ingush territory, meaning this deal could be a way for Ingushetia to protect itself from an aggressive neighbor who does not respect its territorial integrity. 

Those examples of corruption, coercion, or both, along with the threatening of the opposition’s attorney, provide insight into the culture of corruption and strong-arming used by individuals in positions of power in Russia. The federal Court’s decision to get involved in an issue in which it has no jurisdiction and the detention of lawful protesters are also indicative of the immense power the government and those in it wield and their ability to ignore statutes as they wish. On a brighter note, however, the growth of people willing to publicly oppose governmental abuse is a rising trend in Russia that bodes well for the full democratization of the country.

Since the article was first written, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that the deal between the two republics to transfer the land was legal and that the Ingush Constitutional Court lacked the jurisdiction to rule on the issue. What this means for the future of Ingushetia, the independence of Russian republics’  judiciaries, and civil society in Russia, only time will tell.