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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

History of Ingushetia Is History of Aushev

NAZRAN, Ingushetia -- In the rough-and-tumble politics of the regions, Ingushetia has been an island of relative stability, sandwiched between the flames of war in Chechnya and a seething, and even more tangled, ethnic conflict in North Ossetia.

For nearly a decade, the history of Ingushetia has been the history of Ruslan Aushev, a dashing war hero from the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.

Since his first election in 1993 (he was the only candidate and won with 99.94 percent of the vote), Aushev has steered his republic away from war and toward prosperity while playing host to hundreds of thousands of Chechen refugees and several divisions of federal soldiers passing through on their way to crushing the rebellion next door.

Aushev's methods have been unorthodox and high-handed -- even fraudulent, his critics say -- and he has infuriated Moscow with his criticism of the war in Chechnya. He has called on President Vladimir Putin to negotiate with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who remains in hiding somewhere among the snowy redoubts of the Caucasus Mountains.

And like many regional leaders, Aushev has begun to manifest authoritarian ways -- or so his critics contend.

Last year, for instance, the republic's Supreme Court threw out the candidacy of a man Aushev was backing for parliament but who was charged with buying votes and other improper campaign practices.

In response, Aushev ordered poll workers to stay home and the election did not occur. Then the police came to the Supreme Court. They seized cars and disbanded the security force for the 11 judges, a life-threatening act in a land where men with guns often threaten the court over adverse rulings.

Judge Daud Albakov, the head of the republic's Supreme Court, was abruptly informed that he was being evicted from his state-owned villa. Aushev ordered a new election.

A year ago, as the election approached, someone fired a grenade through the judge's office window, just after he had left for home.

"Someone was not happy with the court's previous decision," Albakov said with characteristic understatement.

Now the darkest cloud threatening Aushev is Moscow's determination to examine the legacy -- and the books -- of the "offshore economic zone" he created in Ingushetia in 1994, with Moscow's permission.

For three years, hundreds of companies used the zone to avoid taxes. The director of the zone was Alkhan Amirkhanov, the very man Aushev later helped to a parliament seat. Another Aushev confidant, a banker, Mikhail Gutseriyev, had exclusive rights to handle all the money passing through the zone.

Now Moscow would like to know what happened to several hundred million dollars in federal credits to the zone for factory investments that have never been repaid.

Despite the questionable aspects of his record, Aushev has succeeded in protecting Ingushetia's autonomy and its culture while drawing millions of dollars of investment. He has built a new capital on the outskirts of Nazran named for the ancient city of Magas, which was leveled by the Mongol invaders. Even his critics show grudging respect.

"Ruslan Aushev did a great favor for the nation," says Magomed Yevloyev, who was a prosecutor in Ingushetia and now practices law in Moscow. "He raised up the republic and was the only politician who always condemned the war in Chechnya. In fact, he has been a white crow among the ravens."

With such support and entrenched power, Aushev surprised many people in December by announcing that he would resign a year before his term was to expire.

It appears that he was the victim of a squeeze play orchestrated by Moscow and critics at home to nudge Aushev out of his gleaming new presidential palace in Magas. Just before Aushev announced his resignation, Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District Viktor Kazantsev dispatched his chief inspector here to find out where the money went in the "offshore zone."

The other task for the inspector, Musa Keligov, is to ensure that Aushev does not manipulate the new presidential election, set for April 7.

"We want the election to take place and want the change of power to take place painlessly here," said Keligov, a former close friend of Aushev's who fell out favor in 1999 when he raised a small army here to go into Chechnya and kill a warlord who had abducted his brother.

The escapade cemented Keligov's reputation in Moscow as an Ingush who would take a harder line against Chechen rebels operating here.

So far, however, Aushev is hanging tough. He had himself named the new Ingush representative to the revamped Federation Council, thereby keeping immunity from prosecution.

In an interview, he was prickly and defiant about any suggestion that the Kremlin had orchestrated his retirement.

"If I wanted to become president, no matter who wants what in Moscow, I would become president," he said.