No one is likely to mourn the departure of Murat Zyazikov from the position of president of the volatile North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia. But the Kremlin’s choice of a successor has come as something of a surprise: Colonel Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, a gung-ho paratroop officer with no political experience or profile, no power base in the republic and – seemingly – no great enthusiasm for the job.
Time permitting, I’ll post later on the wider implications for Ingushetia and the region as a whole, but for the moment I thought I would explore the man himself.
He was born in 1963 of Ingush parentage in the village of Tarskoe in North Ossetia. (Six brothers and four sisters – I can’t help but wonder if that helps explain any aptitude for close combat.) He was conscripted in 1982 and he ended up serving in the Pacific Fleet’s Naval Infantry (marines). Service in this – relatively – elite force must have agreed with him, because he then applied to join the VDV, the Air-Assault Forces, the paratroopers, as an officer. In my experience, while the VDV tended to recruit disproportionately from slavs, they also had a liking for recruits from the North Caucasus, whom they regarded as having the physical toughness and aggressive instincts that make a good paratrooper. Yevkurov was successful in winning a place to the Ryazan School of Airborne Troops, from which he graduated in 1989.
For the next decade, he rose steadily within the VDV, possibly serving in the first Chechen war. In 1997, he graduated from the Frunze Military Academy, but he made the news in 1999, leading the ‘dash to Pristina’, when Russian peacekeepers in Bosnia unexpectedly sped to seize Pristina airport in Kosovo before NATO forces could occupy it. In an effective political coup de main, less than 200 Russian troops changed the very bases of the Kosovan war. It pushed NATO to accept Russia on more equal footing in Kosovo, strengthened Russia’s overall international profile and leverage and also created valuable new opportunities for the GRU (military intelligence), monitoring NATO forces, doctrine and equipment at first hand.
He then became chief of staff of a paratroop regiment in Chechnya and in 2000 was made a Hero of Russia – the country’s highest military award – for his service there, specifically for locating and rescuing twelve Russian prisoners from rebels. His career continued a steady rise, and in 2004 he graduated from the General Staff Academy, Russia’s highest military education establishment, reserved for those groomed for top positions. After a short stint in the central defence ministry apparatus in Moscow, Yevgurov became deputy chief of staff for the Volga-Urals Military District (PUrVO). This is an important position: PUrVO not only covers some two and three-quarter million square kilometres of Russian soil, it is also responsible both for the 201st Motor Rifle Division based in Tajikistan and the 27th Guards Motor Rifle Division, one of Russia’s handful of designated peacekeeping units.
He has a reputation for being a tough and aggressive commander, even for a paratrooper. Yevgurov also has a reputation for being personally honest, which is depressingly unusual. It remains to see what kind of a president he’ll be, though. This may be a doubt he shares: according to opposition lawyer Kaloi Akhilgov (admittedly hardly a disinterested source), “This was the third time they asked him [to take the position], but he had always refused… He did not want to accept this time either, but they insisted and he probably got some concessions.”
Presumably he’ll try and capitalise on his image as the unyielding but honourable soldier, outside of petty factional politics. But Ingushetia’s unrest is driven more by political, social and above economic issues: Zyazikov made himself in many ways the symbol for all kinds of deep-seated problems, but his departure solves none of them, at best providing a breathing space for his successor. Has Yevgurov been appointed to try and apply a military solution? If so, this will fail – even in Chechnya, where it is easy to dismiss President Ramzan Kadyrov as no more than a thuggish warlord, his success in pacifying the country reflects not just weariness after almost two decades of conflict but also the application of generous central subsidies and pragmatic deals with local clans. Yevgurov’s career suggests he has the drive and the discipline the job requires – but there is nothing to demonstrate the understanding of local conditions (he has spent very little time actually in Ingushetia), the broad vision and, to be blunt, the cynical and flexible political instincts to knit together this under-developed, divided and fractious republic.