One can only guess what happened on 31 August in business class on a flight from Moscow to Magas, the capital of Ingushetiya between two Ingush men: Murat Zyazikov, pro-Kremlin Ingush president, and Magomed Yevloyev, businessman, lawyer and the owner of popular website Ingushetiya.ru, known for its uncompromising criticism of the region’s administration. But what happened after the aircraft landed in Magas airport sounds like a gangster movie: minutes after the cortege of the Ingush president left the airport, another cortege led by the Ingush interior minister, followed by his well-armed guard, arrived on the runway. They met Yevloyev at the steps of the aircraft, put him in a Volga saloon car and drove away.
‘As they drove he was shot in the temple… They threw him out of the car near the hospital,’ a lawyer for the website told journalists. ‘He was found there and quickly taken to the operating theatre, where he died.’ Ingush police claimed Yevloyev was shot accidentally.
Ingushetiya.ru was created in 2001. According to its founders it was supposed to be ‘an ordinary website covering, at least a little bit, what is really going on in the republic’. Yevloyev said he had not expected it to become the republic’s most visited web resource. And yet it very quickly became the most popular news resource in a region where the single TV channel, two newspapers and various other local media all belong to or serve the regional government.
Ingushetiya.ru was highly critical of President Zyazikov and his government. At one point, the site collected 80,000 signatures on a petition demanding the resignation of Zayazikov and the reinstatement of former president Ruslan Ashev.
The site found fame on Russia’s federal level for its ‘I Didn’t Vote’ campaign following the Russian parliament elections of December 2007. Ingush authorities had reported a turnout of more then 98 per cent. Ingushetiya.ru, however, put out a call for all those who hadn’t voted to register on the site. Soon it had collected declarations from over 50 per cent of registered voters, all claiming not to have taken part in the elections. The polling commission called the action ‘stupidity and nonsense’ — a phrase more accurately applied to the claims for the official result; nearly 99 per cent of votes for Putin’s United Russia party, with a 98 per cent turnout.
Ingushetiya.ru’s struggle was a clear and vivid example of how difficult it is to fight for freedom of speech on the Internet in today’s Russia. The site was officially banned by one of the Moscow’s district courts, yet continued to exist. Access to the site was frequently blocked by the local provider, but users found ways to overcome the blockage.
Authorities tried all means of silencing the website, including pressuring Yevloyev’s relatives to force him to give up. After his father asked him to quit, he simply resigned as general manager and passed the site to his likeminded colleagues — lawyers and human rights defenders.
In early summer this year Moscow district court banned Ingushetiya.ru on the grounds that it was involved in spreading ‘extremist information’. While this decision was contended in a higher court, the site continued to function. When asked what would happen if the court eventually ruled against his website, Yevloyev replied: ‘If Ingushetiya.ru is closed by the Russian courts, I will write in the news column of the website that the site is shut down and the resolution of the court is carried out. If the site continues to work I will tell the prosecutor’s office that I have no idea why it is still functioning.’
Yevloyev knew his life was in danger, and claimed Zyazikov himself was plotting to kill him. Rosa Malsagova, the editor-in-chief of the website, who was recently granted asylum in France, told Radio Svoboda: ‘Two months ago we had a sad talk. He said: “you know, they’ve given US$100,000 for me. They’ve ordered [my murder].” We turned it into joke, saying that if they’d really needed to they would have got rid of us long ago.’
The reaction to his murder was reflected in the two comments minutes after Ingushetiya.ru reported the death of its owner on 31 August: ‘It can’t be true! What a horror! Those who wrote this news please tell you’ve got in wrong,’ wrote one commenter on the site. Immediately another answered: ‘Why couldn’t it be true? …It was very suspicious that a person that was so far out of favour with the authorities was walking alive…He is dead, his idea remains.’
Andrei Babitsky, who knew Yevloyev personally, wrote: ‘I told him that the forums on his site, especially the ones devoted to the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, were rather depressing to read because of the abundance of extreme nationalist views and opinions. He readily agreed, but couldn’t do anything about it. He had none of an editor’s the professional skills, and had no idea how to deal with people. How could such a man have become Murat Zyazikov’s worst headache? The answer is very simple. In spite of all his gentleness he refused to reconcile himself to what he believed was the genocide of the Ingush people, for all the disputable nature of such a legal categorisation.’
On 2 September Ingushetiya.ru declared that the the site was passing into the hands of Mashkarip Aushev, a key opposition leader. ‘Mashkarip, you need to intensify informational pressure on Zyazikov and on the gang government of Ingushetiya,’ read the first response to the announcement.
There is a possibility that Yevloyev could win over his main rival even after his death. Many observers agree that this murder could cost President Zyazikov his job at the very least.
‘The situation with Zyazikov is bad,’ Vedomosti, a Moscow independent business daily, quoted an unnamed presidential aide as saying. ‘We will think [what to do with him]”.
Maria Eismont is director of the Russian Independent Media Programme at the New Eurasia Foundation