Sunday, April 27, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Risks ‘Catastrophe’ in Sakha if It Appoints Outsider

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 27 – Sakha, the vast and resource-rich republic in the Russian Far East, could become the next “hot spot” if the Kremlin follows its current approach and appoints an outsider to be that region’s next leader rather than promoting someone from within, according to a Russian analyst who specializes on regional and ethnic issues.
In an analysis posted online on Friday, Dmitry Verkhoturov describes Moscow’s policy of appointing an outsider to be the leaders of regional governments, discusses why that approach has generally worked to the central government’s advantage and then outlined why it would almost certainly backfire in Sakha (
Since President Vladimir Putin made regional heads appointed positions, he has generally named people from distant regions to take the top job. That has been the case, for example, in Buryatia, Arkhangelsk, Kostroma, Amur, and Irkutsk. Only in Sakhalin, Smolensk, Tula, and Kamchatka did he promote from within.
It appears, Verkhoturov says, that Putin wants as the heads of regions people who do not have local ties or support that they might use to develop independent power bases, who are thus dependent on Moscow and United Russia, and whose earlier jobs were of so much lower status – often mayoralties -- that they will remain grateful for promotion and therefore loyal.
But the situation in Sakha, Verkhoturov argues, is sufficiently different to call for a change in the Kremlin’s approach.
While Sakha head Vyacheslav Shtyrov was reconfirmed only in 2006, people there and in Moscow “understand” that his real term is coming to an end. On the one hand, he has fought with Moscow over diamonds and with the former mayor of Yakutsk over power. And on the other, he did not deliver a high enough percentage of votes for United Russia in December.
Moreover, many in Moscow are concerned about the growth of “protest” movements in one of the largest donor regions of the country, a trend that if it continues might call that flow of cash into question. And consequently, it is clear that Moscow wants to find someone new to replace the incumbent.
If the Kremlin follows the course it has adopted elsewhere, the new leader almost certainly would come from the western or northwestern portion. Verkhoturov for his part says that he personally thinks the appointee would likely be drawn from one of the regions or cities in the North West Federal District.
Installing such an outsider would not be a problem: the new man would simply learn a few phrases of the Sakha language, just like the outsider who was appointed president of Buryatia learned a few words in Buryat. And “it is not excluded that with this [his] sympathy for the [Sakha] would end.”
But if Moscow proceeds in that way, there are three reasons to believe that the situation in Sakha would quickly deteriorate. First, the major companies in Sakha have no real place for ethnic Sakha executives at the highest levels. Consequently, without a political representative, many Sakha would feel excluded and thus more ready to listen to nationalistic criticism.
Second, these large mining concerns have taken the highly unpopular step of inviting in a sizeable contingent of ethnic Chinese Gastarbeiters, something that has infuriated both the Sakha and the ethnic Russians living among them. Imposing someone on Sakha who has no ties to either group could lead to the intensification of these feelings.
And third, and this is Verkhoturov’s most compelling argument: Moscow needs to recognize that Sakha is not like the other non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation. The Sakha, “unlike the majority of non-Russian peoples of Russia, have to a large extent preserved their culture, language … and their unity.”
Consequently, he continues, “the assignment to the republic of an outsider, who comes from far away and does not understand the Sakha mentality and who will become the agent of the companies in the raw materials colonization of the region will inevitably call forth a sharp outburst of nationalism.”
That danger is all the greater because of the unresolved social and economic problems in that enormous republic. If social conflicts multiply, and if the new “outsider” republic head engages in social demagogy with phrases like “’life has become better, life has become happier,’” then “this northern region could become the new Russian ‘hot spot.’”
All Moscow has to do to avoid such a course of events, he suggests, is to allow the Sakha to have one of their own as president of the republic and thereby ensure that their voice is heard in the front offices of the raw materials extraction companies working there. If the Kremlin does that, Sakha won’t become a problem but rather will be a loyal part of the country.

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