June 16 – Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev has called for a return to the direct election of the heads of subjects of the federation and an end to the Russian president’s power to prorogue regional assemblies, a direct attack on the Putin system that could prove to be a swansong for the longtime regional leader or the opening of a new era in Russian politics.
In a speech to the Tenth World Congress of the Russian Press on Saturday that was widely reported today, Shaimiyev said that “we will return” to an elected system, adding that in the meantime he opposes the Russian president having the right to dissolve a regional legislature that does not approve his candidate because that body is “elected by the people.”
The Tatarstan leader, one of the cleverest politicians in Russia today, expressed himself on this point with extreme care. He said that he fully understood that there had been a time when appointed regional leaders were required: “Several years ago, there were so many accidental people” in these offices that administering the country with them alone was beyond imagining.
And given that Shaimiyev, who has been in office since 1991, is currently negotiating either an extension of his own tenure – his current term lasts until March 2010 – or the selection of a successor he approves, many analysts suggested that his words reflected little more than his personal feelings.
But what is perhaps more remarkable is that “Kommersant” reported that senior officials in the Kremlin say that the election of the heads of regions is “a subject for discussion” and that President Dmitry Medvedev personally is not opposed to the possibility that the electoral system Putin ended might be restored (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=903173).
The heads of some regions were elected beginning in 1994, and by 1997, that system had been universalized across the Russian Federation. But in 2004, after Beslan, Putin converted these positions into appointed ones, subject to the approval of the legislative assemblies of the oblasts, krays and republics.
“In fact,” however, the turnover in regional leaders once their posts became appointive, “Kommersant” notes, has been relatively small. There have been only 31 new regional heads, and only three were replaced because they had “lost the trust” of the president. But at the same time, there are now only nine regional heads who were elected – including Shaimiyev.
Consequently, Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the Institute of National Strategy, said “the 2004 reform was useful not only to the Kremlin but also to the governors, many of whom have remained in power only thanks to this reform.” Only those like Shaimiyev, who are confident in their support, want elections “in order to reduce their dependence on the Kremlin.”
Kazan political scientist Vladimir Belyayev pointed to another reason for Shaimiyev’s remarks. The Tatarstan president, he said, “doubts that he will be able to reach agreement with Moscow” either on a new term for himself or on the appointment to the presidency of Tatarstan of someone he has chosen.
Shaimiyev is “afraid,” Belyayev said, “that [Moscow] will put at the head of the republic someone or other of the Moscow Tatars if the current arrangement of appointing heads of regions is maintained.” And the Tatar president knows that the elections will work for him “because [he] controls all electoral commissions there.”
While many regional heads are probably comfortable with the current situation, Dmitry Orlov, the general director of the Moscow Agency of Political and Economic Communications, said that Shaimiyev “expresses the attitudes a significant part of the regional elite, above all the charismatic leaders or leaders with a high level of public trust.”
“Kommersant’s” anonymous Kremlin source added that however that might be, “it is not excluded that the powers that be will return to a discussion” of the elections of regional heads, although the source suggested that “probably this will not take place” anytime soon and may lead to arrangements different than those that existed before and have existed since 2004.
What such new arrangements might be, he suggested is “a theme for discussion,” an indication that the Putin system, however permanent many have assumed it to be, will ultimately be transformed, quite probably and perhaps even inevitably given Russian traditions by those who proclaim their undying loyalty to it.
UPDATE for June 17. Shaimiyev’s Saturday speech continues to generate intense discussion in Moscow, with some suggesting that he coordinated his actions with the Kremlin in advance, pointing to the statement of one senior United Russia Duma deputy that governors and republic heads may be elected again in 2012. For a sample of commentaries thus far, see www.ng.ru/politics/2008-06-16/1_shaimiev.html, lenta.ru/articles/2008/06/16/shaimiev/, www.nr2.ru/policy/182610.html, www.polit.ru/event/2008/06/16/vertical.html, www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2008/06/16/151343,
lenta.ru/news/2008/06/16/rebel/, and www.nr2.ru/moskow/182545.html).
UPDATE for June 19: Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov has added his voice of support to Tatarstan leader Mintimir Shaimiyev’s call to make federation subject heads again subject to election. Not having elections means, he said that “we have lost a federative state.” But other leaders, including Karelian head Sergei Katanandov , Vologda’s Vyacheslav Pozgalyev, and Kemerovo’s Aman Tuleyev announced that they oppose any resumption of such elections (www.gazeta.ru/politics/2008/06/18_a_2758089.shtml).