Monday, June 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Rakhimov Remains -- and Thus So Too Does His Challenge to Moscow

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 22 – After making the most withering critique of Moscow’s approach ever offered by an incumbent leader of a subject of the Russian Federation, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov not only has extracted a promise from the center that he will remain in office until the end of his term in 2011 but also has left on the table all the criticisms he made.
And while “Vremya novostei’s” Kseniya Veretennikova is correct that, after some initially heated words, the central government and the party of power did not address Rakhimov’s critique, both his critique and perhaps even more the manner of his survival are certain to resonate with other regional leaders (
Indeed, at least some of the latter are likely to assume that in the current economic environment, they may be able to turn the tables on the central government, given the anger many Russians feel about Moscow’s policies and given the reluctance of the center to create even more problems for itself by removing longtime leaders like Rakhimov.
To the extent that some of the heads of the federal subjects do reach that conclusion, the Rakhimov affair could represent another turning point in Moscow’s relations with the Russian Federation’s various republics, krays and oblasts and open the way for a more open and intense debate on center-periphery relations.
At the very least, what Rakhimov has accomplished by surviving is to underscore a reality that many commentators in Moscow and the West have been inclined to ignore: Regional leaders even after Vladimir Putin’s centralization drive are more powerful, at least in the negative sense of being able to create problems if challenged, than is generally assumed.
By remaining in office and even more by forcing Moscow to dispatch the Kremlin’s Vladislav Surkov to Ufa rather than being called on the carpet at the center, Rakhimov demonstrated that at least some regional leaders may be able to speak and act more independently than even they had believed.
On June 4, Rakhimov issued a withering critique of the Russian political system denouncing both Moscow’s violation of federalism and the monopoly of power by the Kremlin’s United Russia party. At the time, commentators suggested that he was simply slamming the door through which he was going to be pushed (
But two weeks to the day his interview appeared in “Moskovsky komsomolets,” Rakhimov was not only still in office but was hosting Vladislav Surkov, the powerful deputy head of the Presidential Administration who many describe as the chief ideologist and enforcer of the policies of the Medvedev-Putin tandem.
After their meeting, Surkov announced that it had been constructive. “We hve met with one of the most authoritative leaders of the subjects of the Federation, as member of the supreme council of United Russia, who was involved in its creation. We discussed current questions, and we were yet again convinced that we think alike.”
Rakhimov responded by saying that “we discussed all current questions and as always there was complete mutual understanding between us. We have very respectful relations with the federal center. We always have supported and support now President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister and United Russian Party head Vladimir Putin.”
Veretennikova writes that there are reports that when Surkov spoke before the Bashkortostan section of United Russia, he said that Rakhimov is “one of the best regional leaders in the country.”And Rakhimov himself “officially declared,” she writes, that he “does not intend to leave office until the end of his term, which finishes in 2011.”
In the opinion of the “Vremya novostei” journalist, these exchanges mean that Rakhimov will remain in office only until then and not longer and that Moscow rather than Bashkortostan’s elite will decide on his successor. In that, she may be right, although three years in politics and especially Russian politics is a long time – and Rakhimov has won that much time.
Moreover, Veretennikova says, “not one of the sharp questions which [Rakhimov and the Bashkir section of United Russia] raised received a positive response” from Surkov or from the center. But at the same time, Surkov and by implication Moscow had to praise and retain in office someone who had denounced the policies of both, without forcing him to recant.
That is a very real kind of power, even if it is not all of what Rakhimov might want. And his demonstration of it in this case could matter far more in the newly bubbling discussion of the future of federalism and other issues in the Russian Federation. (For one example which explicitly references Rakhimov’s critique, see

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