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Analysis: Rallying For The Right Not To Vote

  • Robert Coalson --> Russian President Vladimir Putin's 13 September proposal to replace the direct election of regional-administration heads with a system under which local legislatures confirm candidates nominated by the president provoked very little reaction among the Russian public. In Moscow, liberals and leftists were able to summon no more than 100 people to their modest demonstration against the measure. Public-opinion polls generally show that society -- tired of years of badly discredited local and national elections -- is not particularly worried about this possible curtailment of its democratic rights.

Some liberals, including vocal independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, have cited the possible resistance of citizens of Russia's so-called ethnic republics to the loss of elections as an argument against Putin's initiative. In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service on 15 September, Ryzhkov listed this as one of the "destabilizing" consequences of the proposal, saying that these republics value their relative autonomy and would actively resist efforts to curtail it. "Thank God that [Putin] did no more than undermine state institutions like regional government, the legislature, and so on," Ryzhkov said. "If he had gone further, if he now used this storm to arrange the rewriting of administrative borders [and] the liquidation of the republics, then the terrorists would undoubtedly find thousands of supporters in Tatarstan, including ideological supporters since the radical intelligentsia would certainly be in opposition. And then this could really spread along the Volga and into other regions."

But, unexpectedly, the initial response of many residents of these areas, especially Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Kalmykia, has been to view the institution of presidentially appointed administration heads as a way of getting rid of firmly entrenched autocratic local leaders who have thoroughly corrupted the local election systems. These republics have depressing histories of elections determined by autocratic rulers who dominate the media, the police, local election commissions, and the courts.
A local newspaper in Kazan conducted a telephone poll on the issue and only two of 160 callers objected to the possible elimination of elections. reported on 23 September that a local newspaper in Kazan conducted a telephone poll on the issue and only two of 160 callers objected to the possible elimination of elections, while all of the others discussed the appointment system as a possible way of ending the 16-year rule of Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev. "No one in Tatarstan thinks the next [republican] presidential election will be fair," the news service commented. "The new model of selection by the president that Putin has proposed could ensure the revitalization of the regional political elite."

In the Kalmykian capital of Elista on 21 September as many as 2,500 protesters came out to the streets calling for the removal of Kalmykia President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who is widely regarded as one of the most autocratic local rulers in Russia. Local police, backed up by Interior Ministry forces from Volgograd and Astrakhan oblasts and other neighboring regions, violently broke up the demonstration, arresting about 80 participants and sending 11 to the hospital, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 24 September. The daily reported that the suppression of the peaceful rally in Elista can be considered the first "successful" operation of the new joint command of the Southern Federal District, where the decision to send outside forces to the republic was reportedly made.

The Kremlin's attitude toward Ilyumzhinov is by no means clear. On the one hand, the administration clearly backed opposition leader Baatr Shondzhiev in the republic's October 2002 election. However, the second round of that election came in the immediate aftermath of the major hostage crisis at a Moscow theater, and "Moskovskii komsomolets" commented on 27 September that the Kremlin might have turned a blind eye to the numerous campaign violations during that poll out of considerations for stability in the region. Shondzhiev told "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 23 September, following the Elista protest, that the Kremlin supports Ilyumzhinov because "the central authorities do not want another [source of] tension in the North Caucasus" in the wake of the hostage taking in Beslan, North Ossetia, last month.

But the coverage of the Elista protest by the Kremlin-controlled national television channels led many commentators to speculate that Moscow is sympathetic to the demonstrators. "This is a revolution from below," analyst Andrei Piontkovskii told "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 27 September, "but one that has the sympathies of the federal center. If only because otherwise we wouldn't be seeing these demonstrations on our television screens."

"Moskovskii komsomolets" and other Russian media have gone further to suggest even that the Kremlin is willing to ignore reports of ties between Ilyumzhinov and Chechen fighters, including possibly radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. Likewise, reported that Tatarstan's Shaimiev has had contacts with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and at one time allowed the breakaway Chechen administration of Ichkeria to set up a representation in the republic. Such policies, the website argues, have fostered the growth of Islamist extremism, especially Wahhabism, in the region.

In the cases of both Tatarstan and Kalmykia, there seems to be unexpected support from local political elites for Putin's proposal to eliminate the direct election of regional-administration heads. "Under the pretext of combating terrorism it is unacceptable to combat one's political opponents," State Duma Deputy Speaker Sergei Baburin told "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 25 September, following the Elista demonstrations. Nonetheless, it would seem that in these republics both the opposition and the establishment intend to do just that.
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to