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Commentary: Elections Talk Sheds Light On Russia's Political Culture

  • Robert Coalson --> Is Mintimer Shaimiyev (left) standing up to Vladimir Putin over elections? (ITAR-TASS) Tatarstan's president, Mintimer Shaimiyev, set Russia's chattering classes off on June 15 by telling a congress of journalists the country should return to the direct election of regional heads. Those elections, it will be recalled, were eliminated by then-President Vladimir Putin in 2004, supposedly as part of his overall plan to combat terrorism.

Under Putin's reform, governors are now appointed by the president and confirmed by regional legislatures. But if lawmakers refuse to go along with the Kremlin's choice, the president simply disbands the body and calls new elections.

The fevered reaction to Shaimiyev's tepid proposal -- he didn't set a time frame or specify that the elections should be genuinely competitive -- probably has more to do with the current slow news cycle than with the importance of the statement itself.

Tellingly, there was almost no reaction until June 17, when Regional Development Minister and Putin insider Dmitry Kozak signaled the Kremlin's view. There will be no such elections "in the foreseeable future," he said.

After that, governors raced to show their loyalty. Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleyev was typical, noting that elections are not needed "under the current conditions of national support for the course of the country's leadership." Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Khloponin seconded that opinion, saying that "work is needed" -- not elections.

Among mainstream political players, only Shaimiyev's neighbor, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, seconded the proposal, saying, "If we have a democracy, we should have elections."

Managed Elections Vs. No Elections

The nature of the discussion of Shaimiyev's statement, by and large, was also indicative of Russia's current political climate. Once the Kremlin rejected the elections idea again, analysts limited their comments to the state of relations between Shaimiyev and the Kremlin, rather than weighing the pros and cons of elections themselves.

Oksana Goncharenko, of the Center for Political Forecasting, noted that "the center is interested in gaining new levers of power in the republics -- and this applies first of all to the resource-rich republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Yakutia [the Sakha Republic]."

The official line on elections is that Russia is in a phase of building economic and political stability, a process that depends on the current intense political centralization. Despite recent talk about the need to combat corruption, the value of electoral accountability has not been acknowledged. Perhaps this is because elections in Russia are so heavily managed and manipulated that they cannot produce accountability. As a result, elections increase public cynicism rather than protecting against it.

Duma Deputy Roman Antonov, of the ruling Unified Russia party, revealed his scorn for elections in comments to the Regnum news agency. Voters "make their choice based on their hearts and often cannot objectively evaluate the professional qualities of the candidates," Antonov said.

Talk about returning to gubernatorial elections crops up in Russia now and again, and it benefits the central authorities, who, after all, maintain that Russia is building a democracy -- just in its own way and at its own pace.

But the fact is that the present system largely satisfies the political elites at all levels. Most governors have been successfully reappointed since the abolition of elections. In fact, Putin's reform has saved many of them from the awkward contortions involved in getting past the term-limits problem. It has, in fact, meant the de facto abolition of term limits and given loyalists lifetime sinecures.

Shaimiyev is 71 and has been president of Tatarstan since 1991. His current term of office expires in March 2010. His call for elections may have less to do with democratic leanings than with a desire -- which will grow stronger as the current group of regional elites ages -- to name his own successor. In Russia, presidents like to do that themselves.
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    Robert Coalson

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