Within the next few days, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev must for the first time since taking office in early May propose a candidate to serve as president of one of Russia's 21 ethnic republics.
Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) President Mustafa Batdyev's term expires on August 31, and the republic's parliament has not formally nominated him or any other candidate to head the republic after that date. The choice therefore lies with Medvedev, and it will not be an easy one, as there is no obvious candidate who is both qualified and enjoys the respect of both the republic's titular ethnic groups.
Batdyev, 57, is a former Communist Party official who from 1992-97 held overall responsibility within the republic's government for economic issues. In 1997, he was named to head the KChR National Bank. He was elected president in a fiercely contested runoff in August 2003, defeating incumbent Vladimir Semyonov, a fellow Karachai, by just a few thousand votes.
In an article published in late August 2007 to mark the fourth anniversary of Batdyev's election, the Prague-based "Caucasus Times" noted that his team has achieved a measure of economic success, and living conditions in the republic have improved somewhat. Budget revenues have increased, the tourism and hydroelectric sectors are expanding, and new schools have been built. Industrial output has grown steadily: the percentage increase in industrial production in 2006 was the highest in the Southern Federal District.
But Batdyev's record is marred by the high-profile killings in October 2004 of seven men -- one a legislator and owner of a disputed factory -- in a privatization dispute. Batdyev's then-son-in-law Ali Kaitov, to whose dacha the victims were lured and killed, was one of 16 men arrested, tried, and sentenced for those murders.
In addition, "Caucasus Times" noted Batdyev's refusal to comply with the constitutional requirement that he deliver an annual report to the parliament and his reluctance in the wake of the murders to ask then-Russian President Vladimir Putin for a formal expression of confidence.
Those political failings have apparently cost Batdyev the support of his co-ethnics. The news agency regnum.ru on July 2 quoted opposition Karachai legislator Ismail Krymshamkhalov, who reportedly enjoys the backing of much of the Karachai political elite, as saying Batdyev has accomplished nothing as president and should on no account serve a second term. Krymshamkhalov further warned that the Karachais would not accept an ethnic Russian as president.
The KChR is one of Russia's smallest republics, with a population of 427,400. At the time of the 2002 Russian census, the Karachais, a Turkic ethnic group, accounted for 38.5 percent of the population, and the Cherkess only 11.3 percent. Russians (33.6 percent) were the second-largest ethnic group. In light of the Karachais' numerical superiority, for the past three decades, both before and since the collapse of the USSR, the republic's leader has been a Karachai.
In line with the KChR Constitution, the parliament, in which the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has a majority, should by now already have submitted to Medvedev the names of at least two alternative presidential candidates for his consideration, but deputies adjourned on July 11 for the summer recess without having done so. The selection thus devolves automatically onto Medvedev, whose nominee must then be endorsed in a secret ballot by at least 37 of the 73 KChR legislators.
Medvedev can either propose Batdyev for a second term or opt for an alternative. Batdyev may be tarnished, but as Russian political analyst Sergei Markedonov has pointed out, he is a known quantity, a reasonably competent economic manager, loyal -- and a Karachai. One possible alternative candidate is Moscow-based businessman Nazir Khapsirokov, who has reportedly been close to Putin since the early 1990s, when he started work at the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office. Allegations of corruption surfaced after Khapsirokov resigned from that post in August 2000, but in February 2001 he was named a deputy to then-presidential-administration head Aleksandr Voloshin. Although a Cherkess, Khapsirokov backed Batdyev's presidential bid in 2003.
Opting for Khapsirokov, however, would suggest that it is Putin who really made the decision. Former Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov has held the post of presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District for only two months and is unlikely within that time to have familiarized himself with the relative merits of the entire North Caucasus political elite. The choice of Khapsirokov might also call into question Medvedev's declared zero tolerance of corruption. A third possibility would be to bring back Semyonov, who reportedly currently holds a diplomatic post abroad.
Finally, Medvedev could play for time and name Batdyev acting president prior to making a final decision. That was Medvedev's tactic following the resignation in mid-April of Stavropol Krai Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov.
Aminat Kardanova of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this analysis