Did the Kremlin's chief ideologist just get punked by a regional leader whose political obituary was written months ago? Early signs seem to suggest that he did.
Murtaza Rakhimov, the president of Russia's Bashkortostan Republic, appeared to get himself in a bit of hot water a few weeks ago when he publicly compared
the level of centralization in Russia today to that in the Soviet Union.
When the Kremlin sent its powerful First Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov to Ufa for a little chat with Rakhimov on Friday, pundits were wondering whether the wayward regional boss would survive the weekend with his job intact.
Authorities in Moscow had been systematically undermining
Rakhimov's authority for months. They removed Bashkortostan's FSB chief, Interior Minister, and the heads of region's Supreme and Arbitration Courts -- all of whom were loyal to Rakhimov -- and replaced them with figures obedient to the Kremlin.
But when Surkov arrived, there was no reckoning
to be had. Instead, with a straight face he praised the level of democracy
in the region and lauded the locals who had rallied to support their leader.
Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at the Moscow Carnegie Center, suggests
that when faced with a potential backlash from Rakhimov's supporters and other regional barons, the Kremlin blinked:
Rakhimov took a big gamble by standing up against the Kremlin. But at the same time, he strengthened his position in Bashkortostan, where the people rallied in a united front for their leader.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin, after taking all the necessary steps to remove Rakhimov from office, turned out to be politically unprepared for such a move. This is because it would have had to take on not only Rakhimov, but simultaneously do battle with several of the most powerful governors who exercise control over their political machines in the largest regions of the country.
As Pavel Baev points out at the Eurasia Daily Monitor
, as the economic crisis deepens, authorities in Moscow are facing an increasingly restive group of regional leaders who are increasingly adept at exploiting the widening schisms in the Moscow elite:
Among the worst hit by the recession are such important regions as Chelyabinsk and Volgograd oblast, Krasnoyarsk krai, Tatarstan and even Moscow oblast, and their governors resent the Kremlin attempts at scapegoating them for the deepening slump.
Rakhimov is 75-years-old and the Kremlin has had it out for him for sometime now. He could very well get the boot at some point in the near future.
But Paul Goble over at Window on Eurasia writes that his survival of this latest scare -- and how it played out -- is sure to "resonate with other regional leaders," and could represent a watershed
in Moscow's relations with the regions:
Indeed, at least some [regional leaders] 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...
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.
Just another sign that Vladimir Putin's vaunted power vertical is getting more and more wobbly.
-- Brian Whitmore