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Two North Caucasus Republics Set Election Precedent

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) chairs a meeting of the Government Commission on Social and Economic Development of the North Caucasian Federal District in Grozny in June 2012, flanked by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and Daghestan's Magomedsalam Magomedov (left to right).

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (left) chairs a meeting of the Government Commission on Social and Economic Development of the North Caucasian Federal District in Grozny in June 2012, flanked by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and Daghestan's Magomedsalam Magomedov (left to right).

In line with a recent amendment to last year's law reintroducing direct elections for the heads of Russia's 83 federation subjects, the parliaments of the Republic of Daghestan and the Republic of Ingushetia have both voted overwhelmingly for the alternative option of empowering the legislature to select the most fitting candidate for that position. Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria are likely to follow suit. Whether Chechnya will do so too is an open question, however.

The draft amendment creating the alternative to direct elections was the brainchild of Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research head Dmitry Badovsky, who is reportedly close to Russian presidential administration head Vyacheslav Voloshin.

As formulated by President Vladimir Putin in December, the rationale for depriving voters in selected North Caucasus republics of the right to choose their leader was to preclude "national and interethnic religious conflicts" such as occurred during the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic presidential ballot in 1999.

In fact, however, in the case of both monoethnic Ingushetia and multiethnic Daghestan, the primary consideration has clearly been to facilitate the election as republic head of the candidate favored by the Kremlin, even though the specter of clashes between the various ethnic groups has been adduced by some senior Daghestani officials to lend weight to their arguments against holding direct elections.

The public discussion in the run-up to the respective parliamentary votes served to highlight the profound differences between the political landscapes of Daghestan, the largest North Caucasus republic, and Ingushetia, the smallest. Daghestan has the freest media and at the same time the largest number (up to 10) of potential serious candidates for the post of republican leader in the event of a direct election; some of those potential candidates head powerful local interest groups engaged in a permanent competition for power. Commentator Eldar Aygumov argues that those "clans" have replaced, and perform the functions of, political parties, even though their members all belong to the ruling United Russia party.

In Daghestan, the Kremlin wants the parliament to endorse the candidacy of former Nationalities Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, an Avar whom President Putin named acting Republic of Daghestan president in January in place of the seemingly sincere but arguably ineffective Magomedsalam Magomedov, whose term was not due to expire until early 2015. In an open ballot, Abdulatipov would face serious competition from several other political heavyweights, including long-time Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov.

During the debate over the pros and cons of direct elections, senior Daghestani officials and public figures cited a variety of reasons why they are not appropriate at this juncture. Some argued that the population does not understand what democracy is all about, or is not mature enough to make a reasoned and sensible choice. Others predicted that direct elections would inevitably lead to violent upheaval in an increasingly fractured society.

Deputy Public Chamber Chairman Alyuset Azizkhanov said openly that neither the authorities nor civil society could guarantee that a direct election would be free and fair. Kamil Davdiyev, who chairs the Daghestan parliament's committee on interethnic relations, said parliament should select the republican head "because Daghestan has never held direct elections for republic head before."

Rizvan Kurbanov, who represents Daghestan in the Russian State Duma and helped draft the legislative amendment allowing for the election of the republic head by parliament, reasoned that given the huge disparity in the size of Daghestan's 14 titular ethnic groups, direct elections are unfair to representatives of what he termed the "small" nationalities. Kurbanov is a Lak, the fifth-largest of those ethnic groups, which accounts for just 5.6 percent of the republic's population of 3 million.

At the same time, Kurbanov rejected a return to the collective Daghestani leadership that existed from 1993-98 on the grounds that its members would invariably put the interests of their own ethnic group above those of the republic as a whole. But in a seeming contradiction, he also predicted that in the unlikely event of a representative of one of the numerically smaller ethnic groups being named republic head, that person would do all in his power to ensure peace and prosperity.

The population at large, however, was apparently not convinced by those arguments. Makhmud Makhmudov, first secretary of the Daghestan chapter of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation that set about collecting signatures in support of direct elections, estimated that support at between 90-95 percent, with just 5-6 percent of the electorate favoring the election of the republic head by the legislature.

Lawyer and blogger Rasul Kadiyev argued that it is through the process of direct elections that the population assumes the role and responsibilities of citizens, and the various ethnic groups merge into a civil society. Kadiyev plans to sue for 10 million rubles ($318,142) compensation for the alleged loss of his civic rights.

In the event, Daghestan's parliament voted on April 18 by a vote of 74 to nine, with three abstentions, in favor of amending the constitution to stipulate that the republic head is elected by parliament rather than in a direct ballot. Although both the KPRF and Patriots of Russia parliamentary factions had announced they would oppose the proposed change, the number of votes against (nine) was lower than the combined strength of those two factions (14 deputies).

Each of the five political parties represented in parliament must now submit three presidential nominees to Putin, who in turn must draw up a shortlist of three candidates, on whom the parliament must vote. Given that some of Abdulatipov's potential rivals have solid support among the 62 (of a total of 90) lawmakers from United Russia, that procedure raises the question: Which two additional candidates will United Russia propose?

Similarly unclear is when the actual vote on the three proposed candidates will take place. Parliamentarians reportedly assumed that it would be held on September 8, when seven other federation subjects are slated to hold direct elections for republic head. But since municipal elections are also scheduled in Daghestan for September 8, lawmakers formally asked President Putin to approve holding the vote sooner.

Commenting on that request, the deputy chairman of Russia's Central Election Commission said that body is ready to assist both Daghestan and Ingushetia in scheduling their respective elections on September 8, while one of his colleagues argued that the timing of indirect elections for republic head is not regulated by existing legislation, and so the votes should take place after the incumbent's term has expired.

Whether that means that Abdulatipov will remain acting president until Magomedov's term would have expired in early 2015 is unclear, but Abdulatipov has told parliamentarians he is not in any hurry, given Putin's "absolute trust" in him.

In Ingushetia, by contrast, the political landscape is more clear-cut, and the time frame for the vote clear. The executive and the legislature alike are subservient to republic head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and his entourage. The feisty and vociferous opposition Mekhk Kkhel (shadow parliament) doggedly criticizes Yevkurov in an endless stream of denunciations and appeals to the Kremlin but exerts minimal influence on the political situation on the ground.

A former career military intelligence officer, Yevkurov was named president by then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in late October 2008; his term therefore expires this fall. Many in Ingushetia regard him as incompetent, inept, and corrupt, possibly to an even greater degree than his despised predecessor, Murat Zyazikov.

Consequently, there has been a flood of impassioned postings on independent websites defending Ingush voters' right to deny Yevkurov a second term as republican head by voting in a direct election for an alternative candidate. At the same time, a grassroots campaign was launched to nominate as a presidential candidate Zyazikov's predecessor, Afghan war veteran and retired General Ruslan Aushev. Aushev initially said he would not run, but after 50,672 signatures were collected in his support (more than the 49,200 votes Zyazikov received in Ingushetia's last direct presidential election in 2002), he formally stated on April 16 that he considers he has a moral obligation to participate in the ballot.

The Kremlin, however, has apparently decided to keep Yevkurov as Republic of Ingushetia head despite his stated objection to a differentiated approach to direct elections. The most likely explanation is that Yevkurov is regarded as a necessary counterweight to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. The two men are embroiled in an acrimonious dispute over the border between their respective republics, with both laying claim to the Sunzha district.

The Russian leadership has not intervened to end that dispute despite the passage last fall by the Chechen parliament of an amendment to the republic's constitution to include Sunzha as one of Chechnya's municipalities.

On April 10, just one week after Putin signed into law the legislative amendment allowing individual republics to decide whether or not to hold direct elections, Yevkurov issued a decree scheduling a "congress of the Ingush people" in Sunzha on April 20 to discuss both the border dispute with Chechnya and the upcoming election for republican head. Virtually all the 300-plus handpicked delegates were government officials or bureaucrats. Among the few exceptions were Mekhk Kkhel Chairman Idris Abadiyev and prominent human rights activist Magomed Mutsolgov. Aushev and Zyazikov were both invited, but only Aushev attended; he was seated on Yevkurov's right.

Aushev declared openly at the congress that "if we respect ourselves and the Ingush people, we must hold direct elections." But predictably, most deputies took their cue from Yevkurov, who has argued consistently that even though there would be no danger of destabilization as a result of direct elections, Ingush society, and Russian society as a whole, is not mature enough to hold them. Mutsolgov said the organizers did not even bother to count how many delegates voted against abolishing direct elections.

According to presidential administration head Zelimkhan Yevloyev, the congressional vote constituted a "recommendation" and was not binding on the legislature. But within days, the Republic of Ingushetia parliament passed in the first reading, and two weeks later in the second and third readings, an amendment to the constitution empowering its members to elect the president. Meanwhile, the United Russia faction named five candidates, including Yevkurov and parliamentary speaker Mukharbek Didigov, to compete in primaries for the three nominations to be submitted to Putin.

The opposition issued a formal statement on May 15 branding illegal the parliamentary vote abolishing direct elections. Oppositionist Magomed Khazbiyev, whom the Republican Party of Russia Parnas had selected as its presidential candidate in the event of a direct election, said the opposition will now organize a series of protest demonstrations.

It is unclear whether the Kremlin plans to extend to the other North Caucasus republics the precedent set by Daghestan and Ingushetia. Kabardino-Balkaria Republic head Arsen Kanokov and his Karachayevo-Cherkessia counterpart, Rashid Temrezov, whose terms expire in 2015 and 2016 respectively, are likely to concur with whatever model Moscow advocates. By contrast, Chechen Republic head Kadyrov, whose term expires in March 2016, has made it clear he would prefer a direct election.

The other six federation subjects where elections for governor or republican head are scheduled for September 8 have until the end of May to decide between direct and indirect elections. Meanwhile, the State Duma continues to discuss whether direct elections should be abolished elsewhere in Russia, not just in the North Caucasus. Participants in a roundtable last month proposed that only those republics whose budgets are not dependent on subsidies from the federal budget should hold direct elections -- which would put paid to Kadyrov's aspirations.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.