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Russia: What's Behind Putin's Reappointment Of Powerful Tatar Leader?

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday nominated the longtime head of the Republic of Tatarstan to serve again after his current term expires next year. The nomination came after Mintimer Shaimiev sought Putin's support under a provision of a new law allowing regional leaders to request a confirmation of confidence from the president. Observers say the move is a plus for Putin, who has faced criticism from foreign governments and liberals at home over a law he pushed for last year ending the election of leaders of Russia's administrative regions. But what is Shaimiev getting out of the deal?

Prague, 16 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Mintimer Shaimiev, the 68-year-old president of Tatarstan, said he made his decision to stay in power for another term at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Shaimiev announced his decision on 11 March in the Tatar capital, Kazan, two days after meeting with Putin in Moscow.

"I had said many times that I did not want to take part in the next election [for Tatarstan's president in 2006]. Now the rules [of election of local governors and presidents] have changed, and although [Putin] told me he knew that I didn't want to work anymore and that I wanted to retire, he asked me to stay for one more term and gave his reasons for that [request]. After thinking it over, I gave him my [affirmative] answer," Shaimiev said.

Shaimiev's third five-year term was due to end in March 2006.

Yesterday, Putin formally nominated Shaimiev and submitted his candidacy to Tatarstan's legislature for approval. Shaimiev's candidacy is to be considered by the republican State Council within 14 days. Under federal laws, if the Tatar parliament fails to approve Shaimiev for president, Putin has the authority to dismiss the State Council.

With the move, Shaimiev thus becomes one of the first regional leaders to support Putin's decision to abolish elections and instead appoint the heads of the 89 administrative regions.

The Russian president made the decision last autumn following the massacre in the North Ossetian city of Beslan. Under the new Russian law, regional legislatures will elect the heads of regions after Russia's president nominates a candidate for the post.
"I believe from Putin's side, there was a very strong desire to have such a strong regional leader as Shaimiev set an example for other regional heads on how to transfer to the new system of relationship with the federal authority." - Titkov

Russian liberals and many foreign governments have criticized the change, saying it is undemocratic and could lead to a consolidation of presidential power.

Shaimiev has been one of Russia's most powerful regional leaders. His approval rating in Tatarstan, around 70 percent, is one of the highest in Russia.

Shaimiev's move is seen as a success for Putin. Aleksei Titkov is an expert on Russian policy and federalism at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He told RFE/RL that Putin was keen to get Shaimiev's support.

"I believe from Putin's side, there was a very strong desire to have such a strong regional leader as Shaimiev set an example for other regional heads on how to transfer to the new system of relationship with the federal authority," Titkov said. "Because so far, the first 10 governors who got or, in a few cases, didn't get reappointed as governors were either weak politicians with unstable positions in their regions who simply wanted to secure themselves [by getting the president's support] or those whose term was about to expire."

What made Shaimiev support Putin's legislative change? Shaimiev himself says his step was related to maintaining stability in the republic. He said he should now be able to ensure the continuity of economic and social reforms.

Many in Tatarstan do see Shaimiev as a guarantor of stability. Rafiq Mukhametshin, a doctor of political science at Kazan's Institute of History, said: "I'd say that Mintimer Shaimiev is on the list of the 10 most prominent politicians of Russia. And until now he has had a consistent policy of stability. Today, as Russia goes through a complicated political period, removing him [from power in Tatarstan] would be unnatural."

Moscow-based Titkov told RFE/RL that Shaimiev is an experienced politician known for his ability to calculate a few steps ahead. He said Shaimiev benefits from the deal as much as Putin does.

"I think [Shaimiev] carefully considered all the possible consequences of his decision and is confident there are no risks for him, that his position won't worsen. Shaimiev is aware of his personal importance and of the importance of Tatarstan as a big republic with a large electorate, property and finances for Putin in the future [until the next presidential elections in 2008]," Titkov said.

Shaimiev occupied ministerial and other high positions in Tatarstan starting in 1969 and has been Tatarstan's president since 1991. He became a well-known politician espousing nationalist ideas in the late 1980s. Under his rule and at his initiative, Tatarstan's status was significantly upgraded in the former Soviet Union -- from the Tatar Autonomous Republic to the Republic of Tatarstan.

He is also known outside Russia, particularly in Central Asia, for his efforts to secure more rights for the Muslim-dominated republic.

Many believe Shaimiev's latest decision is in line with his policy of bargaining with the Kremlin and gaining more favorable terms for Tatarstan. Rafiq Mukhametshin told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that he believes Shaimiev agreed to stay in power and maintain stability in exchange for a new treaty with Moscow.

"[Announcing Putin's request for him to remain in power, Shaimiev] underlined the importance of a bilateral treaty to maintain federal relations in Russia. The permanent political struggle between Tatarstan and Russia is still going on, of course, within a legal, constitutional framework, and if a new agreement keeping some of Tatarstan's interests is reached, it might determine the strategy [of keeping federative relations between Kazan and Moscow] both for Shaimiev and Tatarstan itself for the future," Mukhametshin said.

Experts say Shaimiev's approval by the local legislature will go smoothly and that Shaimiev is likely to have close relations with Moscow for the next few years.

(Rim Guilfanov of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.)

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