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Russia: Regional President Likely To See His Title Downgraded, Others Could Follow

The parliament of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania has given its final approval to legislation that would downgrade the title of the region's leader from "President" to "Head of the Republic." While the republic's leader would retain all previous powers, the parliament insists Russia must have only one president -- Vladimir Putin. Analysts say other Russian regions could soon adopt similar legislation. They view the move in North Ossetia as part of a Kremlin-led campaign to increase Putin's standing and to rein in ambitious regional leaders.

Moscow, 24 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- North Ossetia's leader Aleksandr Dzasokhov will give up his title of "president" if he signs the proposed constitutional amendments into law.

He and his successors would then take the more unassuming title of "Head of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania" as of January 2006.

Fatima Khabalova, a spokeswoman for the North Ossetian parliament, says she is confident Dzasokhov will approve the legislation. Just like local deputies, she says, Dzasokhov considers it wrong for Russian President Vladimir Putin to have to share his title with leaders of the country's 21 republics.

"He [Dzasokhov] has also said that having 20 presidents in one state is nonsense. On Saturday, a constitutional law was passed in third reading to make amendments to the Constitution of North Ossetia-Alania, which rules that the top official in the republic will be called 'Head of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania' instead of 'President,' so that there will be only one president in Russia -- that of the Russian Federation," Khabalova says.

The authorities of North Ossetia make no secret of their desire to limit the influence of regional leaders and reinforce the country's 'vertical of power.'

Putin has done much to consolidate this structure by shifting power to the center of the federal government -- the Kremlin. His efforts have prompted strong criticism from the West.

He recently proposed and saw passed new legislation that replaced the popular election of regional leaders with a system under which they are nominated by the president for approval by local parliaments.

Echoing earlier comments made by the speaker of North Ossetia's parliament, Khabalova spoke in favor of a vertical power structure and said that regional leaders in Russia enjoy too much prestige.

"It [the law] follows the same direction as the consolidation of the vertical of power, because the titles 'President of the Russian Federation' and 'President of the Republic' have almost the same meaning. Local presidents are starting to resemble princes. We think this is not quite right," Khabalova says.

Analysts, however, say the Kremlin is the main driving force behind the North Ossetian parliament's decision.

Andrei Piontkovskii is the director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. He says the decision is a move from the Kremlin to prevent regional leaders from casting a shadow over Putin.

"They [Ossetian deputies] did this on the order of the Kremlin. Such decisions are under way in other national republics. In order to further extend Putin's greatness, it is inadmissible that other people in the country hold the title of president. It does not change anything, but there is only one leader -- nobody can compare to him, nobody can be called president in a country where the president is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," Piontkovskii says.

Some prominent politicians close to the Kremlin have openly expressed their desire to see regional leaders' titles downgraded.

Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, for example, once declared that "there are too many presidents, and there should be one."

North Ossetia's parliament is the first in Russia to approve legislation that would ban a regional leader from holding the title of president, but observers predict that other regions could soon follow suit.

Other republics in the North Caucasus whose leadership is traditionally close to the Kremlin could follow suit.

Such legislation, however, could be met with resistance in republics with stronger and more independently minded leadership -- such as Tatarstan, analysts say.

Midkhat Faruqshin heads the politics department at the Kazan University in Tatarstan's capital. He says the Kremlin is trying to make Russia a uniform country in which all regional leaders hold the same title.

"This striving for the abolition of the title of president in republics is a manifestation of the general policy carried out by the Russian government toward unification and uniformity. This is completely in line with the norms of Russia's political culture," Faruqshin says.

A proposal by the authorities in Udmutria, a republic located northeast of Tatarstan, to hold a referendum on downgrading the title of president was rejected by the local parliament in April.