But Sovmen's hopes were dashed on December 13, 2006, when the Adygeya parliament endorsed Russian President Vladimir Putin's proposed candidate -- former Maykop Technological University Rector Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov.
Meeting with Tkhakushinov in Moscow in December, Putin stressed that what had been the main bone of contention between Adygeya and Moscow -- the purported plan to subsume the Adygeya Republic into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai -- is no longer on the agenda.
But Tkhakushinov, who was inaugurated as president on January 13, will have to handle a second controversial issue: the celebration -- scheduled for later this year -- of what is being touted as the 450th anniversary of the region's "voluntary incorporation" into the Kingdom of Muscovy.
Sovmen, who was born in 1937, left Adygeya in the early 1960s after completing his military service and worked for decades in Siberia, where he worked his way up to become director of Polyus Gold, Russia's largest gold producer and the 15th largest worldwide. In the January 2002 presidential ballot, he trounced the incumbent, Aslan Djarimov, and five other candidates to win election with 68 percent of the vote. Tkhakushinov, one of those five, polled less than 2 percent.
In his December valedictory message, Sovmen chronicled in detail the problems he failed to resolve during his five-year term, problems that Tkhakushinov, too, may find intractable.
Sovmen identified as his key priorities when he assumed office kick-starting the republic's stagnating economy and cracking down on endemic corruption. He recalled that when he took office Adygeya relied on subsidies from Moscow for 80 percent of its budget. By the following year that percentage had fallen to 70 percent, and by 2005 to 58 percent, the lowest of any North Caucasus republic, according to ingushetiya.ru on September 30, 2005.
Sovmen further pointed out in his farewell address that in 2005 and for the first 11 months of 2006, Adygeya had the highest GDP growth of any North Caucasus federation subject. Revenues have doubled over the past four years and some 4,000 new jobs have been created (for a population of 447,000). At the same time, Sovmen claimed that a large some of the funds he invested in a bid to kick-start the economy were embezzled.
Khazret Sovmen (right)during a visit by President Putin to Adygyea in 2005 (epa)
By his own admission, Sovmen had less success in his battle against corruption and entrenched economic and bureaucratic interests.
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting noted in July 2002 that he slashed government bureaucracy by 25 percent and reduced the total number of ministries. But according to Sovmen, his anticorruption drive ran up against "a system that barred my way like an unscalable wall," and what he termed the stubborn resistance of powerful people (whom he did not name) who are accustomed to "living off society."
Two additional factors may have worked against Sovmen: his ethnic origin (he is not an Adyg but a member of the tiny Shapsug ethnic group), and the related fact that he did not have a power base within Adygeya, and did not want to rely on the bureaucracy he inherited from Djarimov.
To remedy that lack, according to a detailed analysis circulated by regnum.ru last August, he brought in several former colleagues from elsewhere in Russia, but fired most of them within a couple of years. As of early 2004, his cadre policy reportedly became increasingly "chaotic," and ministers he dismissed swelled the ranks of the disparate opposition to him.
Sovmen's position was weakened by the election in March 2006 of a parliament in which barely half the 54 deputies supported him.
Sovmen's position was weakened by the election in March 2006 of a parliament in which barely half the 54 deputies supported him, according to regnum.ru. It was following a standoff with the new parliament in early April that Sovmen publicly offered to resign. But he subsequently explained that he made that offer not in a fit of pique at some deputies' refusal to rise to their feet as a mark of respect when he entered the parliament chamber, as some Russian media reported, but because he was under intense pressure from Dmitry Kozak, Russian presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, to approve the proposed merger between Adygeya and Krasnodar Krai that had been under discussion since late 2004.
On April 11, 2006, Sovmen submitted a written letter of resignation to Kozak and Russian presidential administration head Sergei Sobyanin. But organizations representing Adygeya's small Adyg/Cherkess minority closed ranks in support of Sovmen, issuing strongly worded statements denouncing the proposed merger, and the Kremlin decided to permit him to remain in office.
Days later, commenting on the outcome of the April 17 referendum on subsuming the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs into Krasnoyarsk Krai, Putin commented that merging federation subjects "is not an end in itself," and should be resorted to "only if territories...cannot resolve the problems of their residents independently," thereby implying that plans to combine Adygeya and Krasnodar could be shelved.
Five months later, and with four months of Sovmen's presidential term still to run, presidential envoy Kozak set in motion the procedure for determining who should succeed the president.
The Main Contenders
Following consultations in Maykop on October 2-3, Kozak selected seven possible candidates from an original list of 11. The seven were: Tkhakushinov, reportedly Kozak's preferred choice; parliament speaker Ruslan Khadjibiyokov, a key member of the Adygeya chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party; former Adygeya parliament speaker Mukharbiy Tkharkhakov; Russian Air Force deputy commander in chief Lieutenant General Aytech Bizhev; Adam Tleuzh, Adygeya's outgoing representative on the Federation Council, and his successor, Ruslan Khashir; and Sovmen himself.
Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov at his swearing in on on January 13 (TASS)
The Adygeya chapter of Unified Russia was quick to endorse Tkhakushinov. That short-list of potential candidates was subsequently whittled down to three -- Tkhakushinov, Khadjibiyokov, and Khashir --- who, together with Sovmen, were summoned to Moscow to present their respective presidential programs to Unified Russia's top leadership. Sovmen, however, declined to do so, whereupon Unified Russia formally endorsed Tkhakushinov's candidacy.
Sovmen nonetheless launched a last-ditch battle for the right to serve a second term, soliciting public statements of support from several political organizations and groups, including the political organization Adyghe Khase that had hitherto been ambivalent toward him.
Tkhakushinov has revealed that economic-development plans have been drafted for individual regions of the republic, and for each separate government ministry.
Meanwhile, the Prague-based "Caucasus Times" published in late October the findings of an opinion poll it conducted among some 400 respondents in Maykop between October 19-24, 59 percent of whom positively assessed Sovmen's term in office as a period of "order," "stability", and improved socioeconomic conditions.
But the Adygeya parliament went ahead and approved Tkhakushinov's candidacy on October 25 by 46 votes in favor, with two against and six abstentions. President Putin endorsed that proposal on December 6 and the Adygeya parliament formally approved Tkhakushinov's candidacy one week later.
Speaking at a press conference in Maykop on December 22, and again in his inauguration speech on January 13, Tkhakushinov singled out as his primary task reviving the republic's economy, specifically agriculture, in particular livestock raising, and the food-processing industry. That emphasis on the economy implicitly calls into question Sovmen's claim in his farewell address to have turned the moribund economy around.
It is likewise at odds with the assessment delivered on December 25 by members of Adygeya's outgoing government, who according to regnum.ru calculated that following a 50 percent decline between 1991-2001, GDP grew by 26 percent during Sovmen's five-year term to reach 17 billion rubles ($602.6 million) in 2006.
Why Not Sovmen?
The question thus arises: if Putin decided in the spring of 2006 not to push ahead (at least prior to the 2008 presidential election) with any further mergers of two or more federation subjects, and if Sovmen could demonstrate modest success in galvanizing the economy, at least in reducing Adygeya's dependence on federal subsidies, why was it considered inexpedient to permit him to serve a second term? After all, it was Kozak who last year tried to instigate direct rule from the center for those federation subjects that were most dependent on subsidies from Moscow.
Remarks by Tkhakushinov at his December 21, 2006, press conference go some way toward answering those questions. Tkhakushinov affirmed unequivocally on that occasion that he is against any formal merger of Adygeya into Krasnodar Krai. But at the same time, he argued eloquently in favor of far closer economic integration and cooperation between the two regions -- which figured prominently in the original rationale for the merger.
Official support for such integration would also find favor with businessmen from Adygeya who have invested in Krasnodar, and vice versa. Tkhakushinov also revealed that the Maykop Technological University has drafted economic-development plans for individual regions of the republic, and for each separate government ministry.
In addition, Tkhakushinov stressed that Adygeya's Slavic population will receive a quota of government posts commensurate with its relative share of the population. He has already named a Slav, Vladimir Samozhonkov, as prime minister. In other words, Tkhakushinov has shown himself willing to redress one of the major grievances -- lack of representation in government -- that contributed to the Slavic population's support for the proposed territorial merger.
Whether Tkhakushinov will manage to demolish the "unscalable wall" of vested interests against which Sovmen claims to have come to grief, and how he will defuse any countercampaign the Adygs and Cherkess may launch against the proposed 450th anniversary celebrations this summer, remains to be seen.