Although the details aren’t clear, the bottom line is that longtime Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov – he has headed the republic since 1993 – will not seek another term.
Some media are reporting that he will step down immediately and that the legislature of the oil-rich republic is being hastily convened tomorrow to hear his resignation speech and/or to pass a package of immunity guarantees and retirement benefits that are reportedly part of the deal to push the dinosaur aside. Other media say Rakhimov will serve out his current term, which ends in October 2011, while still others say his departure will come before then, but in a seemly fashion that could take weeks or months.
But, as I said, the bottom line is that Rakhimov will be gone, like other Yeltsin-era governors before him, including Oryol Oblast's Yegor Stroyev, Murmansk's Yury Yevdokimov, Volgograd Oblast's Nikolai Maksyuta, Sverdlovsk Oblast’s Eduard Rossel, Khanty-Mansiisk’s Aleksandr Filipenko, Tatarstan’s Mintimer Shaimiyev, and Karelia’s Sergei Katanandov. The general take on the replacements has been that the Kremlin is strengthening its control over the regions (via the ruling United Russia party) by eliminating regional leaders with their own local bases of support.
Some analysts also note that Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 only after some fairly fierce competition from the Fatherland-All Russia bloc that was built around some of the country’s most powerful regional leaders – Shaimiyev, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, and then St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev (haven’t heard that name lately…. He seems to have disappeared). Putin is known to take his politics personally.
Of course, with Rakhimov’s ouster, Moscow’s Luzhkov looks even more lonesome and vulnerable.
Although replacing regional leaders who have their own local bases of support (and we are talking about nepotism, cronyism, and corruption-based relationships within the local elites, not popular support) clearly strengthens the power vertical (and further erodes the federation’s sham federalism), the process shows some of the overall system’s weaknesses.
For instance, although it technically would have been possible to simply remove Rakhimov or Putin might not have reappointed him in 2006, in the real world doing so precipitously would have set off a good old-fashioned redistribution of property in the republic. The rule of law in Russia is so weak that such transitions have to be very carefully managed.
Also, analysts usually note that it is not possible to remove a major governor too soon before a national election cycle begins (Duma elections will be held in December 2011, and the next presidential election will come in March 2012). The Kremlin, after all, relies on regional administrations to manufacture the election results it seeks (and the illusion of consent).
Likewise, it would be unseemly to remove a governor too soon after an election cycle if he did, indeed, cough up the results Moscow ordered.
What does this mean for Luzhkov? His current term expires in July 2011, but that is too close to the elections for the Kremlin to make its move. But, despite the constant rumors that Luzkov is on the cutting board, there don't seem to have been any real moves against him yet. Replacing him while also preventing a clan-scramble meltdown in the capital is a tricky task, maybe one that is too risky to attempt even at this nadir between election cycles. If he can hold on for the next couple of months, he'll almost certainly get reconfirmed next July and will likely serve until after the next presidential inauguration in May 2012.
The story of Rakhimov's removal also reveals another aspect of the Russian system. Technically speaking, it is the president and the presidential envoys to the regions who should be handling such questions.
But Rakhimov cut his deal on Monday in a three-hour meeting with Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin. But according to some reports, Rakhimov wanted to talk to Putin directly, but the prime minister refused to see him. We can see where the buck stops.
-- Robert Coalson
NOTE: This post originally stated erroneously that Sergei Naryshkin is Vladimir Putin's chief of staff. It has been corrected to reflect that he is President Dmitry Medvedev's chief of staff.