An incipient leadership change in one of the smallest North Caucasus republics could jeopardize the region's reputation as an island of stability in a region plagued by violence and corruption.
Meeting in the Kremlin on January 12 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Aslan Tkhakushinov, 69, formally stepped down at the end of his second five-year term as head of Adygeya, a Russian republic in the foothills of the North Caucasus. Putin then named republican parliament speaker Murat Kumpilov as acting republic head pending the election in September of a successor. Seeing as Kumpilov is believed to be the nephew of Tkhakushinov's wife, the appointment has led to suggestions that this is a hereditary transfer of power.
Putin lauded Tkhakushinov for having worked "fundamentally, seriously, with great responsibility." But his legacy cannot by any stretch of the imagination be termed impressive. According to Asker Sokht, chairman of the Adyghe Khase (Circassian Council) that represents the Circassian minority in neighboring Kransnodar Krai, Tkhakushinov relied on a small circle of trusted advisers and had little contact with the population at large.
Adygeya's dependence on subsidies from the federal budget has declined over the past decade, from 61.1 percent to 38.2 percent. But in other respects the economy is stagnating. The budget deficit is currently 9.8 percent and increasing; investment is virtually nonexistent, partly due to the leadership's reputation for corruption; and the harassment and red tape local businessmen must contend with are reportedly so great that many simply give up and move their businesses elsewhere.
Asked to enumerate Tkhkushinov's achievements, Sokht mentioned only the academic reputation of the Maykop State Technological Institute, of which Tkhakushinov was rector from 1994-2006.
Kumpilov, 43, an economist who served as republican prime minister from May 2008 until September 2016, when he was elected parliament chairman, is widely regarded as bearing primary responsibility for the region's economic stagnation and the degradation of basic infrastructure that is compounding social discontent. But that is not the only reason why part of the republic's population does not want to see him as its head. They also resent Tkhakushinov's blatant efforts to install a member of his immediate family as his successor. (His brother, son, and other family members already occupy senior posts.)
Moreover, in March 2016 he inveigled the republic's parliament into abolishing direct elections for the post of republic head that he had previously endorsed. Instead, his successor will be elected by the parliament from among three candidates Putin selects, one of whom will almost certainly be Kumpilov.
Adygeya is by no means the only republic where direct elections for republic head have been abolished. The same holds true for the other North Caucasus republics, except for Chechnya, and for three other regions that, like Adygeya, constitute enclaves within a larger federation subject.
On the other hand, Adygeya is the only region in the Southern Federal District that no longer has the right to hold direct elections. Possibly for that reason, Sokht founded a movement last fall to bring back direct elections. Some 5,000 people (of a total population of some 450,000) subsequently signed a petition addressed to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev urging him to do so.
Meanwhile, some 2,000 people signed a second petition, addressed to President Putin, asking him to appoint as Tkhakushinov's successor Adam Dzharim, one of two candidates seen as viable alternatives to Kumpilov in the event of direct elections. Dzharim, 51, is head of the Severny district of Krasnodar Krai that borders on Adygeya and has experienced strong economic growth under his watch. The second is Dzhambulat Khatuov, a Russian deputy minister of agriculture.
The news portal Regnum quoted analyst Vitaly Arkov as saying the two men's candidacies were being actively lobbied by Russian Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachev, Khatuov's boss and a former governor of Krasnodar Krai, and Tkachev's successor in Krasnodar, Veniamin Kondratyev, in the hope of preserving a modicum of influence over Adygeya's next leader.
The fact that Kumpilov has been named acting republic head almost certainly guarantees that he will be permanently confirmed in that post, however. And even though the level of popular disenchantment in Adygeya is relatively low, it seems equally likely that the Kremlin will ignore the petition requesting the reintroduction of direct elections for republic head rather than risk an embarrassing defeat for Kumpilov that would reflect negatively on Putin in the run-up to the Russian presidential election in 2018.