Over the past two years, voters in several of Russia's North Caucasus republics have launched campaigns to demand that their republican head should be elected by popular ballot, rather than selected by President Vladimir Putin from among three candidates proposed by the region's legislature and then formally "elected" by that same legislature.
The initiatives have generated interest and expressions of support from across the region, but most observers appear convinced they stand little or no chance of success.
The procedure for electing the heads of Russia's 83 federation subjects has changed several times over the past 13 years. Until 2004, the Russian Constitution guaranteed the right of voters to elect their regional leader. That right was revoked, on Putin's initiative, in the wake of the Beslan hostage taking in which 334 people, over half of them schoolchildren, were killed.
Then, following widespread protests in late 2011, then-President Dmitry Medvedev initiated new legislation bringing back direct elections. Less than a year later, however, in December 2012, Republic of North Ossetia parliament speaker Aleksei Machnev advocated allowing individual regions to decide how to elect their heads. And in March 2013, the law was amended to grant the regions the right to decide whether or not to hold direct elections. The rationale Putin cited for that revision was to preclude "national and interethnic religious conflicts" such as the tensions in Karachayevo-Cherkessia in 1999 in the run-up to a presidential runoff between a Karachai and a Circassian.
Over the next few months, all but one of the North Caucasus republics passed legislation empowering the regional parliament to select the most fitting candidate for the post of republican head.
The exception was Chechnya, where incumbent Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov was reelected for a third consecutive term in October 2016 with 97.94 percent of the vote.
Numerous journalists and commentators, however, either questioned or rejected out of hand the assumption that the North Caucasus republics are inherently so unstable that direct elections could trigger violent clashes between supporters of rival candidates.
Journalist and Kremlin insider Maksim Shevchenko, a member of President Putin's Human Rights Council with an extensive knowledge of the North Caucasus, recently argued that there are no objective reasons for not allowing direct elections, given that the threat of terrorism has receded and the overall situation is stable.
Several experts have made the point that depriving voters in specific regions of the constitutionally guaranteed right to elect their leader only strengthens the perception that the inhabitants of the North Caucasus are regarded by the Kremlin as second-class citizens.
Other arguments against indirect elections are more pragmatic. Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Expertise, affirmed that "the transition to indirect elections of governors in the [Russian Federation] turned out to be a failed experiment.... If we look at the general effectiveness of those [regional leaders] who were appointed, it is lower than that of those who were elected."
The first North Caucasus region to raise the question of bringing back direct elections was the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR). In January 2016, the local chapter of the Communists of Russia party appealed unsuccessfully to the republic's Central Election Commission to schedule a referendum on the issue. In October, the commission likewise rejected a request by the KChR chapter of the Party for Russia's Rebirth to register an initiative group that planned to organize such a referendum.
A third such request was made by the Congress of Elders of the Karachai People, which in March adopted a formal demand that the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic head be popularly elected. The 200-plus elders argued that without direct elections at all levels, building a genuine civil society is impossible.
Several months later, in late October, the Congress of Elders of the Karachai People appealed to the KChR parliament to bring back direct elections, the website Kavpolit reported.
Meanwhile, in the Republic of Adygeya, the only region of the South Russia Federal District whose leader is not popularly elected, an initiative group launched a petition one year ago on change.org calling for direct elections that attracted some 4,657 signatures within three weeks (of a total population of approximately 450,000).
A separate public organization headed by Asker Sokht, deputy head of the Krasnodar Krai Circassian Council, was established in early November 2016, just months before republic head Aslan Tkhakushinov's second term expired, the news portal Caucasian Knot reported. Its members stated explicitly that they were not against republican then-Prime Minister Murat Kumpilov, a close relative of Tkhakushinov whom the latter wanted to succeed him, running in direct elections, but simply wanted a choice of candidates. Putin ignored that demand and named Kumpilov acting republic head in January.
In mid-October, the opposition Council of Teyps of the Ingush People publicly endorsed the campaign by the Congress of Elders of the Karachai People to bring back direct elections, declaring that "depriving citizens and entire ethnic groups of the right to elect and be elected...constitutes a blatant violation of the constitution of [the Russian Federation], which in a law-based state presupposes criminal responsibility," Caucasian Knot reported
Individual regional politicians, too, have added their voice to the demand for the restoration of direct elections. Gadzhimurad Omarov, who heads the Daghestan chapter of the opposition A Just Russia party and represents Bashkortostan in the Russian State Duma, has appealed publicly to acting Republic of Daghestan head Vladimir Vasliyev to "restore constitutional order and gives Daghestanis back the right to elect [their leader]," the news portal Regnum reported on October 20.
Even Republic of North Ossetia head Vyacheslav Bitarov, who in the event of an open ballot would be at risk of losing to popular opposition leader Arsen Fadzayev, has expressed his approval.
Despite the growing demand, most observers nonetheless remain pessimistic. Shevchenko and others are convinced that the Kremlin prefers to entrust regions perceived as problematic to politicians who can be trusted 100-percent to implement its orders. Shevchenko is on record as saying that the choice of republican head is determined by concerted lobbying and the price individual politicians are prepared to pay for the privilege. "Everyone knows who paid how much to whom," the website Kavpolit quoted him as saying. In early 2010, it was rumored that Magomedsalam Magomedov had offered a five-figure sum in U.S. dollars in the hope of being selected as president of Daghestan.
Some observers, however, do not exclude the possibility that Moscow might make an exception. Lawyer Vitaly Averin told Caucasian Knot that faced with pressure in a specific North Caucasus republic where direct elections have been abolished, the Kremlin might agree to reverse that ruling, but is unlikely to do so for all of them.