It was less than a year ago that the Russian State Duma passed a law reintroducing direct elections for the heads of the 83 federation subjects. Then-Russian President Vladimir Putin had abolished direct elections in 2004; since then federation subject heads have been selected from a shortlist of candidates proposed by the local chapter of the ruling United Russia party.
An amendment to that law drafted late last year would make provision for reverting to the practice of nominating, rather than electing, republic heads. The authors of the bill explained that it was intended primarily for application in those republics where direct elections could lead to widespread unrest or bloodshed, as was the case in Karachayevo-Cherkessia in 1999.
Ingushetia was mentioned as the first republic where the new model could be applied, given that Yevkurov's term expires in October. The Duma is scheduled to vote on the amendment in the first reading this week.
It is as yet unclear what criteria will be used to decide which federation subjects hold direct elections and which do not. President Putin, who raised the possibility of such a differentiated approach during a press conference a month ago, stressed that "we cannot give one right to some [federation] subjects and another to others.... We must give people in the national republics the right to take optimal decisions in line with their traditions and culture, [decisions] that will spare us national and interethnic religious conflicts."
That statement implies input from the electorate of the "national republics" on whether their republic head should be elected or nominated. But in republics like Kabardino-Balkaria, where the smaller of the two titular nationalities resents the concentration of power in the hands of the larger, holding a referendum on the preferred procedure could trigger precisely the type of unrest that the nomination process is intended to avoid. Not permitting the most volatile republics to hold a referendum would only enhance the perception of discrimination. And in Chechnya, where election outcomes and turnout routinely beggar belief, the outcome of such a referendum would be open to question.
"Kommersant" commented that the dual system for electing/nominating republic heads would mean that some will be seen as less legitimate than others. In a separate interview with the same paper, Yevkurov too categorically rejected it, arguing that there should be one single law for all federation subjects, with no separate provision for the North Caucasus. Yevkurov added that he personally "would not want under any circumstances to take advantage of this exclusive provision and be appointed, while my colleagues in other regions are elected. In that case I would feel I had robbed someone of something."
At the same time, Yevkurov rejected the concept of republic-level elections as "fraught with the risk of social disintegration," at least at the current stage, although he did not rule out a transition to that model in 10, 20, or 30 years' time. Instead, he favors reverting to the nomination by the Russian president of the heads/governors of all federation subjects without exception.
Scuttling Any Chance Of Return?
Yevkurov's categorical rejection of the planned provision to exclude direct elections in republics perceived to be problematic puts him at odds with the Ingushetian parliament faction of the ruling United Russia party, which has endorsed it in principle. Whichever approach is eventually chosen to selecting the next Ingushetia head, it is that faction that will nominate United Russia's candidate.
Yevkurov's statement is also likely to compound the animosity toward him of the opposition Mekhk Kkhel, which recently issued a statement condemning the proposed legislative amendment as a ploy initiated by neighboring North Ossetia with the aim of engineering the appointment to leading posts in Ingushetia of candidates who will unquestioningly comply with orders from Moscow, rather than seek to defend the interests of the Ingush people. Mekhk Kkhel continues to support demands for the return to Ingushetian jurisdiction of North Ossetia's Prigorodny district.
It is not clear, however, whether Yevkurov wants to serve a second term. Earlier in the 2,500-word "Kommersant" interview, he dodged the interviewer's questions on the subject, saying he will announce his decision within the next couple of months.
In a truly free and fair direct election, Yevkurov would stand virtually no chance of winning. Although greeted with jubilation and acclaim when appointed by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in October 2008, he has since squandered the hopes and trust of the republic's half-million population by turning a blind eye to egregious corruption among his immediate entourage. His modest successes in improving social conditions and Ingushetia's economic viability (the level of federal subsidies in the republic's budget has declined from 94.6 percent in 2008 to 84 percent in 2012) and in reversing the escalation in violence between the Islamic insurgency and police and security forces have done little to stem that erosion of public trust.
Paradoxically, the potential candidate best placed to benefit should Yevkurov decide against a second term (or simply not secure the ruling party's backing) is his once equally hated and despised predecessor, Murat Zyazikov. In January 2012, Zyazikov was dismissed as one of Medvedev's advisers. At the same time, a media campaign was launched to create a new image of him as a leader worthy of respect and an expert on the history and traditions of the Ingush people. He was appointed a deputy presidential envoy to the Central Federal District last fall.
It is not clear whether Yevkurov's argument against direct elections for the post of Republic of Ingushetia head is intended to sabotage the chances of the candidate most likely to win a free and fair election: former Russian Army General Ruslan Aushev, whom Putin forced to step down prematurely in early 2002. An initiative group has recently been formed to collect signatures in support of Aushev's candidacy.
Mekhk Kkhel launched a campaign for Aushev's return to power in the summer of 2008, but branded him a traitor and withdrew its support for him after he failed to express condolences on the murder of prominent oppositionist Magomed Yevloyev.