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Kremlin Possibly Poised For Partial U-Turn On Direct Elections

President Vladimir Putin speaks at his annual press conference in Moscow on December 20
President Vladimir Putin speaks at his annual press conference in Moscow on December 20
The Russian leadership moved one step closer this week to depriving the population of the North Caucasus of the right to participate in direct elections for the head of their respective republics. Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on December 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued in favor of allowing the so-called national republics to select a model for electing the republic head that would preclude what he termed “national and inter-ethnic religious conflicts.”

During his first presidential term, Putin abolished direct elections for republic heads in 2004 in the wake of the Beslan hostage-taking. But on the initiative of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev, new legislation was passed earlier this year reintroducing direct elections -- but at the same time imposing conditions that preclude the registration of candidates considered to be undesirable.

The wisdom of reverting even to “managed” direct elections has since been called into question. In mid-November, the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research headed by Dmitry Badovsky, who is reportedly close to presidential administration first deputy head Vyacheslav Volodin, released recommendations on fine-tuning the legislation. Specifically, the institute advocated four alternative models to direct elections which, it said, could prove more suited to the “national” republics (as opposed to the predominantly Russian-populated oblasts headed by a governor).

Those alternatives were:

  • The republican parliament elects the republic head from a list of candidates nominated by registered political parties
  • The republican parliament elects the republic head from a list of candidates nominated by registered political parties
  • Direct elections from a list of candidates proposed by parties represented in the republican parliament
  • Directly after elections to the republican parliament, the party with the largest number of mandates proposed to the Russian president to select a republic head from among the first three names on its party list

Those proposals met with a mixed reception in the North Caucasus. In North Ossetia, where United Russia lost its constitutional majority in the recent parliamentary elections , new parliament speaker Aleksei Machnev (United Russia) expressed his preference for the first one.

Given that United Russia controls 45 of the total 70 parliament mandates, that model could preclude the election to succeed Taymuraz Mamsurov of Arsen Fadzayev, the popular former wrestling champion who heads the Patriots of Russia faction in the republic’s parliament and who would have stood a better chance of winning a fair popular vote.

Daghestani analyst Zaid Abdulagatov agreed that direct elections could pose a threat to stability in that republic given its complex ethnic composition. But Russian expert Konstantin Kazyonin dismissed such fears as outdated. He said that political interest groups in the North Caucasus are not all mono-ethnic, and that keeping a particular group in power indefinitely poses a greater threat to stability in the long term than do direct elections.

Daghestan Public Chamber member Ulluby Erbolatov for his part unequivocally condemned any attempt to create special conditions for the “national” republics.

Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, who in January enthusiastically endorsed the idea of direct elections, has not yet commented publicly on the proposed changes to the law.

According to the daily “Kommersant,” a group of State Duma deputies has drafted a new law that would allow for indirect elections of the republic head by the republican parliament. There would be three candidates, selected by the Russian president from among candidates proposed by either State Duma factions or political parties represented in the parliament of the federal subject in question.

The authors of the Duma draft bill say it is necessary because of the very real differences between federation subjects in terms of ethnic composition and the spectrum of political forces, and the need to maintain political stability and avoid violent upheavals. One of the bill’s authors, Aleksei Zhuravlev (United Russia), suggests that indirect elections are best suited to those republics where "direct elections could culminate in black PR or gunfire.”

The paper quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying the draft law has the Kremlin’s approval. That source said the first such indirect election could take place as early as 2013, possibly in Ingushetia. Republic of Ingushetia head Yunus-Bek Yevkurov’s term expires next October.

The authors of the bill stress that it is not intended to abolish direct elections completely. It is not clear, however, how and by whom a decision will be taken as to which federation subjects will hold only indirect elections for republic head or governor. Badovsky had proposed that individual republics should choose in a referendum between direct or indirect elections. Mikhail Starshinov, one of the authors of the new draft law, says the regions will be able to choose for themselves how to elect their governor, but he did not specify how.

Putin too reasoned 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 inter-ethnic religious conflicts.” In that context, he cited the example of Daghestan, where the posts of president, prime minister, and parliament speaker rotate between the three largest nationalities.

But “Kommersant” quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as implying that the decision on how to elect the head of a given republic will be taken in consultations between the Kremlin and the parliament of the republic in question: “As the elections approach it will become clear what dangers exist. We shall assess the situation together with the local legislative assemblies.”

How many voters would take to the streets to protest such collusion between the Kremlin and local parliaments and defend their right to vote in an election that could well be rigged to ensure victory for the Kremlin’s preferred candidate is a matter for conjecture.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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