Accessibility links

Breaking News

Tatarstan Elections Are Back, But What About Federalism?

Tatarstan's Moscow-appointed President Rustam Minnikhanov (right) has three years left on his current term, but an election will be held to choose his successor.
Tatarstan's Moscow-appointed President Rustam Minnikhanov (right) has three years left on his current term, but an election will be held to choose his successor.
The current term of Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov doesn't expire for nearly three more years. But legislators in the republic are nevertheless scrambling to draft a new law on how to elect his successor.

Regional parliaments across Russia are busy drafting legislation regulating the direct election of the heads of the country's 83 regions to comply with a new federal law restoring those elections after an eight-year absence. This new legislation comes into effect on June 1.

Perhaps nowhere is the process as contentious and consequential than in independent-minded Tatarstan. In other regions, the debate largely revolves around a struggle for dominance between the ruling United Russia and other political parties.

But in Tatarstan, the local branch of United Russia, which dominates the region, is eager to use the opportunity to loosen Moscow's grip a bit -- and, maybe someday, to restore a greater degree of Russian federalism.

"Moscow will say: Do what we want and that's it," says Rafael Khakimov, a historian and United Russia deputy in Tatarstan's regional parliament. "But we need to have our say in this. We need to make our own decisions so that we don’t have to go to Moscow every time we need just a signature."

Under a bill that passed its first reading in Tatarstan's parliament on May 28, all candidates must be nominated by political parties.

But some United Russia lawmakers, including Khakimov, want to make sure it is the local branch of the party, headed by parliament speaker Farid Mukhammatshin, that makes the call rather than Moscow.

Cajoling Local Lawmakers

According to the bill, candidates must have support signatures from 5 percent of the republic's local lawmakers representing at least three-quarters of its districts. In raw numbers, that means 408 signatures from 34 regions.

The vast majority of more than 8,000 local lawmakers in the republic hail from United Russia. The Communist Party has only 150; A Just Russia has just 82, and the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia has a sole deputy. The liberal Yabloko party also has one.

Such dominance should assure that Tatarstan's United Russia branch will be able to nominate its preferred candidate. But concerns persist that the national branch of the party will be able to cajole enough local lawmakers and maintain control of the process.

There are also concerns that the bill does not include the requirement that the republic's president must speak both of Tatarstan's official languages -- Tatar and Russian.

Although that requirement is in the republic's constitution, some observers have seen its absence in the draft law as a possible weakening of the status of the Tatar language.

Lawmakers are scheduled to debate amendments to the law on June 21.

Until 2004, governors and other regional heads were directly elected. But after a devastating wave of terrorist attacks -- most importantly, the horrific Beslan school hostage-taking in September 2004 that left more than 380 people dead -- then President Vladimir Putin ended gubernatorial elections as part of his effort to strengthen Russia's top-down authoritarian state.

But, on June 1, a new reform ushered in during the last days of Dmitry Medvedev's presidency takes effect and regional executive-branch elections will be restored.

The federal law contains a few age and citizenship requirements, but most importantly, it stipulates a "filter," in that all candidates will have to collect signatures from between 5 and 10 percent of municipal lawmakers or mayors.

That provision is largely seen as a way of bolstering the power of the ruling United Russia party, which controls local legislatures across the country.

But Tatarstan Communist Party head Khafiz Mirgalimov sees the filter as an effort by Moscow to control the republic.

"The federal center needs this kind of 'filter,' because they afraid they won't be able to have their candidate as the president of Tatarstan," he says. "It is a step back for democracy."

In his last days as president, Medvedev took the precaution of appointing new governors in several regions where United Russia is weakest -- Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Moscow Oblast, in particular -- meaning that they won't see direct elections for another four or five years.

'Raising The Banner Of Democracy'

Despite the controversies, the restoration of executive-branch elections means a lot in Tatarstan.

Notwithstanding the fact that Moscow has insisted repeatedly that there is only one president in Russia, Tatarstan's leader is still called a president.

The provisions of the republican constitution dealing with presidential elections were only "suspended" in 2004.

Mintimer Shamiyev, who was directly elected Tatar president in 1996 and again in 2001, spoke out strongly against the 2004 initiative to eliminate the elections.

In comments during the parliamentary debate this week, he said: "Undoubtedly, the ability of the people to independently elect the heads of the region was an enormous credit to [former Russian President] Boris Yeltsin, raising the banner of democracy."

United Russia lawmaker Khakimov has echoed this sentiment and hopes the restoration of elections would be a harbinger of further changes for Tatarstan and other regions.

"As for democracy, we can't compete with Europe," he says. We have our own democracy. Our democracy is to preserve Tatarstan the way it is now. Now we are happy to have this presidential election back.

"While voting in favor of this bill many of us [in parliament] expressed hope that we may also slowly return to federalism in Russia."

RFE/RL Tatar-Bashkir Service correspondent Alsu Kurmasheva contributed to this report