Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 195

The situation in the Russian republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the country’s largest, shows what can happen when an incumbent loses the support of the local elite. Sakha’s President Mikhail Nikolaev has already served two terms in office. Hoping to benefit from recent changes in federal legislation that cleared the way for the majority of Russia’s regional leaders to run for a third term, Nikolaev has applied for registration as a candidate in the upcoming election for president of the republic (Russian agencies, October 19).

Determined to stop him, the leaders of Sakha’s parliament, the State Assembly, have refused to bring the republic’s constitution into line with federal law. Moreover, they stuck to their guns even when the Supreme Court ordered them to make the amendment (see the Monitor, October 16).

Commentators rushed to write Nikolaev’s political obituary. The dominant view was that the Kremlin no longer trusted Nikolaev and planned to engineer his replacement. Nikolaev’s replacement was identified as Vyacheslav Shtyrov, head of the diamond company Almazy Rossii-Sakha (ALROSA), which accounts for 70 percent of Sakha’s budget. Shtyrov registered as a candidate soon after the State Assembly dug in its heels and refused to amend the republic’s constitution (Lenta.ru, October 15). According to some reports, Shtyrov had already got the nod of approval from the Kremlin (Kommersant, October 16).

A twist was added to the story, however, with the appearance on the scene of a third presidential hopeful–Russian Deputy Prosecutor General Vasily Kolmogorov. Kolmogorov has no roots in Sakha but is reportedly being backed by the powerful Moscow bank Mezhprombank. His election would not suit Nikolaev, or Shtyrov, or the rest of the republic elite. Kolmogorov’s presence on the ballot may well, therefore, force Nikolaev and Shtyrov to unite in order to keep him out (Vedomosti, October 16).

Putin’s role in all this is unclear. Visiting the republic recently, the Russian president surprised everyone by speaking approvingly of Nikolaev’s candidacy in the upcoming election (Lenta.ru, October 18). The following day, Nikolaev submitted his documents for registration.

However the race turns out, the situation in Sakha serves as a vivid reminder that the dominant role in political life at regional level is played not by the letter of the law, but by the way in which the law is interpreted and implemented by the executive branch.