Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 189

One of the main battles in the war between the federal Center and the regional elite is near its end. It involves the decision by the State Council of the Republic of Tatarstan to move up the republic’s presidential elections from March 2001 to December of this year, and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev’s apparent intention to run in these elections and secure a third term in office. Tatarstan’s law does not limit the number of terms its president can serve, but Russian Federation law allows top government officials to serve at most two.

Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov has declared that the decision to move up the election date was illegal and will be challenged in court. The issue has become the first serious test of President Vladimir Putin and his team’s determination to bring the regional elites in line.

Traditionally, battles between the federal center and the regions, regardless of their outcome, have tended to end with the appearance of a compromise suggested by the region. This tradition has been upheld in the current dispute between Tatarstan and Moscow. On October 3, Shaimiev made an announcement which appeared outwardly to be a compromise. Speaking at a session of the presidium of Tatarstan’s State Council, the Tatarstan president called for holding republican presidential elections at the time dictated by the republic’s constitution–that is, in March of next year (Russian agencies, October 3). Shaimiev, however, accompanied this statement with rather ambiguous comments. He said that the State Council’s decision to change the election’s date was motivated by “the necessity and desire not to allow a big gap between the parliamentary and presidential elections.” He noted that Tatarstan’s prosecutor general and the chairman of the republic’s Supreme Court had confirmed the legality of such a decision, and that he had consulted with them again after Veshnyakov and various national media had warned of possible “complications” if the republic’s presidential vote were moved forward. Shaimiev emphasized that the issue was particularly important because it involved the presidency of the republic. “Whoever becomes president, we have no right to place the results of the elections in doubt,” he concluded. “Thus there is no need to move the elections to an earlier date” (Russian agencies, October 3).

The tone of Shaimiev’s statements by no means suggested that he was capitulating. In addition, an issue more serious than the date for the elections remains on the agenda–the issue of a third term for Shaimiev. And while various national media interpreted Shaimiev’s comments as signaling a Kremlin victory, these observers were confusing means and ends. Moving up Tatarstan’s presidential elections was simply a means of making Shaimiev’s victory in them easier, and the fact that this idea been dropped does not mean the goal has likewise been dropped. In fact, the Russian Federation law limiting regional leaders to two terms in office stipulates that the regions have two years to alter their own laws accordingly. Thus the federal center has no means of thwarting Shaimiev’s apparent plans to serve another term. By agreeing not to move up the elections, the Tatarstan president simply created the appearance of making a concession while in fact putting the Kremlin on the spot once again. It is evident that if Shaimiev wants to be elected for a third term, he will get his wish. And the events of the past week have demonstrated, above all, that Putin’s team does not know how to act in the face of this reality. A leading Russian newspaper reported that the presidential administration “was genuinely taken aback” by the developments in Tatarstan and is worried that they will “blow up the whole Putin reform of the power vertical.” It was also noted that the Kremlin’s attempts to influence Shaimiev through the apparatus of the president’s authorized representative in Volga federal district, Sergei Kirienko, were unsuccessful. Shaimiev, the paper wrote, treated Kirienko courteously, as he would a waiter, “first listening attentively and then ordering his favorite dish” (Argumenty i fakty, October 4).

Some observers even speculated that the Kremlin had already capitulated, agreeing to accept a third Shaimiev term as an exception. Thus Shaimiev’s decision not to move the Tatarstan presidential elections forward was simply a “payment” for the Kremlin’s capitulation on the larger issue. These same observers noted that the Tatarstan example could spread, which would force the Kremlin to abandon its insistence on federal legality for the Yeltsin-era formula to “swallow as much sovereignty as [possible]” (Segodnya, October 4). Another newspaper, citing an anonymous top official in the Kremlin administration, reported that the Kremlin might suggest amending the law “On the general principles for organizing legislative and executive organs of state power of the Russian Federation subjects” in such a way to give twenty other regional heads the opportunity to run for third terms legally (Kommersant, October 6). Various media explained that such an amendment was needed because of the “imprecision” of the federal law on the issue of terms in office for regional leaders. This spin, however, would appear to be an attempt by Putin’s team to save face. It would be fair to point out, however, that there is another interpretation of the Kremlin’s behavior: the president’s team may be willing to drop a two-term limit for the regional leaders in return for their agreement that a similar limitation on the Russian president also be dropped (Segodnya, October 5).