On January 1 a new law came into force, whereby Russia’s regional executive leaders will be appointed by the president rather than elected directly by the people. The people’s voice will only be able to sway local parliaments, but even this influence will be limited because under the new law the Russian president will be able to disband a legislature if it rejects his executive candidate three times.
Nevertheless, recent events in the Caucasus show that people are simply ignoring the law and seeking new ways to oppose regional governors whom they distrust. In North Ossetia, demonstrators from the town of Beslan recently blocked the main regional highway to demand an independent investigation of last September’s hostage crisis. The crowd also is demanding the resignation of Alexander Dzasokhov, the president of North Ossetia. One photo published by gazeta.ru on January 21 showed protestors brandishing signs proclaiming, “We don’t trust Dzasokhov and his team any more!”
Dzasokhov addressed the crowd and said that the issue of his resignation would be resolved according to the new federal law (gazeta.ru, January 20). However, locals are insisting on a referendum in the republic to decide whether Dzasokhov should step down. They also have demanded that criminal proceedings be instituted against local security officials, including former interior minister Kazbek Dzantiyev and Valery Andreyev, the Federal Security Service (FSB) chief (Caucasus Times, January 24).
The idea of a referendum totally contradicts the new law and the spirit of the current political situation in Russia as a whole. It is very unlikely that the authorities will accede to the Ossetian protest movement on this issue.
A similar crisis unfolded last November in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where people demanded the resignation of President Mustafa Batdyev after his son-in-law, Ali Kaitov, was implicated in the murder of several prominent local figures. Dmitry Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, rejected the demands, saying, “We cannot set a precedent” (Novaya gazeta, November 15, 2004; EDM October 27, 2004). Such demands can still be heard in the republic, as the local opposition continues to try to force Batdyev to resign. The local newspaper Vesti gor recently published a roster of members of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia government, which revealed that most of them were related to Batdyev (yufo.ru, January 21). The president was forced to dismiss the government and appoint a new prime minister to normalize the situation (yufo.ru, January 20).
According to Yufo news agency sources, there is no chance that the Kremlin will appoint either Batdyev or Dzasokhov for another term of office (yufo.ru, January 12). Nevertheless, it is very important for Moscow to show that any possible resignations by the two leaders originate in a decision of the federal government, not popular pressure. This logic explains why the Kremlin cannot agree to any popular demands for the resignation of any regional leader.
Another president in trouble is Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan, in the Volga region. Locals demanded Rakhimov’s resignation during a January 22 rally in Ufa, the capital city. Ekho Moskvy radio reported that people gave Rakhmonov an ultimatum: Restore pensioner’s benefits and resign before February 26 or else . . . (Ekho Moskvy, January 22). The demand for Rakhimov’s resignation shows that the Kremlin’s nightmare, a domino effect of regional revolutions, could easily turn into reality.
The Kremlin’s plan to enlarge regions to reduce the number of constituent units of the Russian Federation has also encountered its first setback. The first steps toward the enlargement had been going smoothly. Last year Penza Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug were united, while a referendum on combining Krasnoyarsk Krai and the Taimyir and Evenki Autonomous Okrugs is scheduled for April 17 (RIA-Novosti, January 24).
However, the unification scheme met serious resistance in Adygea, a Caucasian region, which the Kremlin had decided to combine with Krasnodar Krai. A statement by krai governor Alexander Tkachev, in which he fully backed the idea of unification, enraged the Adygei leaders. The Cherkessk Congress, an influential civic organization in the republic, threatened to appeal to the world community to promote self-determination of the Adygean nation “if the issue of unification of Krasnodar Krai and the Republic of Adygea is discussed by the government of the Russian Federation” (yufo.ru, December 31). According to a statement released by the Congress, “All national [ethnic] republics of the Russian Federation were formed not only on the basis of their own constitutions, the constitution of the Russian Federation, and the Federative Treaty of 1992, but also on the basis of international law” (yufo.ru, December 31). Khazaret Sovmen, the president of Adygea, also called the proposal to combine the two lands “a political mistake” that could “lead to disaster,” especially considering the complex situation in the North Caucasus (regions.ru, January 14).
Recent events thus suggest that the two radical reforms (the appointment of governors and the enlargement of regions), which were initiated to strengthen the so-called “vertical power structure” in Russia, may produce quite an opposite effect and destabilize the volatile North Caucasus.