A constitutional conflict is brewing in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), geographically Russia’s largest region, on whose territory Russia’s diamond deposits are concentrated. In a vote on October 11, the republic’s State Assembly failed to muster the required number of votes–two-thirds of the parliamentarians–to amend the republic’s constitution. Article 67 currently states that “No one may be elected to the republic’s presidency more than twice” (Polit.ru, October 11). In September, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that this clause violated federal law and must be amended (Kommersant, September 26). The amendment was nonetheless rejected by parliament (Russian agencies, October 11). The speaker of the State Assembly, Vasily Filippov, said that the constitution would be brought in line with federal legislation, but not until the New Year (Polit.ru, October 12).
Parliament’s stubbornness has robbed Mikhail Nikolaev, Yakutia’s incumbent president, of his last legal chance of participating in the presidential election scheduled for December 23. Nikolaev was elected for the first time in 1991 and re-elected for a second term in 1996; under the republic constitution, therefore, he has exhausted his limit. His supporters were hoping to arrange things so that the calculation of his terms in office would begin in 1999, creating a legal loophole and allowing him to compete in the December election (Regions.ru, October 11). Nikolaev is not resigned to the idea of defeat and has already officially notified the republic election commission of his intention to stand for election (Russian agencies, September 24).
The irony of the situation is that, in the case of Yakutia, the federal center, which normally seeks to limit the number of terms governors may serve, has switched position with the regional elite, which generally resists any kind of restriction imposed from above. Observers are, however, split over whether Nikolaev is being supported by the Kremlin. Some note that the inner circle of Konstantin Pulikovsky, presidential representative to the Far Eastern federal district, has let it be known that the federal authorities are banking on Nikolaev to neutralize the communists and the Yakutian nationalists (Novye Izvestia, September 28). Others interpret a statement by Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov, according to whom Nikolaev has no right to run for a third term, as an indication that the Kremlin has withdrawn its support from Nikolaev (Kommersant, October 9). What almost everyone agrees is that it is still unclear who will be “the Kremlin’s man” in December. Perhaps the republic’s State Assembly, over which Nikolaev has recently lost a lot of influence, was trying to force the Kremlin to define its position vis-à-vis the election. But it is also unclear whom the local elite would prefer to replace Nikolaev–some ten candidates are planning to run in the elections–or whether the federal Center will like the local elite’s choice.
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