Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 4

Presidential elections in Chuvashia – Martial arts, Eastern-style

By Rashid Akhmetov

When Nikolai Fedorov was first elected president of Russia’s Republic of Chuvashia in January 1994, he personified the hopes of Chuvash democrats and was supported by the "Democratic Chuvashia" movement. Now, four years later, the republic is still saddled with economic problems and Fedorov’s popularity has fallen sharply.

The Chuvash are a Turkic people and the fourth largest ethnic group in the Russian Federation. Their territory was annexed to the Russian Empire by Ivan the Terrible. More Chuvash live outside the Chuvashia than in it, but the republic is ethnically compact and the titular nationality remains numerically dominant. At the time of the 1989 census, ethnic Chuvash made up 68 percent of the population of the republic while 27 percent were ethnic Russians.

Fedorov, an ethnic Chuvash and grandson of a kulak, was born in 1958. A lawyer by training, he was appointed Russia’s Minister of Justice in July 1990, at the age of thirty-two. He left Boris Yeltsin’s government in the spring of 1993 in protest against the president’s threat — carried out in the fall — to close down the Russian parliament by force. At the end of that year, Fedorov was elected president of his native republic. He was actively supported not only by Democratic Chuvashia but also by the republic’s ethnic Russian population, since he had stated publicly that he would not tolerate Chuvash nationalism in the republic and would not go along "Tatarstan’s path." The pragmatic directors of local industrial enterprises were also an important base of support for Fedorov.

Separatism and nationalism have never been significant forces in Chuvashia. The federal authorities nonetheless feared that Chuvash nationalists might come to power in Chuvashia and that the republic might join Tatarstan in its struggle for sovereignty. For this reason, the Kremlin threw its weight behind Fedorov’s presidential ambitions.

This complex and shaky coalition helped Nikolai Fedorov to victory in 1994 over his rivals, Chuvash University rector Lev Kurakov (representing the interests of local capital) and Atner Khuzangai, leader of the Chuvash National Congress (who ran on a radical nationalist program).

A mass of problems immediately came crashing down about the ears of the young president. The republic’s economy was coming apart at the seams. In general, Chuvashia has an underdeveloped industrial base but, to make matters worse, over half of the republic’s enterprises were engaged in military production. "Khimprom," for example, had produced up to half of the USSR’s chemical weapons. Traditionally, the republic’s lack of valuable natural resources has made it dependent on the federal center for financial support. Chuvashia’s vaunted tractor factory proved unable to compete with foreign-made "Caterpillars" and Japanese machines. The local cotton mill stopped production when supplies of cotton from Uzbekistan dried up.

Financiers began to look on Chuvashia as a "black hole." At 12 percent, unemployment was high, while the average salary was $97 per month, compared to $168 per month in nearby Tatarstan. Industrial and agricultural production both plummeted while the republic’s debts for energy supplies soared. Organized crime turned into a serious problem.

The deterioration of the economic situation cut into Nikolai Fedorov’s base of support. Relations grew ever more strained between Fedorov and the Communists who dominated the State Council — Chuvashia’s legislative assembly. In December 1995, the legislature held a referendum and tried to abolish the office of president in the republic. The motion was only narrowly defeated. In these circumstances, a policy of loyalty toward the federal center seemed the only way of ensuring the continued influx of federal subsidies.

But the republic’s economic problems meant that loyalty became harder for Fedorov to deliver. In the second round of the Russian presidential elections in July 1996, Chuvashia was hit by "a red hurricane." Boris Yeltsin got only 32 percent of the vote in Chuvashia, while Gennady Zyuganov got twice as much — 66 percent. Fedorov called the population "uneducated" and "naive," and told the local press he had written to Yeltsin saying he was "hurt and ashamed" at the election results. If "complications" resulted in Chuvashia’s relations with Moscow, Fedorov declared, he would consider resigning.

Fedorov found himself in a very weak position by the time the next presidential election was held in Chuvashia on December 28, 1997. This time, it was not only the former Communist party bosses and the radical Chuvash nationalists who opposed his candidacy. Local small and medium-scale businessmen, and the enterprise directors who had helped Fedorov to victory in the first elections, also came out against him, disappointed by his failure to turn Chuvashia’s economy around. Young people were inclined to give their votes to the Chuvash nationalists. Pensioners, as usual, supported the Communists.

Fedorov’s strongest rivals were Valentin Shurchanov, leader of the local branch of the Communist Party and speaker of Chuvashia’s State Council; Vyacheslav Timofeev, a leader of the radical Chuvash nationalists and chairman of the local martial arts association; and Oleg Vasiliev, chairman of the local branch of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist party. Vasiliev — a businessman with a criminal record — was also a judo champion.

All the republic’s mass media were mobilized to shore up Fedorov’s image. The opposition newspaper Respublika, the organ of the State Council, had to be printed on the territory of neighboring Mari-El. Fedorov’s press secretary published odes to the "wise" president in the local press. Fedorov’s supporters were reduced to arguing that, "The fat cats now in power have already eaten their fill. If new people come in, they will be hungry and will steal more."

Fedorov was supported by the pro-government "Russia is Our Home" movement, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov made a lightning visit to the republic to campaign on his behalf. Vladimir Zhirinovsky made a series of high-profile appearances in support of Oleg Vasiliev. An impressive array of personalities traveled to Chuvashia to give their support to the Communist candidate. They included General Aleksandr Lebed as well as left-wing luminaries such as Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, former Soviet prime minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, and Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleev. These personalities were however refused permission to speak in a hall in Cheboksary, ostensibly because it represented a fire hazard.

The Chuvash National Congress is an influential force in Chuvashia, commanding up to 10 percent of the electorate and occupying a position of moderate opposition to Fedorov. Though it did not formally endorse any of the candidates, it gave its tacit support to Timofeev, the nationalist candidate. The official press in the republic responded by launching a smear campaign against Timofeev. Articles appeared under such titles as, "The Turkish Favorite Dreams of Becoming President of Chuvashia"; they accused Timofeev of fleecing Chuvash students sent to study in Turkey, where he allegedly runs a string of shady businesses. Other articles charged that Timofeev had falsified his athletic accomplishments in the area of martial arts.

The heads of administration of every district in the republic published an appeal in the press to vote for Fedorov. The Central Electoral Commission protested at this, since state officials are forbidden by law to make such statements. As for Fedorov, he suddenly announced that oil deposits had been found in Chuvashia and that drilling would begin a month after the elections. But specialists estimated that it would cost $7 million to extract ten thousand tons of oil a year, and said this would make excavation unprofitable.

The election was held on December 28. In the first round, Nikolai Fedorov got 58 percent of the vote, while Shurchanov got 35 percent, Vasiliev 1.5 percent, and Timofeev less than 0.5 percent. Communist activists claimed that the vote was rigged. They suggested that Shurchanov and Fedorov had gotten approximately the same number of votes, and that the approximately 20 percent of the vote going to the other candidates was "thrown" to Fedorov to guarantee his victory in the first round.

Be that as it may, it was remarkable that no one from the Moscow leadership attended Fedorov’s January 12 inauguration. Tatarstani President Mintimer Shaimiev and Mari-El President Vyacheslav Kislitsyn were also demonstratively absent. Shurchanov, who was supposed to preside over the ceremony, refused to turn up — not a good omen for the president’s future working relations with the State Council. As for Fedorov, he said he hoped the majority of the members of the republic legislature would be replaced in the elections that are due to be held in the summer of 1998.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Rashid Akhmetov is an independent journalist in Kazan. He recently paid an extended visit to Chuvashia.


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