On May 14, Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, dismissed four members of the upper house of the Federal Assembly. The sacked MPs represented one northern and two Siberian regions (Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, and Khakassia) and one region in the Far East (Primorsky Krai). According to Russian law, this decision should be approved by the respective local legislatures, and the consensus in Moscow was that these votes would be mere formalities. However, local deputies in Nenets, Khakassia, and Primorsky Krai refused to recall their representatives from Moscow.
“Regional legislators are regarded as voting-machines. Orders come from above and you vote. There were no reasonable arguments, no discussion,” one Nenets lawmaker, Vyacheslav Lysakov, complained to NTV (May 19).
After that show of defiance the Kremlin began to press both the governors and the legislatures to agree with the changes at the Federation Council. The parliament for Primorsky Krai easily capitulated and approved Mironov’s nominee on the second vote (NTV, May 18). However, the legislatures in two other regions, backed by their governors, were determined to continue their struggle.
On May 18, Mironov again asked the parliament of Khakassia to approve the resignations of their deputies, but received no reply (Newsru.com, May 18). The Kremlin responded by wielding harsh measures against the local authorities of the “rebellious” provinces. On May 19, the Prosecutor General’s office in Moscow released a statement announcing that a criminal case for embezzlement and misuse of budget funds had been initiated against the governor of Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Alexei Barinov. On the same day the speaker of the Nenets Regional Assembly was invited to the local Prosecutor’s Office for questioning (NTV, May 19). On May 23, Barinov was arrested and Alexei Lebed, the governor of Khakassia, was invited to Moscow to meet with officials in President Vladimir Putin’s administration. According to Kommersant, the Kremlin ordered Lebed to persuade the Khakassian parliament to agree to withdraw the mandate of their regional representative in the Federation Council, otherwise the governor might have to resign (Kommersant, May 24). At the same time, all four Council deputies fired by Mironov announced their “voluntary” resignations.
These statements were likely made under pressure. However, since the senators claimed to have resigned of their own accord, now there was no need for the local legislatures to approve the changes (Newsru.com, May 24). The Kremlin seemed to have won this standoff with the regions.
Officially Mironov decided to sack the senators because they were involved in outside business deals, which is forbidden by law. However, it is no secret that almost all Russian officials are involved in commercial activities in some way or another, so some other factor must be behind the decision. Perhaps the Kremlin believed that the regional governors, who were represented in Moscow by the senators, had become too independent. Moscow particularly wants to suppress resistance in Nenets Okrug, Yamal-Nenets Okrug, and Khakassia. Not only are these provinces rich with natural resources, the central government plans to merge them in the near future with Arkhangelsk Oblast (Nenets Okrug) and with Tyumen Oblast (Yamal-Nenets Oblast and Khakassia).
These four regions are not the only places in Russia where local authorities seize every opportunity to demonstrate their independence from the center. On May 19, Farid Mukhametshin, the speaker of the State Council of Tatarstan (the official name of the local parliament), declared that a new power-sharing treaty between Tatarstan and the federal center is ready to be signed by both sides. (The one signed in 1994 was terminated in 2003.) “The draft treaty was approved by all ministries and agencies concerned, it is in the Russian government now, and there are no obstacles to signing it” (Kommersant, May 22). According to Mukhametshin, “The treaty does not give any preference to Tatarstan compared to other Russian regions,” but analysts have noted that the draft contains some economic concessions to Tatarstan, such as tax exemptions for mineral resources, and political concessions such as the right to declare Tatar to be the official language of the republic. The draft also says that federal passports for residents of Tatarstan will have special inserts in the Tatar language, a long-standing source of disagreement (Kommersant, May 22).
The Kremlin appears to be trying to avoid signing the treaty — the ceremony has been postponed several times — but the Russian government in Moscow is not powerful enough to persuade the Tatars to forget the new power-sharing treaty. The prospect of an armed rebellion in a Muslim region with strong nationalistic feelings (see EDM, October 31, 2005) has stayed the Kremlin’s hand. Putin understands that the position of the Tatar authorities cannot be ignored. Just one month before Mukhametshin’s statement, on April 19, a Chechen rebel website posted an appeal to the Chechen nation by Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev. In the appeal, Basaev, for the first time, mentioned Tatarstan as a possible “territory of Jihad” (Daymokh, April 19).
The Kremlin should be cautious dealing with Tatarstan for the same reason it should work carefully with Adygeya, where Khazret Sovmen, the Adygei leader, stood his ground in a standoff with the Russian authorities last month. Sovmen sent a clear message to the Kremlin that there would be an armed uprising if he was forced to resign and the republic was incorporated into Krasnodar Krai (see EDM, April 6, 10, May 3).
While many Russian regions may try to resist Putin’s vertical power structure, only leaders of Muslim-dominated republics have a reasonable chance to cut a deal with the Kremlin, because Putin fears that one day the Chechen war may spread to these republics.