The fortnight in Russian politics saw President Vladimir Putin’s bid to “consolidate power” falter on one front while advancing on another. Earlier this year, Putin signed decrees aimed at reducing the power of regional leaders and bringing them under tighter control by the center. He also created seven new federal districts run by presidential appointees who would be tasked, among other things, with ensuring that regional laws violated neither federal laws nor the Russian Constitution. Yet just when many observers seemed convinced that Russia was on its way to becoming unitary state, the autonomy-minded republic of Tatarstan thumbed its collective nose at all of Moscow’s tough talk. The republic’s parliament voted to move the date for its presidential elections up from March 2001 to December of this year. Aleksandr Veshnyakov, head of the federal Central Election Commission, condemned the move, noting that it violated federal law.
The real problem, however, was not simply that Tatarstan’s parliamentarians had voted to change the date for their republic’s presidential elections, but the fact that its incumbent president, Mintimer Shaimiev, reportedly plans to run for a third term. That would violate a federal ban on high-level officials serving for more than two. Shaimiev has not yet formally announced that he will run again, and this gives Moscow and Kazan more time to negotiate their way out of a potentially nasty confrontation. The speaker of Tatarstan’s parliament, meanwhile, reacted to Veshnyakov’s criticism with open defiance. Nor was the Kremlin helped by the fact that its local “enforcer” in a possible confrontation with the tough Shaimiev would be Sergei Kirienko. He is the former prime minister whom Putin had picked as his representative in the new Volga federal district, which includes Tatarstan. As one Moscow commentator suggested, this potential bout has the makings of a mismatch.