Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 16

Russia’s parliament is still debating whether to allow the heads of some of the components of the Russian Federation to run for a third term in office. At the end of last year, the State Duma gave preliminary approval to an amendment to the law “On the general principles for organizing legislative and executive organs of state power of the subjects of the Russian Federation.” This amendment would give the right to a run for a third term to those regional leaders whose second term in office began before October 16, 1999–that is, before the law went into effect.

As many as nineteen incumbent regional leaders fall into this category. They include such recognized leaders of the resistance to the Kremlin’s centralizing policies as Tatarstan’s President Mintimer Shaimiev, Bashkortostan’s President Murtaza Rakhimov, Chuvashia’s President Nikolai Federov and Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel (Russian agencies, January 15-16). An additional proposed amendment would add Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who would not normally qualify for the privilege, to the list (Russian agencies, January 16).

According to media reports, the Duma was to debate the amendments on January 18 (Russian agencies, January 16). By the end of last week, however, the amendments had not been put before the full Duma. They had been discussed only by the Duma’s Committee on Federation Affairs and Regional Policy, which recommended that the Duma should vote in favor of allowing regional heads to stand for a third term as long as the rules and constitutions of their regions did not explicitly limit the period in office to two terms. The committee did not, however, support the idea of making Luzhkov an exception (Russian agencies, January 19).

Luzhkov’s team was defiant. Vladimir Platonov, chairman of the Moscow City Duma, told journalists that Luzhkov could certainly run for election for a third time, because this did not infringe on Moscow’s laws. He nonetheless conceded that amendments to federal law were necessary (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 18). It is not clear what the Moscow mayor will do now. It seems unlikely that he and other “refusenik” governors with take matters lying down.

Indeed, some governors are acting as if the right had already been enacted. Bryansk Oblast Governor Yury Lodkin did not wait for the results of the Duma debate: On December 10, he was re-elected to a third term, thereby–from the Kremlin’s point of view–creating a dangerous precedent (Russian agencies, December 11).

One leader of the regional resistance, Tatarstan’s President Shaimiev, has not yet announced whether he plans to run in his republic’s presidential election, set for March 25. The election campaign in Tatarstan is underway, however, and it is only a matter of time before Shaimiev will have to make an announcement. Last week, representatives of several dozen Tatar communities in Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan’s second largest city, called on him to do so. In an open letter published in the local press, they wrote: “You did everything to ensure that our Tatarstan would be simultaneously sovereign and a member of a united family, the Russian Federation. You created a stable base of national accord. Your motto ‘Brotherhood is good, wealth is better’ is being realized in practice.” The authors of the open letter asked Shaimiev to allow his name to put forward as a candidate for president (Vremya i dengi [Kazan], January 18). Shaimiev has thus far not disavowed the appeal. He may wait a while, offering Moscow an opportunity to save face by “permitting” him a third term in office under federal law. However, the deadline for registering documents from candidates in Tatarstan is February 12. Shaimiev cannot, therefore, delay very much longer.

Few observers in either Kazan or Moscow doubt that Shaimiev wants a third term, or that he will eventually emerge the winner. A “Kursk scenario” is not possible in Tatarstan, where the president wields enormous power over the courts and other local institutions. It would not, therefore, be easy to disqualify Shaimiev on some technicality. Nor does the incumbent have any real rivals in the republic–anyone who might have stood up to him was squeezed out of Tatarstan long ago, and now holds some post or other in Moscow. Nor is it likely that the “Ulyanovsk scenario” will be repeated. That is to say, a rival candidate will not appear from outside the region. The Tatarstan branch of the Russian United Social Democratic Party tried but failed to persuade Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to run for the post of president. The suggestion had no sooner been made than Gorbachev’s press office dismissed it as “an initiative … taken in the absence of a real alternative to the current president of the republic [Shaimiev]” (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 12). Gorbachev formally declined the offer a week later (Radio Ekho Moskvy, January 18).

Shaimiev’s other rivals present no threat. There are eight in all, the most interesting being Sergei Shashurin, deputy chair of the Ecology Committee of the State Duma, where he represents a Tatarstan constituency (Russian agencies, January 12). Shashurin is famous for the accusation he made in July of last year that governors were bribing parliamentary deputies prior to the vote on whether to exclude regional leaders from the Federation Council. Shashurin is precisely the kind of candidate likely to appeal to the federalist-inclined part of the opposition. But it is pointless to discuss his chances of winning: So far, Shaimiev’s opponents have lost every time.

In the circumstances, the State Duma has little choice to do anything other than formally sanction Shaimiev’s third term. Lodkin’s re-election can then be passed off as an isolated incident or even ignored. The Kremlin’s problem will not disappear, however: There is no guarantee that Tatarstan’s president will alter the tone of his communications with the center, or that other powerful regional leaders will not draw a lesson from his success.