In the most serious verbal challenge to the “vertical of power” that Vladimir Putin created after becoming head of the Russian state in 2000, and what may be a sign that Putin’s influence is on the decline since stepping down as president and becoming prime minister, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev has declared that the heads of Russia’s 89 regions should be elected, not chosen by the Russian president.
Following the Beslan school hostage crisis in September 2004, Putin replaced the election of regional governors with a system under which regional heads are proposed by the Russian president and approved by regional legislatures. Under this system, if a regional legislature twice rejects the candidate for a regional head suggested by the president, the president can dissolve the regional legislative assembly and appoint an acting regional head until a new legislature is elected. The Russian president also has the right to dismiss any regional leader he no longer has confidence in or who has failed to carry out his duties.
“I think we will return to [popular elections for regional leaders],” Kommersant quoted Shaimiev as saying in a June 14 meeting in Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital, with participants in the Tenth World Russian Press Congress. “They need to be elected.” Shaimiev also said that he opposed the president’s right to dissolve regional legislatures that reject a presidential candidate for regional leader twice. “That is wrong: he [the president] should not have the right to dissolve legislative assemblies. It is a body elected by the people; it is a local organ of power” (Kommersant, June 16).
More generally, Shaimiev criticized what he described as Moscow’s centralizing tendencies. “I have always said and am convinced that Russia can be a democratic state if it remains a federation,” he told the press congress participants. “A unitary Russia cannot be democratic.” According to www.newsru.com, Shaimiev said that Russia had historically been a multi-national state, not a unitary state. “Intrinsically, the country is not unitary, [and] if someone dreams of this, he is not serving the interests of the Russian Federation,” he said. Shaimiev also said that the inter-ethnic problems that have emerged in Russia must be resolved exclusively according to democratic principles. “It is necessary to work with complete adherence to principle in such cases, but very skillfully, in order to preserve mutual understanding among peoples….To manage this process under the conditions of democracy is complicated, but it is necessary to follow the path of democratic development,” he said.
In addition, Shaimiev said that “Great Russian chauvinism” was no less a danger to Russia than the nationalism of other ethnic groups in the country. “What crops up from time to time in St. Petersburg, in Moscow, frightens us,” he said, apparently referring to the spate of racist attacks by skinheads in Russia’s largest cities in recent years and perhaps also to demonstrations organized by such far-right groups as the Movement Against Illegal Immigration. “It is a very bad sign. Such things don’t end well; they provoke strong resistance.” At the same time, Shaimiev said that ethnic Tatars and Russians were living together harmoniously in Tatarstan and that there had been no nationalistic statements aimed by one group at the other in the republic for a long while.
Shaimiev also commented on the possibility of introducing mandatory classes on the foundations of Russian Orthodox culture in all of Russia’s schools, including those in Muslim-majority regions like Tatarstan. “The modern person has a constitutional right to freedom of religion,” he said. “We have a good saying: don’t scratch where it doesn’t itch. Where you begin to scratch, something will certainly appear. The issue of studying religion in schools can be resolved sanely” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, June 16).
According to some observers, Shaimiev’s public comments against the existing system for choosing regional leaders may have been in response to rumors that Tatarstan’s parliament, which, like the State Duma and Russia’s other regional legislatures, is controlled by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, may vote to abolish the post of president of the republic. The newspaper Gazeta recently reported that the abolition of the post of president in Tatarstan might be followed by the abolition of the presidency in Russia’s other republics, including Bashkortostan and Chuvashia, the republics of the North Caucasus and the small republics in Siberia, including Buratia, Tuva and Altai, “so that only one president remains in Russia.” The newspaper quoted Valery Khomyakov, general director of the National Strategy Council, as saying that President Dmitry Medvedev would like to be able to work with “contemporaries” and thus wants to create a “new team” in the regions (www.gzt.ru, June 9). Shaimiev has led Tatarstan since 1991.
At the same time, Kommersant reported that according to its information, Medvedev is not an opponent of returning to a system in which the heads of the regions are popularly elected. “It is not inconceivable that the authorities will return to a discussion of corresponding procedures; however, this will most likely not happen soon,” the newspaper quoted an anonymous high-level Kremlin source as saying. Still, Alexander Kynev, the head of regional programs for the Foundation for Information Policy Development, told Kommersant that he doubted that the system of electing regional leaders that existed prior to 2004 would be reestablished. “I don’t think the variant of restoring what there was before 2004 is possible; more likely, there will be something different, and the possible choices are a subject for discussion,” Kynev said.