On October 29, the Russian State Duma voted to adopt in its first reading President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to eliminate the direct election of regional executive-branch leaders.
Despite the fact that officials have received 70 positive comments on the proposal from local legislatures and 58 from local executive branches (Vedomosti, November 1) regional authorities continue to fight and bargain with the Kremlin. The Republic of Tatarstan has become a leader of this resistance.
Thirteen years ago, on October 24, 1991, the State Council of Tatarstan, the republic’s legislature, voted to adopt an “Act on the State Independence of the Republic of Tatarstan.” This document confirmed the “principles of national sovereignty of the Republic of Tatarstan, which are not subject of revision” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 27). It took much effort for Moscow in 1992 to persuade Kazan to sign the new Federal Treaty that had been crafted to formally divide power between the regions and the Federal center in the newly formed Russian Federation.
Under President Putin, the Kremlin forced Tatarstan to adjust all its laws to be in accord with federal ones; however, Kazan still has not retreated from all its positions. Moreover, the republic is trying fight back. At the beginning of October 2004, Tatarstan and the federal authorities clashed when Tatarstan’s legislature made a decision to use the Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic one (gazeta.ru, October 5 and November 16). [The Constitutional Court rejected the alphabet change on November 16–EDM.]When time came for the State Council to make an official comment on the latest reforms suggested by Putin, Tatarstan mounted a determined stand against them.
Initially, the Kremlin did not expect strong resistance from the Tatar authorities. On October 22, the Tatarstan parliamentary Committee on the State System and Local Self-government commented positively on the new law regarding the appointment of regional leaders (gazeta.ru, October 22).
However, the atmosphere in the State Council’s session on October 25 was totally opposite to the Committee’s comment. Nezavisimaya gazeta quoted deputy Tufan Minulin, who said in his speech, “The initiative of President Putin is aimed at eliminating national republics in Russia.” Another deputy added, “It is a coup d’etat” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 27). The President of Tatarstan, Mintimir Shaimiev calmed the deputies, saying, “If President Putin wants it, we should support his proposals,” but at the same time his speech contained one concrete declaration from Tatarstan to the Kremlin: “We shall not agree in any form and we will act against a dissolution of the State Council” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 27).
According to the proposed law, the Russian president can dissolve any regional parliament that rejects a presidentially appointed regional leader. Shaimiev, who understands the futility of trying to prevent the Duma from adopting this law, is trying to amend it to leave some power for the local authorities. At the State Council meeting, Shaimiev made it clear that Tatarstan would struggle against the provision about dissolution of local legislatures. He said, “The republic will definitely promote several amendments by the second reading of the law in the State Duma” (Samara segodnya, October 27).
The federal authorities reacted to Shaimiev very aggressively, without leaving any room for a possible compromise. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta sources close to the Presidential Envoy for the Volga Federal Territory, Sergei Kirienko, it does not matter if Tatarstan endorses Putin’s proposal or not, the law would be adopted in the Russian president’s version (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 27). However, the Tatar authorities continue to stand firm. The speaker of the State Council, Faryid Mukhametin, told Ekho Moskvy radio that, hopefully, “some proposals” made by Tatarstan “could be taken into account” (Ekho Moskvy, October 26).
Tatarstan is not the only region to reject the new provision on dissolving local legislatures. The parliament in Samara suggested an amendment that should give local legislatures the right to provide a list of their own candidates for the President of Russia to consider. To varying degrees, the parliamentarians of Amur oblast, Moscow city, Novosibirsk oblast, Astrakhan oblast, Kransnoyarsk oblast, and Chuvashia, have all expressed their disagreement with the plan to dissolve local executive branches (Political Information Agency, November 1).
This resistance has forced the Kremlin to soften its position. Alexander Kosopkyin, the Presidential Representative in the State Duma, suggested that an amendment should be discussed before the bill has its second reading in the Russian parliament (Gazeta, October 26). Accordingly, on November 10, Putin announced, “The mechanism of dissolution of a legislative body if it rejected twice a nominee from the President should be supplemented by a conciliation procedure” (Novaya politika, November 11).
However, this announcement does not mean that Putin agrees with the demands of the regional leaders. The president only agrees to order the conciliation procedure. According to the Kremlin’s version of the compromise, if a local legislature twice rejects a Russian president’s nominee, a conciliation procedure kicks in. And if the procedure has no result after 30 days, the president can dissolve the parliament. This is, of course, is not the compromise that Shaimiev and others want. Shaimiev has already announced that this rule contradicts Article 85 of the Russian Constitution (Novaya politika, November 11).
The standoff between the Kremlin and the regions continues, and the outcome of the struggle will be known after Putin’s bill has its second reading in the Duma. This second reading could be a crucial moment in Russian history, as it will determine the future of the regional authorities: Will they save some freedom and power for themselves or will they become vassals of the central government?