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Is Putin afraid of the Caucasus?

Map of Caucasus and Central Asia

(www.opendemocracy.net – Daniil Kotsyubinsky – February 4, 2013)

Daniil Kotsyubinsky is Russian historian and journalist based in St. Petersburg

Russian lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a law to allow governors to be appointed in the country’s 83 regions, reversing last year’s move to restore direct elections. As Daniil Kotsyubinsky reports, this issue is unimportant in itself, but it exposes the regime’s soft underbelly, unrest in the Caucasus.

So, there are to be no direct elections of governors, or at least not in the Northern Caucasus. Without waiting for the Russian parliament to pass the law giving regions the right to decide whether to have their regional chiefs elected or appointed, the heads of Adygea, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kababrdino-Balkariya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, north Ossetia and Chechnya ­ masters of political synchronised swimming ­ have collectively asked the government of the Russian Federation (RF) to spare them the dangers that might accompany the direct expression of the public will.

A reform that backfired

Vladimir Putin introduced Russia’s crooked gubernatorial appointment system in 2004. Until then regional heads were directly elected, except in Dagestan where the governor was appointed by the local parliament. But after the terrorist attack on the school in Beslan (in north Ossetia) in September 2004, Putin suddenly came out against the election of regional chiefs, proposing instead that they be effectively appointed by the president, i.e. himself. Formally, three candidates’ names would be put before regional parliaments for approval. Given the absolute domination of the president’s United Russia party in all these bodies, the results of these ‘elections’ would clearly be a foregone conclusion.

However, the pros of this impulsive reform turned out to be outweighed by its cons. In the first place, the obviously spurious implied connection between elected governors and Chechen separatists in Beslan only strengthened public suspicion that the seizure of the school might have been secretly initiated by the Russian security services.

In the second, by abolishing gubernatorial elections, Putin dismantled a system that created a political buffer between himself and the voters. Elected governors served the useful purpose of deflecting the flak for any problems or failures away from the Kremlin ­ now that option had disappeared.

Lastly, Putin destroyed any remaining illusions the public had about being able to influence government, even if only at a local level, and handed the opposition a new and highly popular rallying cry: ‘Bring back governors’ elections’. And the opposition, which until then had been unsure about what reforms to demand of the Kremlin, seized it with gratitude and made it one of its key slogans.

As a result, when in the autumn of 2011 the political situation in Russia suddenly began to deteriorate sharply and fearful government officials even began to pronounce the words ‘political reform’, first PM Putin and then President Medvedev spoke out in favour of reintroducing gubernatorial elections. On Medvedev’s initiative the law was duly changed. The first elections, for those regional heads whose terms of office ran out between June and December 2012, were scheduled for autumn 2012. They took place without any hitches ­ or indeed any unpleasant surprises for Vladimir Putin.

Not that any were likely! The Kremlin, after all, controls everything in Russia: money, abuse of police power, laws, local election committees, the judges, the elites, the TV channels…in other words, the regime has everything it needs to extend its rule ad infinitum. Or more precisely, until the moment when god finally decides to punish this arrogant power vertical by removing the last vestiges of political sense from its collective head, grown dizzy with its own success. It isn’t yet clear when this will happen, but there is a growing feeling that it will be soon. Putin and all his initiatives are becoming increasing odious and unpopular among wide circles of opinion ­ musicians, writers, actors, directors, journalists, popular bloggers etc. ­ who for long years maintained a political neutrality but have now roused themselves into civic engagement. To give an example, the celebrated musician Yuri Bashmet has been universally ostracised for his implicit support for the recent Dima Yakovlev Law, which among other things bans the adoption of Russian children by US citizens.

How much longer will the regime last?

The current situation in Russia is beginning to resemble the years 1915-6, when the Tsarist government suddenly found itself the object of universal hatred and it seemed that it would only take one serious spark of revolution for all the Grand Dukes, generals and ministers to let go of power and leave the Tsar to his fate. Although of course the roots of that revolution didn’t lie in ‘the odd mistake’ made by the government, but events stretching back over many years.

There are also objective and fundamental reasons for the moral and political decline of the Putin regime, the most significant of which is the public’s weariness  with the long years of economic and political stagnation which have not given them the stability and prosperity they were promised. Another important factor is Putin’s increasingly obvious physical aging, magnified by the lack of a constitutional (rather than emergency) procedure for a handover from one ruler to another. Everyone, both those close to power and the public at large, is becoming increasingly neurotic about this state of affairs. Sooner or later, we shall see an inevitable split in the Kremlin ranks, followed by the fateful ‘spark of revolution’…with Putin looking less and less immortal, it is only a matter of time before someone in his inner circle will risk gambling on a drop in his political stock, to avoid going down with the presidential Titanic.  Putin’s autocracy, in other words, is being eroded from within, and the question of how regional governors are selected is neither here nor there.

While the Dragon is still strong, he will make short work of any election campaigns, whether direct or indirect, as is clear from not only the last parliamentary and presidential elections, but also the direct gubernatorial elections that took place in five Russian regions last autumn. Unsurprisingly, these passed off in just as orderly a fashion as the previous indirect ones, with the sitting candidates duly re-elected.

What’s more, should, heaven forbid (as has been known in some mayoral elections), the election winner be not the ruling party candidate, but some local Robin Hood or William Tell, he or she will be forced to fit into the existing power vertical. It is unthinkable for someone to successfully govern a region while at the same time voicing any disagreement with the Kremlin. The overwhelming majority of Russia’s regions are reliant on central government hand-outs for their survival, and any official at any level can at any time be sacrificed to the latest ritual war on corruption ­ everyone knows this, and knows to watch their step.

How the pyramid of power is constructed ­ directly or indirectly ­ is totally unimportant. What is important is for a prince to have received from the hands of the Great Khan a letter patent entitling him to ‘govern, raise taxes and collect tribute’. If you have, then get on with it. Otherwise, join the Yuri Luzhkov Club for Retired Heavyweights.

But if that’s the case, why did the Kremlin then make another U-turn and revert to an appointment system for governors (whether total or partial is still not clear)? Boris Nemtsov, leader of the opposition Parnas Party, blogged on the ‘Moscow Echo’ radio station website: ‘Gubernatorial elections, which they had apparently just reinstated, were already emasculated by all kinds of municipal filters and innumerable ways of disqualifying ‘unsuitable’ candidates. Yet they are still being abolished. I predict that they will try to abolish any elections where there is even the slightest threat of their power being challenged.’

So, the Russian opposition is such a threat to the regime that even in its emasculated state it has enough political potential to have the Kremlin running scared? Alas, no. Sadly for Nemtsov and other professional opponents of the regime, direct gubernatorial elections as such present no danger whatsoever to either Putin or his electoral system. The clearest proof of this is that the opposition leader’s contention has been echoed by a United Russia member of the country’s upper chamber, Senator Vadim Tyulpanov, who has declared that ‘the idea of abolishing the election of governors even in part of Russia could lead to the downfall of our country’, and that it was ‘a great pity’ that Parliament had taken such a decision.

A Theatre of the Absurd?

So what is this Theatre of the Absurd, where Tyulpanov appears as Putin’s antagonist and Nemtsov dramatically brandishes castrated revolutionary marionettes about? In fact there is nothing absurd at all. Or rather, the absurdity began last winter. At the very height of the street protests, the opposition missed the opportunity of demanding radical change (i.e. Putin’s resignation and a full scale programme of political reform). Instead, all they could come up with was the nonsensical ‘Churov Out!’ (a reference to the Chair of Russia’s Central Election Commission and Eminence grise behind election fraud) and a cry for new elections without any change of government or its regime. Among other patently dead horses being flogged was the idea of a return to the direct election of governors. And the Kremlin, terrified by the hell that was breaking loose outside its gates, quaked. And it promised to deliver.

What’s more, the promise was kept! After which it resolved to dot all the ‘i’s, in case any doubt remained about the outcome of the previous political year. Then the new law was tabled. Its chief purpose is not to ‘keep Nemtsov and Co. away from power’ (there is no risk of that anyway), but simply to demonstratively draw a line under the phantom trials and tribulations of the opposition and its sympathisers among the public, all of it precipitated by the fuss around Putin and Medvedev’s announcement of their job swap in September 2011. The message was clear: the boss was back in town and any Kremlin wavering and worrying in December 2011 was history. This is the reason for the opposition’s present hopeless and needless anger as Putin dismisses them now as ‘disqualified for total debility’.

Of course the Kremlin’s rationale is not only an ethico-political one; an indirect form of election of governors is both simpler and cheaper. There is never going to be any problem about lining up a few dozen regional MPs to vote the right way. Sorting out the media, the police and all the local election committees before a direct election is a much bigger hassle, although all these issues are of secondary importance to the Kremlin. And the fact that Tyulpanov was joining with Nemtsov in criticism of Putin probably only means that the Kremlin hasn’t yet made up its mind whether to reimpose the old indirect system everywhere or to invent a new game of ‘letting a hundred flowers of regional freedom bloom’. In which case of course the regime’s PR stress will be on the complete freedom of self development enjoyed by Russia’s regions and any suggestions to the contrary come from the mendacious corridors of the US State Department.

The real truth behind the law

But this whole story nevertheless contains a ‘moment of truth’ which allows us to see which haystack hides the needle of Putin’s downfall. It is obviously not Bolotnaya Square, synonymous with last year’s protest rallies. It is not Moscow at all. It is the Caucasus. That is the area where Moscow will not even pretend to hold a dialogue with the public. That is the area where the President’s men on the ground are starting to sound nervous. In December 2012 Aleksey Machnev, the speaker of North Ossetia’s parliament, told Putin that direct gubernatorial elections would lead to ‘an increase in social and political tension, a deterioration in the socio-economic situation, and escalation of inter-regional discord and a threat to security in the area’. And on the eve of the national parliamentary debate on the new Bill the President of Ingushetia Yunus-Bek Yevkurov made an almost monarchist appeal in support of the appointment system: ‘The President’s administration will never appoint some good-for-nothing who won’t be up to the job. What would be the point of that?’ In the heat of the moment, Yevkurov seems to have forgotten that formally it is still local MPs who elect regional governors, and the President merely ‘nominates three candidates’.

It is clear in any case that the vote after the Bill’s first reading has ended the ‘Moscow’ stage of the anti-Putin revolt, and has effectively announced the beginning of a new stage in which we may assume that the revolutionary flame that has gone out in Bolotnaya Square will flare up in the Caucasus – where, of course, it has never been completely quenched.

Article also appeared at http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/daniil-kotsyubinsky/is-putin-afraid-of-caucasus

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