Adygeia: Gold Magnate Makes His Mark

One of Russia's richest businessmen has made many friends and enemies in his first six months as president of the tiny republic of Adygeia

Adygeia: Gold Magnate Makes His Mark

One of Russia's richest businessmen has made many friends and enemies in his first six months as president of the tiny republic of Adygeia

Residents of the tiny north Caucasus autonomous republic of Adygeia watching the local television news on June 20 were surprised to see coverage of their super-rich president denying that he intended to run as governor elsewhere.

Khazret Sovmen, who was elected leader in January, was discounting rumours that he planned to run for office in the vast Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk. He claimed that while he was fond of the area, his visit there - which had triggered the speculation - was on the instructions of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Sovmen said he much preferred to "live with his people" to reform his native republic of Adygeia.

This millionaire gold magnate is already proving to be one of the most high profile and colourful leaders in the north Caucasus.

Adygeia, the republic he heads, is the smallest and least known of the ethnically-based autonomous republics in the region, and was only recognised as such in 1991. The entity is effectively an enclave - in which the native Adygs, who are closely related to Circassians, number less than a quarter of the population - inside the Krasnodar region.

In his six months in office, Sovmen has slashed the local bureaucracy and made many constitutional changes. But he has done this, his critics say, while spending very little time there.

Sovmen has spent most of his life outside his republic. He was born in the small Adygeian village of Afipsip in 1937, but after completing his military service he left to work in Russia's gold industry. From 1980, he was head of Polyus, one of the three biggest gold firms in the world.

He was elected president of Adygeia in January this year, winning a convincing 68 per cent of the vote in the initial round of voting, crushing his predecessor Aslan Jarimov.

Since that victory, the new leader has devoted much of his energy in dismantling the top-heavy government structure in his tiny republic.

On March 28, he abolished four ministries and seven departments on the grounds that Adygeia was "not able to sustain the existing army of bureaucrats". Sovmen also cut the number of government officials by around 25 per cent.

He has also brought the republic back into line with Russian law, by dropping controversial clauses that once granted equal representation to Adygs and Russians in spite of the fact that the latter comprise 68 per cent of the population.

The president then announced his intention to cut the local parliament from two chambers to one and to abolish the local constitutional court.

Although many locals agree that the changes will save a lot of government funds, some believe Sovmen is acting in a high-handed way. "What about the rights of the voter?" wondered young lawyer Andrei, who opposes the reform. "If a parliament has been elected, then you have to keep its structure to the end of its term."

Sovmen is keen to make economic changes as well as constitutional ones. He has announced plans to restructure the timber industry - which is the republic's main export - improve tourism and construct a new highway from the regional capital Maikop to the coastal city of Sochi.

He has proved his generosity in other ways. The president's company Polyus allocated 100 million roubles - more than three million US dollars - in credits to local agriculture and bought farmers 50 new combine harvesters.

Even before he was elected, Sovmen was Adygeia's biggest benefactor by far, investing some four billion roubles - more than 100 million dollars - in his native republic. He spent money on the Adygeian University in Maikop and had a new medical centre named after him in his home village.

His critics, however, say he is not a professional politician and cannot tolerate dissent, claiming that those who disagree with him have to leave. These include many people who worked in his presidential campaign.

Sovmen's pockets may be deep but he cannot solve the republic's economic problems on his own. Adygeian prime minister Nikolai Demchuk predicts that 2002 will be a hard year because of a "deep crisis in the economy, unemployment, prices rising faster than incomes and a meagre budget".

Sovmen believes socio-economic improvements will be crucial if ethnic discord - which have plagued other parts of the north Caucasus - is to be avoided in his republic. "If people have interesting work and a decent wage, if they feel that they are being looked after, then the national question will not arise," he said. "May God help us in that."

Tatyana Polyakova is professor of political science at Adygeia State University

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