Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Putin Reforms Cause North Caucasus Anxiety

Abolition of direct elections in the North Caucasus likely to deepen bureaucratic feuds and corruption.
By Valery Dzutsev

The political landscape in some parts of the North Caucasus is likely to change drastically with the implementation of President Vladimir Putin’s radical proposals to cut back elections, but many analysts believe that in the long run the reforms will not achieve their desired aim of winning Moscow more control.


The Russian president proposed what would be the biggest constitutional changes of his presidency on September 13, saying they were required as part of the war on terrorism in the wake of the Beslan school tragedy.


Under the proposed changes, governors and presidents in Russia’s 89 regions would no longer be directly elected but would be chosen by local parliaments or assemblies. Direct election from constituencies in half of the 450 seats to the lower house of parliament, the State Duma, would also be abolished and all the deputies would be elected by proportional representation.


“The fight against terrorism is a task for the whole state,” Putin said in justification of his ideas. “A task which requires the mobilisation of all resources for it to be carried out. And it is obvious that in the first place a unity of purpose in the actions of the whole executive vertical structure has to be guaranteed.”


Few doubt that, given the current make-up of the State Duma, the president will be able to get his proposals through parliament without any serious obstacles.


However the Russian public is broadly sceptical about the value of the proposed changes. An opinion pull by the Russian polling organisation VTsIOM published on September 23 found that 38 per cent of respondents supported the reforms, 49 per cent were opposed and 13 per cent could not make up their minds.


Some parts of the diverse and troubled North Caucasus will feel the effect of the changes more than most other regions of Russia as it will lose representatives to the State Duma and its local leaders will become more dependent on Moscow.


So far all regional leaders in the North Caucasus either have expressed their support for the president’s ideas or said nothing. This is hardly surprising given that all the seven autonomous republics in the region are heavily dependent on Moscow. In all of them more than half the republican budget is funded from Moscow and in Dagestan and Ingushetia that figure reaches 90 per cent.


Dagestani scholar Enver Kisriev sees the proposals as a step backwards to a heavily bureaucratic system, which would not achieve what Putin hoped for it.


“It is an attempt to revive the Communist system,” he said. “But that society had total control. It was closed, only the state had money. Now it’s different, there are private people owning fair amounts of wealth and those who have money also have power. So there will be greater corruption than under the communists and a big illegal opposition.”


Dagestan, the most ethnically diverse part of the North Caucasus, has been making a painful transition to being the last region of Russia to have a directly elected leader. Hitherto the 14 members of the republic’s State Council, representing the main 14 nationalities in Dagestan, have chosen the head of the republic. But under constitutional changes enacted last year Dagestan was due to have its first-ever direct elections for head of republic in 2006.


Kisriev said that the proposed changes would “immediately lead to the emergence of dissatisfied clans, factions. Ethnic solidarity is a great factor of politics in this republic”.


He predicted that politics in Dagestan was likely to become a battlefield for undercover bureaucratic feuds and the illegal activities of marginalised informal leaders. He went on, “The real danger is that, if we had warring factions before and each of them appealed to Moscow to give the final verdict, now all public discontent, although suppressed, will crystallise in anti-Russian slogans.”


The parts of the North Caucasus which are showing the most alarm are those in which the titular ethnic group is in a minority. In the autonomous republic of Adygeia for example, only 22 per cent of the population is Adyg and most of the rest are ethnic Russians, but the republic is still headed by an Adyg. There has been an ongoing campaign for Adygeia to rejoin its big neighbour, the Krasnodar region, which it was part of in Soviet times.


Independent analyst Almir Abregov in the Adygeian capital Maikop said that he thought the reforms were the first step towards the swallowing up of whole regions such as Adygeia. He told IWPR, “The Russian president is depriving the people of their constitutional rights. Adygean society is treating Putin’s electoral changes proposal with a great deal of caution. Some civil society groups have discussed setting up a committee in defence of the Adygeian Constitution.”


Oleg Tsvetkov, another political analyst in Maykop, said that on one level the changes might calm inter-ethnic tensions because “ethnic groups will no longer compete with each other in mass politics, but rather in Kremlin corridors”. But he believes the long-term effect will be much more damaging. “Democracy is being frozen and the more the state interferes in institutions of state, the more there is room for corruption. Our society is simply being killed by poverty, bureaucracy and corruption.”


Another group that could be marginalised by the changes are the Cherkess, who are one of the two titular nationalities in Karachai-Cherkessia, but comprise just 11 per cent of the population.


North Ossetia, which has traditionally had the best relations with Moscow of the North Caucasian republics, seems least worried about the plans.


The speaker of the North Ossetian parliament Taimuraz Mamsurov said in an interview to Izvestia newspaper, “We should give the people the main thing – the chance to live quietly and not be afraid of tomorrow. If someone thinks, that the greatest moment of democracy is when people wander about with ballot papers and put them in ballot boxes for whatever reason, then he is mistaken. People have long been waiting for energetic actions from the authorities.”


Alexander Dzadziev, an independent expert in North Ossetia, also said there was little to be afraid of.


“Naturally, elections to be leader of republic by the local parliament from a list of candidates put forward by the Russian president is a disguised form of direct appointment,” he told IWPR. “But I do not see anything wrong in that.


“We all know, that hardly any elections in North Caucasus can be called direct and democratic. The only thing that might happen is that in North Ossetia some nationalistic intelligentsia may fear that the Russian president might appoint someone who is not an ethnic Ossetian. But I think the president will take that into account and these fears are quite groundless.”


In next-door Kabardino-Balkaria the leaders are also strongly loyal to Moscow.


Valery Khatazhukov, head of the Public Human Rights Centre in the republic, said, “I think, the local elites will adapt to the new system without much trouble. I do not really understand why the Kremlin did this - all the North Caucasus republics have renounced their sovereignty and all local leaders were elected with the Kremlin’s consent anyway.”


Valery Dzutsev is IWPR’s North Caucasus coordinator and editor, based in Vladikavkaz.