BACKGROUND: On November 3, the parliament of North Ossetia passed a legislative package that replaced direct elections of the republic’s governor with an appointment procedure by the Russian President. The republic joined the cohort of other North Caucasian republics, such as Ingushetia and Dagestan, that rejected direct elections of governors in favor of appointments. The governor of another North Caucasian republic, Karachai-Cherkessia, has also signaled the desirability of appointment in the region. Russian experts say that all North Caucasian republics will eventually have appointed governors.
Direct elections of governors in Russia were abolished in 2004, following the hostage crisis in a Beslan school in North Ossetia. President Putin at the time explained the move by the dubious argument of enhancing the state’s ability to combat terrorism. Following massive protests after alleged fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia, the Kremlin reintroduced direct popular elections in 2012. Soon after Vladimir Putin was reelected president in the same year, a clause was added to the new law, allowing regional governments to replace a direct popular vote with appointment by the head of state.
So far, only North Caucasian republics have opted for the appointment procedure of the governor. Even though formally regions themselves choose their form of governance, there are strong signs that it is in fact the Kremlin that orders the North Caucasus regions to reject direct governor elections. During parliamentary hearings in North Ossetia in November, at least two deputies of the regional parliament made clear to the newspaper Kommersant that the decision to designate the appointment of governor was made in Moscow.
Russian leaders also confirmed their involvement in the decision-making process in the North Caucasian republics on several occasions. At a youth forum in the North Caucasus in August, three weeks prior to the reappointment of the existing governors of Ingushetia and Dagestan, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated “I reckon that elections should be held everywhere [in all Russian regions]. However, when the political culture is still somewhat different, we can have a transition period for that.” Medvedev’s words outraged Ingushetia’s opposition that complained to Putin about the inappropriate division of Russian citizens into people with the “right” culture and the “wrong” culture.
In September, President Putin himself endorsed the decision of officials in Ingushetia and Dagestan to reject direct elections, explaining that the features of these regions, such as “multi-religious, multi-ethnic and special ethnic composition” prevented them from having effective democratic rule. While Dagestan may fit such a description, Ingushetia is a small region with a population of about half a million that is nearly 100 percent ethnic Ingush and Muslim, and North Ossetia is overwhelmingly ethnic Ossetian and Christian. Hence, Putin’s explanation was apparently a euphemism for something else. Some analysts cited Islamic extremism and separatism in the North Caucasus that prompted Moscow to seek appointing regional governors, instead of allowing for popular elections. But again, North Ossetia is predominantly a non-Muslim region with little record of separatist aspirations.
IMPLICATIONS: The protest potential in North Ossetia was cited as one of the highest in the region. In the elections to the local parliament in October 2012, the ruling United Russia nearly suffered an electoral defeat as an alternative party of Patriots of Russia took 26 percent of the votes. The unpredictability of possible election results is one of the main causes for the government’s refusal to allow direct elections in the North Caucasus. Russian expert Viktor Chernous told Rosbalt news agency that the “federal government limited itself to the ‘social contract’ with those clans that are already in power in the North Caucasian Federal District.”
Reliance on existing clans is probably only part of the explanation for Moscow’s policies in the region. Dispatching Ramazan Abdulatipov, a Moscow politician of Dagestani origin, to Dagestan as the governor of the region in January 2013 was hailed as a decisive break with the previous tradition that allowed local clans to thrive and corrupt the system. Even though Abdulatipov seemed far removed from the Dagestani clans, Dagestani observers noticed that the new leader of the republic tended to favor his relatives. For example, Abdulatipov’s son Jamal received the position of the deputy mayor of the large Dagestani city of Kaspiysk.
Moscow’s rationale for holding on to the appointment procedure in the North Caucasus appears tied to the lack of control over the region or fear of losing it. The leaders of Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Karachaevo-Cherkessia enjoy abysmal popularity among the local population. However, Moscow seems happy with all of them, so it allows the old political elites to reincarnate themselves.
In Dagestan, on the contrary, Moscow was not happy with the previous leaders and that is why Abdulatipov was dispatched to the republic in January 2013. The appointment procedure later in September ensured that Abdulatipov stayed in charge. Moscow’s miscalculation is, however, that a higher level of control over the regional governor does not necessarily translate into higher control over the region itself. Abdulatipov’s example was particularly telling as many analysts pointed out that he could not build his own working team and therefore had to rely on the veterans of Dagestani politics. Some of them, such as Deputy Prime Minister Gaji Makhachev have a quite controversial background. Makhachev was sentenced to prison terms several times and has a reputation of strong links to the criminal world.
In the period after the abolishment of regional governor elections in 2004, the situation in the majority of the North Caucasus regions has clearly deteriorated. While Chechnya has become much less volatile, Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria have destabilized. Approximately 700 people die in the conflict in the region each year. Participatory political processes would have mitigated the ongoing conflict, but Moscow seems to be unabated by the security risks, as fear of separatism trumps all other concerns of the Russian government.
The paranoia apparently is so high that anyone who is not handpicked by Moscow is considered to be a potentially unreliable leader who might steer the region away from Russia’s influence. Ironically, while Moscow succeeds in appointing the leaders it wants in the North Caucasus, the situation in the region is still developing in a direction unfavorable to the central government. The best indicator of the failure of Moscow’s policies is that more than a decade after the second Chechen war, the Russian government still fears separatism in the North Caucasus and now not only in Chechnya, but in all or nearly all republics of the region.
CONCLUSIONS: Moscow’s intention to establish greater control over the North Caucasian republics resulted in a treatment of the region that is ostensibly differential from the rest of Russia. While trying to ensure its grip over the region with assumed separatist aspirations, Moscow itself instills boundaries between the North Caucasian periphery and Russia’s mainland territory. As the Russian political class has recognized the harmfulness of excessive centralization and moved to reintroduce participatory politics at the regional level, the fear of separatism has kept the North Caucasus out of the wave of modest political liberalization. Lack of political reforms is likely to have further detrimental impact on the restive region and result in its ever deeper differentiation from the rest of Russian Federation.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.