BACKGROUND: Medvedev's proposals encountered resistance from the outset and were actually pre-empted by comments made by Vladimir Putin – at that time Russia’s prime minister – to the effect that the staging of direct gubernatorial elections ought to be subject to a “presidential filter,” as has been the case since 2004. Despite this proviso, subsequent remarks made by Putin indicated that he was not in principle opposed to such elections; he later described Medvedev’s initiative as “necessary and correct.” The prime minister’s cautious welcome was echoed by Vladislav Surkov, then a senior aide to President Medvedev, who described the proposed reform as a reaction to a popular desire to see change in a “dull and stupid system.”
That Putin and Surkov should welcome Medvedev’s initiative, however guardedly, was interesting indeed, for these two men were responsible for the nationwide abolition of direct gubernatorial elections in 2004. The decision to dispense with such elections was directly preceded by the dramatic events which transpired that September at school no. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia. During a speech he gave to a gathering of Russian businesspeople in mid-2004, Surkov emphasized the dangers he regarded as inherent in the pre-Beslan system of direct elections. It was not that the voters could not be trusted, he reasoned, “[b]ut wouldn’t it be the last straw if Dagestan elects some Wahhabi follower [a radical Islamist] as its governor?”
The possibility of such an inimical scenario occurring is one of the main reasons why Putin was so keen to keep a “presidential filter” in situ. No doubt mindful of these concerns, Medvedev’s initiative provided for consultations between prospective candidates and the Russian president. When pressed by reporters on this subject, however, a spokesperson for Medvedev conceded that, contrary to the post-2004 arrangement, candidates would be entitled to run for office irrespective of their “consultation” with the president.
A bill giving legal form to this political initiative was passed by Russia’s legislature in April 2012 and came into force in June of that year. However, by March 2012 Vladimir Putin had returned to the Russian presidency whereupon a steady dilution of his predecessor’s initiative commenced. The federal government introduced so-called “municipal filters” (a designation evocative of Putin’s presidential filter) which made it incumbent on prospective gubernatorial candidates to gain the approval of 5-10 percent of the deputies in their regional legislature, a forbidding prospect.
IMPLICATIONS: With two gubernatorial contests scheduled to take place in the North Caucasus in 2013 (in Dagestan and Ingushetia) this revision of Medvedev’s proposals assumed particular urgency as 2012 drew to a close. In December, a group of deputies in the State Duma introduced a bill that would allow the sitting governor to choose the mechanism whereby any pending gubernatorial selection process would be carried out in his or her jurisdiction. At the governor’s discretion, elections might be carried out under conditions of universal suffrage (“one man, one vote”), or alternatively, the successful candidate might be determined by a restricted franchise such as a regional legislature. Indeed, according to some interpretations of this legislation, the presiding governor is within his or her rights to simply dispense altogether with the need for elections should he or she see fit. This bill was passed by the Russian State Duma in January 2013 and is almost certain to be signed into law.
The implications of this controversial bill for the forthcoming gubernatorial elections in Dagestan have been the object of extended discussion in Makhachkala for several months. Magomedsalam Magomedov, the Head (Governor) of Dagestan, announced that he was in favor of direct popular elections taking place in his jurisdiction. He predicted that the staging of such an electoral process in Dagestan, the first such in its history, would be “successful.” Barely a month after expressing these sentiments, however, Magomedov was prevailed upon to resign from his office, with some analysts drawing a direct correlation between his fall from grace and his public position on this issue.
The new acting head of Dagestan is Ramzan Abdulatipov, at various times an academic, a diplomat and a parliamentarian, who has echoed his predecessor’s call for direct elections in Dagestan later this year. “I have always stood for general elections, but we must take into account the situation, look at the place, consult with deputies and the public. This will determine what action will be taken on the issue of direct elections,” said Adbulatipov recently. However, some sources have cast doubt on whether Abdulatipov’s enthusiasm is genuine by suggesting that (not unlike Putin and Surkov) his interest in participatory democracy may be subject to various caveats and perhaps even to more fundamental misgivings.
It should be acknowledged that even were direct elections to proceed this year in Dagestan, the “presidential filters” advocated by Vladimir Putin would ensure, in one way or another, that Surkov’s doomsday scenario would not come to pass. For example, the possibility of a firebrand Mullah persuading even a small minority of Dagestan’s parliamentary body – let alone any of the political parties currently active in the republic – to publicly endorse his candidacy would be remote at best. However, while the idea of an Islamic extremist coming to power in Dagestan via this new electoral process might seem far-fetched, the prospect of some other rogue party – an independent secular politician, or a truculent oligarch perhaps – furthering their influence by way of this process remains a possibility.
Notwithstanding this analysis, it is all but certain now that direct elections will not take place in Dagestan, or indeed in Ingushetia, this year. Citing a source in the Putin administration, Kommersant reported in early March that the Kremlin had already decided not to permit any such elections in the North Caucasus region. It is interesting to note that the Kremlin’s designated manager for the upcoming electoral cycle is Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior aide to President Putin. Abdulatipov has already signaled his desire to lead Dagestan beyond his current remit. With September 8 confirmed as the date on which the elections are to be held, we can expect an announcement from Abdulatipov shortly as to the exact conditions they will be conducted under.
CONCLUSIONS: Although he has been careful to rule nothing out publicly, it is likely that Abdulatipov will ultimately exercise his soon-to-be acquired prerogative under federal law by announcing that the next leader of Dagestan will not be chosen by way of direct, popular elections. Instead, it seems probable that a more limited franchise – perhaps the 121 members of the republic’s legislature, the People’s Assembly – will be tasked with selecting a suitable gubernatorial candidate.
Abdulatipov will doubtless accept full responsibility for this decision, arguing that “the time is not right” for direct elections to take place in the republic. Such an argument is not altogether invalid: the political situation in the republic is subject to a volatile multi-ethnic tapestry featuring competing clans and business interests. Moreover, as mentioned previously, Dagestan has no historical experience of direct elections on a grand scale and it is impossible to confidently predict that they will not adversely affect inter-ethnic relations.
Abdulatipov, Putin and Volodin are unwilling to commission such a grand democratic experiment in Dagestan. All three are fearful of the ethnic strife such an election could give rise to. However, for the latter two, and for other policymakers in the Russian elite, there is the additional fear that an unregulated process of this type might be manipulated by certain independent parties (oligarchs, Islamists etc.) to install a powerful new political actor in Makhachkala that would be less sensitive to Moscow’s strategic interests in the region.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Kevin Daniel Leahy holds a postgraduate degree from University College Cork, Ireland.