Friends in High Places
The appointment of a new leader in Russia's Adygeya region casts light on the Kremlin's top-heavy brand of federalism. by Oleg Tsvetkov 16 July 2007
MAYKOP, Russia | Vladimir Putin's appointment of a regional governor previously rejected overwhelmingly by voters has left many in the Adygeya Republic questioning the legitimacy of the Kremlin's top-heavy governing style.
Influential associations of ethnic Adygs and Russians in the tiny republic concur that Putin's choice of Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov
smacks of Kremlin cronyism. Independent analysts believe Putin‘s choice of a man who received just 2 percent of the vote in 2002 shows that the Kremlin's new model of federalism, whereby regional leaders are nominated by the federal center, has everything to do with strengthening Moscow's hand in the regions and little to do with democracy.
Tkhakushinov's appointment in December to lead the North Caucasus republic of 450,000 people evoked initial skepticism and dejection within the republic's two most influential non-governmental organizations: Adyghe Khase and the Union of Slavs. In the ethnically fragmented republic, where Adygs make up about 25 percent of the population and Russians account for 65 percent, the two associations reflect public opinion better than other organizations and political parties.
"United Russia [the Kremlin-controlled party] has been declared the ruling party in this country. It decides who should be the president of Adygeya. We cannot influence the decision," said Nalbiy Gutchel, a leader of Adyghe Khase, a local association of ethnic Adygs that backed former president Khazret Sovmen to stay in office for another term.
Vladimir Karatayev, a leader of the local Union of Slavs, added, "The electoral institution has been purposefully eliminated in this country. The Russian authorities are completely independent of the people. Only those who are on good terms with the Kremlin are appointed as provincial governors."
When Dmitry Kozak, Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District of which Adygeya is a part, discussed potential candidates for Sovmen's post last fall with Adygeya political associations, the Union of Slavs refused to back Tkhakushinov.
That the two most influential organizations in the republic closed ranks in opposition to the Kremlin's man is even more remarkable in light of their differing views on many local issues – and in light of Sovmen's very mixed record while in office. A self-made man who rose from obscurity to vast wealth during the 1990s, Sovmen failed to make his mark in politics after coasting to victory in the 2002 presidential election with 69 percent of the vote, the last time Adygeyans were able to select their president in a direct election. He delegated most management responsibilities to the chief of his presidential office and was often absent from the republic. Yet, as a straight-talker who constantly annoyed Moscow with his tongue-lashings of federal officials, Sovmen was often forgiven by rank and file Adygeyans who appreciated his simplicity of manner and his refusal to play by the Kremlin's rules.
Mistrust of the new president – Sovmen's opposite in almost every way – stems from several sources. Not only was Tkhakushinov trounced by Sovmen during the last direct election, but many Adygeyans are suspicious of his apparent wealth, saying his salary as a university rector could not have supported the construction of one of Maykop's most luxurious private homes.
Unlike Sovmen, who earned his estimated $400 million fortune from visible sources – primarily gold mining – Tkhakushinov, a career educator and loyal supporter of each successive Russian government for many years, has had no significant income apart from his official salary. Although there have been no concrete corruption allegations against him, Sovmen himself was unafraid to raise the issue, reportedly pointing directly to his newly named successor when asked by Putin to identify the "thieves, bandits, and extortioners" he claimed swarmed over Adygeya, during a 7 December 2006 meeting with the federal president and regional parliamentary leaders.
Early in his presidency, Sovmen also accused Tkhakushinov before the full Adygeya parliament of demanding a bribe in return for withdrawing from the 2002 presidential race.
FRIENDS AND PATRONS
As Sovmen's relations with Moscow reached a low point, Putin nominated Tkhakushinov for the Adygeya presidency in December 2006. The republic's legislature, dominated by United Russia members, voted almost unanimously to endorse Putin's candidate. Nearly all senior bureaucrats in Adygeya are members of United Russia, the party constructed by and closely linked with the Kremlin.
Tkhakushinov emerged as the leading candidate in rather mysterious circumstances. He was not on the party's list of candidates during the consultations presidential envoy Kozak held with the leaders of local political parties and members of the republic's legislature last fall. Rather, members of the central United Russia leadership later proposed Tkhakushinov at a meeting of the party's political council in Moscow. State Duma deputy Andrei Vorobyev, chairman of the party executive committee, traveled to Adygeya to persuade local party leaders to accept the nomination.
It is unclear why the party's central leadership threw its support behind Tkhakushinov despite the initial opposition from the local branch, but a clue probably lies in the good connections he forged with powerful men in the capital.
At his inauguration ceremony on 13 January, the republic's new president introduced as a personal friend Yury Ansimov, deputy chief of the investigative office of Russia's FSB security service and former head of the FSB in Adygeya.
Another of Tkhakushinov's friends at the ceremony was Vladimir Altunin, the federal inspector for Adygeya and co-author with Ansimov of a book on terrorism. Altunin set up his boss Kozak's meetings with local politicians the previous fall.
When Putin won the federal parliament's approval in 2004 to select regional governors by presidential nomination rather than popular election, he argued it would strengthen security in the regions. Not long before, hundreds of hostages had been killed in gunfire between hostage-takers and security forces at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia.
Many political pundits, however, also believe the president's decision increased the likelihood of dirty dealing in regional capitals. Ruslan Khanakhu, head of the philosophy and sociology department at the Adygeya Institute of Humanities Research, argues that the new system "sharply increased corruption risks."
"Putin cannot know all the candidates for provincial governors in person, while his administration is not doing a good [selection] job," he said.
Adygeya's new president never misses an opportunity to underline his loyalty to the Kremlin, often asking federal inspector Altunin to attend meetings with Adygeya officials – where he sits alongside the president – and dotting his speeches with "thanks to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, president of the Russian Federation." His style marks a radical departure from that of his elected predecessor, who acted independently of federal agencies and often complained that federal officials hampered his ability to get on with the job. Sovmen evicted one federal inspector from his office for late rent payments; another, who supported the merger of Adygeya into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai, was declared persona non grata in the republic by the government.
The new president is also taking a different route in his hiring policies. Observers note that the proportion of ethnic Russians in his government has risen at the expense of Adygs. The titular minority of the region dominated local government and business for the past 15 years over the frequent complaints of the Union of Slavs.
But Tkhakushinov also appears to be wooing the ethnic Adyg community. Since Adygeya achieved republic status in 1991, the rights of the minority Adygs has been a constant debating point. Adyg organizations oppose the idea put forward by the Union of Slavs, with lukewarm backing from the Kremlin, to incorporate the republic into the much larger Krasnodar Krai, which completely surrounds Adygeya. Sovmen claimed that pressure from Kozak to merge the regions was the main reason he decided against seeking a second term.
As the Kremlin's new appointee took over from Sovmen, however, Moscow announced that Adygeya's customs department and veterinary service would be placed under the control of their counterparts in Krasnodar. Some Adyg activists condemned the transfer of federal agencies as a deliberate step to strip the republic of its key functions and powers. Parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khadzhebiyekov described the move as “the castration of the republic’s status.”
In comparison to such concerns about the republic as a whole, the ethnic composition of the government is only a minor concern for Adygs, said to Zaur Dzeukozhev, a leader of the influential Circassian Congress.
"The most important thing for us is that the republic remains an independent subject of the Russian Federation. It will not be merged into Krasnodar Krai. Tkhakushinov promised us that he would preserve the republic. This is the most important thing for us," he said.