Russia's regions. Naughty little tsars

INDEX TERMS Russia|regional government, defiance of Russian law; Human rights|Russian regional government, high incidence of violations; Local government|Russia, defiance of Russian law;
Devolution is not always good for democracy

Russia’s regions

THE president of the Russian autonomous republic of Bashkortostan in the Urals managed to have himself re-elected last week after refusing to put on the ballot two opposition candidates who had been declared legitimate by the Supreme Court in Moscow. Meanwhile in Kalmykia, by the Caspian Sea, another island of autonomy, the president casually dismissed any suggestion that he had anything to gain from the murder of his main critic, a local editor.

The two presidents concerned, Murtaza Rakhimov and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (who is also, by the by, president of the world chess federation, FIDE ), are local tsars who openly flout not only the their citizens’ human rights but also Russia’s constitution. Is there any limit to their arrogance, ask outraged metropolitan commentators?

In these two instances, the Kremlin may yet take action. The barred candidates in Bashkortostan may be encouraged to contest their exclusion. And Russia’s federal president, Boris Yeltsin, has ordered an urgent investigation into the death of the journalist in Kalmykia, Larisa Yudina. But the omens are not good: Russia’s local tsars all too often turn a deaf ear to the Kremlin with impunity.

But not all regional bosses are untouchable. Many of them, both allies and opponents of Mr Yeltsin, have been ousted at the ballot box. Incumbents have recently lost in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, Penza in Russia’s heartland, Karelia on the Finnish border and North Ossetia in the Caucasus.

A handful, however, have managed to entrench themselves—particularly in some of Russia’s ethnically labelled republics. President Mintimer Shaimiev, for instance, has turned Tatarstan into a kind of mini-state, complete with its own economic policy. Neighbouring Bashkortostan, whose oil refineries are overseen by the ruthless Mr Rakhimov, is also fiercely autonomous. The presidential election there was a farce: Mr Rakhimov bullied what was left of the independent media, then won a two-man fight against a straw candidate who happened to be his own minister of forestry.

Kalmykia’s Mr Ilyumzhinov wins the prize for being Russia’s most eccentric leader, which is saying something. A Buddhist entrepreneur and chess fanatic, he stamps on anything that hints of opposition. When a newspaper, Sovietskaya Kalmykia, proved a damaging critic of Mr Ilyumzhinov’s regime, its staff were evicted in an attempt to shut the paper down. Doggedly, Mrs Yudina continued printing it in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), 320 kilometres (200 miles) away, and copies of the newspaper were brought into Kalmykia by car. On June 7th, two Bashkortostan officials were formally charged with the outspoken editor’s murder.

In these instances, anxious tut-tutting from the Kremlin may not be entirely sincere. For both Mr Rakhimov and Mr Ilyumzhinov have been good at providing what Mr Yeltsin and his friends have valued most highly: votes. In the 1996 presidential elections in Bashkortostan, for example, Mr Yeltsin trailed his Communist opponent badly in the first round. Mr Rakhimov, however, saw to it that the man in the Kremlin forged well ahead in the second.

It may be proving harder, these days, for Moscow to control the outlying regions and republics. Sometimes rivals within the federal administration back opposing sides in the same dispute. In the recent election for the governorship of Krasnoyarsk, some Kremlinites backed the populist ex-general, Alexander Lebed, though for others (including Mr Yeltsin) he remains enemy number one—and a front-runner to win the federal presidency in two years’ time.

What if the regional bosses were to co-operate against the centre? That, certainly, is what the Tatar leader, Mr Shaimiev, has proposed. “Russia’s next president should be one of us,” he says. So far, however, he has not explained exactly how he intends to bring that about. Local leaders still tend to negotiate with Moscow one-to-one, often down red, Soviet-era, telephonic hotlines.

Moreover, big careers still tend to be built in Moscow. “In contrast to the United States, a regional leader will never become a national leader in Russia, unless he first transplants himself into the Moscow federal elite,” says Nikolai Petrov, a Moscow-based specialist on the regions. Most local bosses are likely to go on backing the big man in the Kremlin, so long as he does not interfere too much with them. Bad news for Russian democracy beyond the capital.