Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Putin Restores Soviet-Style Quotas for North Caucasus Leaderships

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 11 –President Vladimir Putin said yesterday he had restored the indirect election of heads of republics in the North Caucasus “not so much out of a need to guarantee security or to resolve other questions” but “as a result of the particular features of the ethnic composition [of those republics and because] this is a tradition of ethnic culture.”

            Putin  is correct such indirect election, where parliaments not people, choose the top leaders reflects “the poly-confessional, multi-national, and particular ethnic composition of these regions.” But he is wrong, even arrogantly so, in insisting that this is part of the “tradition of the ethnic culture” there. He even said the republics had asked for this change.

            Instead, this “tradition” is not so much an ethnic one as a Soviet-imposed arrangement on the multi-national republics of the region. After Stalin drew the borders in the North Caucasus, these republics all had significant ethnic minorities and sometimes lacked a single ethnic majority (

            Had genuine elections been held for all top posts – republic president, speaker of the parliament, and head of government – the largest group likely would have swept all three, something that would inevitably have angered members of the other groups and positively triggered violent resistance.

            There were two possibilities to escape that outcome: either the ethnic groups could be encouraged to work together and agree on a mixed slate, much as what happens in American cities and an inevitably messy but ultimately negotiated and democratic process, or Moscow could impose a Lebanon-style division of the top posts among the larger ethnic groups.

            Until Gorbachev’s time, all Soviet leaders opted for the latter. Mikhail Gorbachev, however, at least talked about moving toward popular elections of all posts, even though given the high level of ethnic self-identification and hostility to other groups that the Soviet system had institutionalized, that shift opened the way to violent clashes.

            This trend was made worse because of two demographic developments: the departure of most of the ethnic Russians and other Slavs from the region beginning in the 1970s and nearly completed in the 1990s and differential growth rates of the indigenous nationalities, with their ranking in the population, as in Daghestan, changing markedly overtime.

            Many Soviet and post-Soviet commentators on the North Caucasus in general and Daghestan in particular criticized Gorbachev’s move as extremely dangerous and called for the return of the Soviet-era Lebanon-style division of posts.  And that is what Vladimir Putin has done – and in a way that minimizes any democratic element in the selection process.

            As Russian news agencies reported, Ramazan Abdulatipov, the Kremlin’s candidate to head Daghestan, received 86 of 88 votes in the republic parliament, and Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, also hand-picked by Moscow, received 25 of 27.  Not quite Soviet unanimity but close enough for present purposes.

            At the same time, however, the ideal of democracy is so widely and highly valued even in a region where Putin thinks it is not part of the local “tradition,” the day after the vote, Abdulatipov suggested that the next time around, he or his successor could be elected by popular vote – perhaps, if Putin gets his way, in one also organized along Soviet lines.

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