Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Could Tatarstan’s Minnikhanov Become Russia’s Next Prime Minister?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 24 – Both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have both tactical and strategic reasons for choosing Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov as the next prime minister of the Russian Federation, reasons that Rashit Akhmetov of “Zvezda Povolzhya” argues are sufficiently compelling to make rumors about such a change entirely plausible.

            There have been reports that Putin wants to replace Medvedev and that Medvedev wants to position himself to run for president after Putin goes, Akhmetov writes in the current issue of the Kazan weekly he edits (no. 47, December 19-25). And there has been some speculation that Putin might choose Minnikhanov to replace Medvedev as Russian prime minister.

            In Akhmetov’s view, there are good tactical and strategic reasons for such a choice.

            Putin has a good relationship with Minnikhanov and has offered him Moscow jobs before – most recently agriculture minister – but the Tatar official has always turned him down pointing to the need to complete work in Kazan on the Universiade and a new science city or fearing that if he goes to Moscow, he won’t be able to return to Kazan.

            (Minnikhanov has good reason for such fears, Akhmetov says. An earlier Tatar official, Gumer Usmanov, went to the CPSU apparatus in the expectation that he would be able to come back but was never able to do so.)

            But the situation may be changing.  There are at least three immediate reasons why Putin is likely to view Minnikhanov as a suitable candidate to become Russian prime minister, and there is one why he would be more acceptable to Medvedev as his replacement. And behind both are structural factors that Akhmetov says work in Minnikhanov’s favor.

            As far as Putin is concerned, Minnikhanov has three great advantages: First, the Tatar leader has long experience as a prime minister – he served in that capacity in Kazan from 1998 to 2010 – and in the oil and gas industry.  Second, Minnikhanov is someone Putin feels comfortable working with.

            And third – and this is likely the most important reason of all – Minnikhanov, unlike almost all the other candidates who have been suggested would never challenge the president or seek to replace him. A Tatar as president of Russia is not a realistic possibility at present, Akhmetov says.

            And as for Medvedev, not only would Minnikhanov not get in the way of his own future presidential aspirations, Akhmetov says, but by becoming Russian prime minister, the Tatar leader would block others like Dmitry Rogozin or Sergey Shoygu who have their own ambitions for the top spot from using that position as a base.

            Underlying such tactical and even strategic calculations, the “Zvezda Povolzhya” editor says, is the nationality issue and its implications for the future of the Russian Federation. Akhmetov notes that before 1917, 65 percent of the nobility were not of ethnic Russian background, and that now, only 30 percent of the most important oligarchs are ethnic Russians.

            Having a Tatar in the central leadership would thus be useful in practical terms because although the Tatars themselves number only about seven million, they form through mixed marriages perhaps 20 million people or 15 percent of the total population of the Russian Federation. They are thus truly the second nationality of the country.

            But promoting Minnikhanov to the office of Russian prime minister would have broader utility as well. On the one hand, Akhmetov argues, it would reinforce the Eurasian trend in Russian life by linking the future of Russia not to those with only a western orientation but towards someone who combines both east and west in his own person.

            And on the other, Minnikhanov more than any of the other candidates who have been mentioned could easily find “a common language” with Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and both China to the east and the European Union to the west.

            Many may be inclined to dismiss Akhmetov’s argument out of hand, but it is not implausible and consequently its appearance is likely to become part of the Moscow conversation after the Sochi Olympiad when most expect that Putin will make a change in the top government post.

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