Beyond the Kremlin's reach
Jan 28th 2010
From The Economist print edition
Tatarstan is stable, but the republics of the north Caucasus are aflame. Why?
MINTIMER SHAIMIEV has ruled Tatarstan, a large Muslim republic in the heart of Russia, for two decades with a soft voice and a tight fist. He survived the disintegration of the Soviet empire in the 1990s and the centralisation of power in the 2000s. He pursued his own economic and political strategy, keeping Tatarstan firmly within Russia’s borders but out of the Kremlin’s reach. He is no more a democrat or an altruist than Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, but on his watch Tatarstan held together better and suffered fewer economic shocks than much of Russia.
On January 22nd the 73-year-old survivor said he would step down once his fourth term expires in two months’ time. Officially, the president of Tatarstan is appointed and removed by the Kremlin, like any other regional governor in Russia. Yet few doubt that Mr Shaimiev chose both the timing of his resignation and the identity of his successor. When the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, suggested Rustam Minnikhanov—the prime minister of Tatarstan and chairman of its oil company Tatneft—as the next Tatar president, he was voicing Mr Shaimiev’s wish as much as his own.
In contrast, the transfer of power in Dagestan, a Muslim republic in the north Caucasus, has been accompanied by murder, explosions and civil strife. The region has seen a surge in home-grown Islamic fundamentalism, increasing lawlessness among the police and security services and feuding between local clans. On January 6th a suicide bomber drove into a police station, killing six officers. Last summer the republic’s interior minister was assassinated. During mayoral elections in the town of Derbent last October, police clashed with voters and a third of polling stations failed to open (the result was considered beyond the pale even by a Dagestani court, which annulled the result). Mr Medvedev is expected to appoint a new president for Dagestan in February, but this is unlikely to turn the republic into a peace-loving and lawful place.
One explanation for the differences between Tatarstan and Dagestan lies in their contrasting histories. After being conquered by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, was successfully integrated into the Russian empire. The republic has been at peace ever since. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Mr Shaimiev made full but cautious use of Boris Yeltsin’s offer to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.” Mr Shaimiev’s skill and Mr Yeltsin’s belief in federalism as the only plausible model for post-imperial Russia prevented the further disintegration of the country and kept Tatarstan on an even keel.
The north Caucasus, on the other hand, was colonised by Russia only in the second half of the 19th century, and was never fully assimilated. Russia’s reliance on force and repression to pacify the region steadily undermined the legitimacy of its rule. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya demanded full independence. Almost 20 years and two brutal wars later, the republic finds itself ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, a Kremlin-backed strongman with his own small army and a great deal of autonomy.
The neo-colonial methods deployed by Russia in Chechnya have helped spread violence throughout the region. Neither Dagestan, to the east, nor Ingushetia, to Chechnya’s west, claimed independence after 1991, but both are in a state resembling civil war. Desperate to regain a semblance of control over the north Caucasus, the Kremlin recently appointed Alexander Khloponin, an ambitious former businessman and governor of a Siberian region, as an envoy to the newly formed administrative district of the north Caucasus. The appointment was made by Mr Medvedev, but Mr Khloponin will also answer to Mr Putin.
Mr Khloponin has a reputation as an efficient manager. But creating new layers of bureaucracy is unlikely to curb the violence. The pervasive corruption of the state and the lawlessness of the police restrict the ability of the Kremlin to influence much beyond the appointment of governors or envoys.During his time as president, Mr Putin consolidated a great deal of power in his hands. Yet despite their differences, both Tatarstan and the north Caucasus testify to the limits of the Kremlin’s writ. Regions with strong local leaders, like Mr Shaimiev, do relatively well despite the Kremlin’s interference, whereas problematic regions often see their difficulties aggravated because of it. Mr Putin’s centralisation of power has made Russia more autocratic but it has not made it better governed.