Vladimir Putin meets with the head of the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Rashid Temrezov in January 2016. Photo: Kremlin.ru. Some rights reserved.In the autonomous republics of Russia’s North Caucasus, deputies in regional and district parliaments are purely decorative. Local politics are dominated by cronies and clansmen of the regions’ leaders, however contradictory of the constitution it might be.
Russia’s constitution states that local government organs are autonomous and independent of central government. In the North Caucasus, however, local authorities have long been absorbed into the power vertical. Municipalities are financially dependent on the republic governments, who in turn need loyal local leaders. They put forth appropriate candidates, often in the face of considerable opposition. As a result, election results, especially in populous areas, are mostly controlled by republic officials.
Compared to regional-level elections, local election campaigns are lively and eagerly followed
This dependence on the local power vertical extends to the judiciary, too. Chechnya’s kingpin Ramzan Kadyrov, for example, has traditionally berated judges in public as a way of putting pressure on the courts: in May 2016 he forced the resignation of Magomed Karatayev, the head of Chechnya’s Supreme Court. In 2011, Magomed Daudov (known as “The Lord”), then First Deputy Speaker of the Chechen Parliament and a close associate of Kadyrov, publicly lambasted members of a jury that had acquitted a defendant at a trial.
While officials and judges at regional level toe the line, municipal council members still attempt to engage in politics. The International Crisis Group’s (ICG) North Caucasus expert Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya tells me that if election fixing and falsification at republic level is obvious (nobody believes the official high turnout figures), then local election campaigns are lively and eagerly followed in comparison. Sokiryanskaya believes this is because local government is closest to the voters, the “grassroots”, and so needs to pay more attention to public opinion than the higher-ups. “It’s local elections that attract the largest number of observers and the highest turnouts,” she tells me.
In other words, politicians at this local level are still trying to break the system’s vicious circle. They don’t stand a chance.
A sudden love for the constitution
Recently, local councillors tried to buck the trend in the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia. The rural, mountainous Karachayevsky district is the republic’s largest and most sparsely-populated region. Its two largest towns have populations of less than 4,000 and more than 85% of its inhabitants are ethnic Karachays, which leads to the development of local elites along clan lines. The overall population of its 15 municipalities and almost 4,000 square kilometres of territory is a little over 31,000. Despite considerable mineral resources, it has little industry: most of the local economy is based on agriculture and small business.
According to local deputy Shamil Khatuayev, for several years the district head, Spartak Kushcheterov, an appointee of the republic’s leader Rashid Temrezov, took all decisions unilaterally. Members of the district council obediently raised their hands to pass motions imposed on them by the administration.
The Bolshoy Zelenchuk River in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Photo via Timur Agirov (http://timag82.livejournal.com)After two and a half years of quiet submission, however, deputies have erupted into open conflict. In late 2016, eight members of the local parliament suddenly remembered that, according to the constitution, it was they who had elected Kushcheterov. Accordingly, they should be reviewing and approving the municipal budget and electing a speaker themselves. It all started when the council’s speaker Macharby Bayramukov, a Kushcheterov loyalist, retired, only to reappear almost immediately. Sources in the administration revealed that his departure and return was a ploy thought up by the leadership to ensure that he’d get his pension by the end of 2016 (the minimum length of service needed in Russia to receive a pension was increased on 1 January 2017).
Members of the district council obediently raised their hands to pass motions imposed on them by the administration
According to my sources, after Bayramukov’s retirement a majority of deputies voted to elect Shamil Khatuayev as speaker. On 27 December, the day when the election was to take place and the budget for 2017 debated, Kushcheterov physically blocked the entrance to the local administration, refusing entry to members. Accustomed to meek submission from deputies, he responded to the ensuing standoff by again blocking the entrance to the council chamber a few days later. The seven deputies who had remained loyal to him approved the budget – illegally, as the necessary quorum was more than twice that number.
Suddenly, Khatuayev and his supporters have become ardent defenders of the constitution. These deputies, having in the past showed no interest in administrative issues, now assert that it isn’t about the change of speaker, but of the need for a “correctly” approved budget. “The budget is the most important thing,” says Khatuayev. “That, and not my wish to be elected speaker, is the main reason for this conflict.”
29 December 2016. Deputies of the district council for Karachayevsky Region, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, are obstructed from entering the council chamber. Photo courtesy of the author.Khatuayev complained that it was always the same story: “Our views were ignored from the start. They would bring in a stack of papers and say, ‘vote’. And the deputies would always raise their hands as they were directed”. Refusal could lead to a beating. Kushcheterov, who often publicly threatened journalists and wavering deputies alike, had a reputation as a man you didn’t want to cross.
Despite the obvious illegality of the recently approved budget, Khatuayev still hadn’t given a thought to the constitution. Like most of his colleagues, he hadn’t even attended the budget meetings in 2015 and 2016. Local bureaucrats took decisions without consulting the council and recorded them as having been voted on. “Then it turned out they’d been allocating 12 million roubles to culture and only one million to sport,” says Khatuayev. “That makes sense – it’s much easier to siphon off cash to ‘cultural projects’ than to sport. Heaven knows how many issues were resolved with payments like that.” Khatuayev believes this year’s budget approval report sent to Cherkessk, the capital of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, contains a falsified signature of one of his fellow-protesters.
There are no accidental people in United Russia
The exchange with Shamil Khatuayev below gets to the heart of this system of decorative parliaments. Karachayevo-Cherkessia’s leader Rashid Temrezov appointed the district leader Kushcheterov, who in turn compiled the local candidate list for United Russia at the 2014 elections. Russia’s ruling party then won an absolute majority in the district. In other words, all candidates on Kushcheterov’s list were elected to the district council. After all, there are no accidental people in United Russia.
Why did you wait until now before revealing that the district head obstructed deputies from doing their work?
This year most of my council colleagues joined me in protesting about this. They were all fed up with two and a half years of sticking their hands up to vote for who knows what. Others also agreed with me, but they expressed their disaffection by simply not turning up to meetings. We were in a minority, so there was no point in going along to just listen and vote.
Why are the seven remaining deputies not on your side?
One of them is the head teacher of a school – if he voted with us his school’s budget would be cut and an investigation launched against him. Another is his deputy. A third is the manager of a gym, so also a public sector employee. The fourth is the speaker, who last year received an 830,000 rouble (£11,000) bonus, and the fifth is his deputy. The sixth is the council’s honorary secretary and a friend of Kushcheterov, and the seventh is this man’s nephew, who doesn’t go to meetings, has no interest in anything and just does as he’s told.
We were in a minority, so there was no point in going along to just listen and vote
And how do such people even get into the district council?
At the time of the elections, Kushcheterov was acting head of the district administration. He approved my candidature and those of all the 15 people elected as deputies. We all stood as United Russia candidates, of course. This is the way things work across Russia. United Russia had to win, and it did. I didn’t argue. But when someone in power goes crazy, it’s time to say, “Stop.” Kushcheterov thinks he appointed us!
Then why did you elect him as speaker?
I didn’t want to vote for him, but his candidature was recommended by Rashid Temrezov himself, so I had no choice.
Kushcheterov refuses to comment on the situation; his relaxed attitude is probably due to the fact that he’s a protégé of Rashid Temrezov, who praised him, not for the first time, in his New Year’s blog:
“I believe that it is thanks to Spartak Kushcheterov’s efficient work and responsible attitude to any task given him that the Karachayevsky District has undergone dynamic development over the past few years, with social, sporting, engineering and road infrastructure projects under way,” wrote the republic’s leader on Instagram.
Who’s your shepherd?
Andrey Epifantsev, an expert on the Caucasus, political and sociological analyst and director of the Alte et Certe agency, has no confidence in the good intentions of the deputies who have suddenly set themselves up as an opposition group. He believes that only the “right people” get elected.
He believes that elections of deputies at both district and regional levels across the entire North Caucasus are in the hands of the officials who dole places out as they see fit: “It’s no secret. This system rejects those who attempt to bring any honesty into elections. Leaders just get a bunch of tame deputies.”
Epifantsev tells me that deputies don’t usually rebel, because their main aim is to preserve their assets. For that, they need to play ball with the powers that be. Recommendations from a Temrezov or Kadyrov to elect such and such a Speaker are understood as an order. Bureaucrats’ activities are directed not at satisfying the public’s needs, but at following the rules of the game in the bosses’ interests.
This is a system where local officials simply dole out positions as they see fit. It rejects those who attempt to bring any honesty into elections
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the eight ‘dissident’ deputies in the Karachayevsky District were the ones that didn’t get a big enough piece of the pie when the local budget was being allocated,” remarks Epifantsev.
Meanwhile, the rebel deputies have turned to the FSB and Prosecutor’s office in the hope of getting Kushcheterov removed. But experts are doubtful about whether anything will come of it. Epifantsev thinks the district head might come to some agreement with his opponents, to avoid any scandal. But there’s always the risk that law enforcement agencies might turn against the dissenters themselves.
“Ideally, the police and investigative organs should keep tabs on regional governments and the observance of the constitution in a detached and neutral manner,” he says. “In reality the FSB and presidential administration, in other words the bodies in charge of social control and surveillance, appoint influential people close to the regional administration. Instead of being the watchful eye of the Kremlin, they represent the same obligations and interests as local elites.”
Epifantsev knows quite a few cases where the FSB has punished people who have appealed to it for justice. He cites an instance when the environmental expert from nearby Adygea region Valery Brinih announced that 600 sheep, chosen personally by Ramzan Kadyrov as gifts for low income ethnic Adygei families to celebrate Eid, had been stolen.
How can you lose a whole flock of sheep? Photo CC: Kai C. Schawarzer / Flickr. Some rights reserved.The head of the local Green Party contacted the FSB to ask them to find out what had become of the sacrificial animals, and it turned out that half of them had been stolen by local administrative bodies. So the FSB began checking out the Greens instead. “The police and FSB will only take the claimants’ side if there are grounds for removing the head of administration or the leader of the republic from their post,” says Epifantsev.
ICG’s Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya also sees the situation as typical for the whole North Caucasus: “in Dagestan in the early 2000s, local barons seized power in many districts,” she tells me. “They would then consolidate their positions in the republic’s ministries, place their friends and relations in important posts and use various corrupt practices to siphon off resources intended for the local population. Local activists would contact the police and hold protests, but nothing was any use.”
Good faith in the authorities won’t help: on several occasions, the FSB has punished those who appealed to it for justice
Epifantsev highlights the considerable role played by clans in the formation of local elites. “Although this is the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia, but its elite are exclusively ethnic Karachay, and they recruit their own. That’s how it works. If Moscow appoints a Karachay to a key post, then he’ll surround himself with Karachays. That’s what has happened with Kushcheterov. So a very narrow group of people have access to all the assets and they won’t admit anyone else. At one point the region’s Cherkess and Russian minorities united to oppose Temrezov’s adminstration. Their wrangles with him went on for two years and included appeals to Putin and Medvedev.
Two years ago, Temrezov was in a precarious position and other clans could have defeated him. But now it’s all turned upside down. Temrezov has been re-appointed, has consolidated his position and is in the Kremlin’s good books. I can’t see a handful of deputies turning that situation to their advantage. Administrative steps will be taken against them, and they’ll be made to look democratic.”
Next month, the reaction of the FSB and the prosecutor’s office will either confirm or refute the political analyst’s prediction. This incident in Karachayevo-Cherkessia has echoes elsewhere; it perfectly illustrates the system of decorative parliaments that persists in the North Caucasus region, at all levels of government. This isn’t even to mention the judicial (in)dependence, the (in)effectiveness of Russia’s central watchdogs and the observation of its constitution. It looks as if it’s a system which is here to stay.