New Internationalist

The rise of the Great Shah in Russia?

It’s been the question on the lips of the leader of every autonomous Russian republic: ‘If I can’t call myself “President” then what?’

Chief? Governor? Big Kahuna?

And two years after Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov declared that there had to be an end to the ‘parade of regional presidents’ in Russia, the local leaders have been given the answer: a Kremlin order that they change their titles to ‘Head’ by 2015. 

But not everyone wants to play ball. The leaders of the oil and gas-rich regions of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan – the former, Rustam Minnikhanov (left of picture), having declared that he simply ‘loves’ being called president – are struggling to keep their titles in a political climate which increasingly demands the disintegration of federalism in Russia.

Tatar writers and intelligentsia have begun to speak out against the name change which they believe is the first step on a road to the abolition of self-government for autonomous republics across Russia.

After Medvedev mused that perhaps regional leaders’ titles should reflect ‘specific features’ of their respective territories , the debate led to some colourful suggestions, among them ‘Khan’ and ‘Padishah’ (from the Persian ‘Great Shah’).

Kadyrov, a leader who has out-Putined Putin on many occasions with his call for the preservation of Russian unity and stability at any cost, observed that there could only be one true president in Russia – that in the Kremlin.

Tatar statesman and writer Rafael Khakimov retorted recently that it would be an ironic federation in which the heads of football clubs were afforded the right to name themselves presidents, but not the leaders of autonomous republics.

The first presidents of Russia’s republics were usually regional strongmen who were able to successfully bargain not insignificant levels of financial and political autonomy for their regions in exchange for loyalty to Moscow.  They were often cadres from the former Soviet-era administrations of their territories whose ideological sympathies, coincidentally, began to change as the Soviet system they thrived in began to crumble.

Bashkortostan and Tatarstan have the most to lose from a Kremlin-led assault on regional autonomy. They are two of a handful of Russian regions which put more into the federal budget than they receive. As Muscovites scream ‘stop feeding the Caucasus’– enraged at the massive subsidies sent to the impoverished republics of the northern Caucasus – Tatar nationalists have been known to shout ‘stop feeding Moscow’.

These strong regional presidents of the early 1990s were never elected, simply appointed directly from the Kremlin. The democracy implied in their titles was a misnomer. Yet despite the addition of ‘Federal Regions’ – deliberately adding another layer of bureaucratic red tape between Moscow and the republics – the Kremlin announced its intention to reinstate the elections of regional leaders after December’s parliamentary elections.

Yet these will not be elections for ‘presidents’ but for ‘heads.’ Given that, as the same parliamentary elections showed, united Russia’s strongest electoral performance is in ethnically non-Russian republics, this is no great concession on the Kremlin’s part.

Loudest voices are the most often heard, though often mystifyingly bereft of common sense. It is the belief of Tatar nationalist movement Azatliq that if there is no option but to change the title from President – one which carries clear connotations of national sovereignty – then it must be changed to one which, according to leader Nail Nabiullin ‘adequately reflects the cultural-historical heritage of the Tatar people… such as the titles Khan or Ilbaşi’ (Lord of the Land).

Neighbouring Bashkortostan saw Edvard Murzin, political figure in Bashkortostan’s capital, Ufa, suggest the titles ‘Padishah’ and ‘Murza’.

‘Why hold back?’ Murzin told the Ufa Journal. ‘Why simply name them “Governor” or “Head of the Republic” when we can name them in a more uniquely Eastern manner?’

The authorities of the vast mineral rich republic of Yakutia in Siberia have also considered choosing a culturally relevant title such as ‘Il Darkhan’ and ‘Bagarlyk,’ both being Yakut equivalents for ‘leader’.

Although it was feared in Tatarstan that the renaming of the president as ‘Khan’ would cause the republic to become the ‘laughingstock of Europe,’ there is a certain novelty to the suggestion. The only two republics to be led by a Shah and Khan would gain themselves a few well-needed column inches when the vast majority of foreign visitors to Russia still focus exclusively on Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Kadyrov himself did not exclude the possibility of being named the ‘Imam’ of the republic, while the mind boggles at what title the head of the republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, UFO abductee and chess fanatic (and, it recently transpired, guest of both Gaddafi and Assad) could have chosen for himself had he remained in office.

Titles often obscure as much as define those who hold them. Putin as president does not simply preside but reigns over Russia’s increasingly bleak political landscape. These names, exotic as they may be, are unlikely to be adopted as the Kremlin prefers a unity of titles among its regional leaders.

Perhaps in that vein, ‘head’ is a fitting name for those towards the bottom of the vertical of power. As history attests, heads can be removed with one fell swoop. Khans, on the other hand, have proven troublesome.

Photo: President of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov (left) and his adviser Mintimer Shaimiev (right). Photo by RIA Novosti under a CC Licence.

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