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Regional Russian Leader Challenges Kremlin Authority

The president of Russia's Tatarstan republic is calling for direct popular election of regional governors, a move that challenges Kremlin authority to appoint local officials at the expense of the people's right to elect their own representatives. VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky reports from Moscow.

Russian newspapers report Tatarstan's veteran president Mintimer Shaimiyev told a Russian media convention Saturday that Moscow should reinstate the direct popular election of regional governors. His statement is seen as a direct challenge to former President Vladimir Putin's decision in 2004 to substitute the ballot box with the Kremlin's own gubernatorial appointments.

Speaking to VOA from Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, independent political analyst Vladimir Bilayev said some people in the republic have been calling for direct elections to preserve a semblance of local Tatar rule. He says others also support direct elections as a matter of democratic principle.

But the analyst says Shaimiyev is motivated not so much by democracy, as fear that Russia's new president, Dmitri Medvedev, will seek to appoint younger leaders that can revive what Bilayev describes as Tatarstan's stagnant economy.

The analyst says central authorities apparently do not like the stagnation, so they want to rejuvenate leadership ranks with people who know something about computers and nanotechnology, but Tatarstan's ruling elite is afraid Moscow will also undermine its privileged economic status.

Shaimiyev has ruled Tatarstan since 1991.

Former President Vladimir Putin ended direct popular elections of governors in Russia following the Beslan Massacre nearly four years ago. The move came in response to the killing of more than 300 hostages, many of them children, by Chechen-led terrorists on the first day of school in September 2004.

Mr. Putin's decision not only gave the Kremlin authority to appoint regional governors, but also to dissolve local parliaments that do not confirm an appointment.

Vladimir Bilayev says Mr. Putin used Beslan as a pretext to rein in regional elites, which had been growing independent of Russian central authority.

A political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center, Alexei Malashenko, says Mr. Putin's move was a mistake that deprived ordinary people of the right to participate in the political process.

Malashenko told VOA that Shaimiyev is trying to correct the error. He notes that Russia has two leaders, the president and the prime minister, and it is important consider which one Shaimiyev is addressing.

Malashenko asks who Shaimiyev should turn to in order to correct the mistake; to Mr. Putin who would have to acknowledge it, or is the Tatar leader testing Mr. Medvedev's influence? The analyst says this aspect of the situation is most interesting, adding that Shaimiyev is too experienced and too smart to simply throw his words to the wind.

The Kommersant newspaper quotes an unnamed Kremlin official as saying central authorities do not reject the possibility of reviewing the subject of direct gubernatorial elections, though most likely not in the near future. In an indication of President Medvedev's position, the official is also quoted as saying the new Russian president is not opposed to the direct election of governors.