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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Picking the Best Man to Lead

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Russian democracy has come under sharp scrutiny in the run-up to the Group of Eight summit, hosted this summer in St. Petersburg by President Vladimir Putin. In a speech in Lithuania this month, Vice President Dick Cheney said Russia had "unfairly and improperly restricted the rights of her people" and had set a political course that could undermine Russia's relations with other countries.

Even harsher assessments have emerged from across the American political spectrum, in reports issued separately by John McCain and by John Edwards with the Council on Foreign Relations. The war of words has escalated on both sides, with McCain urging President George W. Bush to boycott the summit and senior Russian officials lashing back with Cold War-style rhetoric.

Yet recent events suggest that the state of Russian democracy is more nuanced than these assessments have allowed. For example, in the volatile North Caucasus region, the Kremlin has appointed some leaders who are highly principled and genuinely popular. Because of the intense factionalism of this region, some of these leaders could not have been elected to office. Paradoxically, some of these Kremlin appointees have greater popular support, greater capabilities, and greater chances for success than their corrupt and ineffective predecessors, even though their predecessors were "elected" to office.

In February, for example, the Kremlin installed Mukhu Aliyev as president of Dagestan. Aliyev, who holds a doctorate in philosophy, resides in a three-room apartment and owns no automobile. Yet he is a leader of exceptional integrity and experience who has managed to hold himself aloof from the factionalism and corruption that have overwhelmed Dagestan's once vibrant, young democracy. For this reason he enjoys broad popular support, estimated plausibly by one local leader in the vicinity of 90 percent. The irony is that Aliyev was unelectable precisely because he had refused to join with any factions and had chosen to remain innocently impoverished.

As Dagestani politics grew increasingly corrupt, Aliyev was in danger of being marginalized. The Kremlin's appointment of Aliyev ensured the popular support and legitimacy that no election could have achieved.

At the beginning of September 2004, nearby North Ossetia was thrown into political crisis by the hostage atrocity that left 331 captives dead in a school in the town of Beslan. The crisis underscored the fecklessness of Alexander Dzasokhov's regime. Under pressure from the Ossetian public, as well as from the Kremlin, Dzasokhov resigned in 2005.

As his replacement, the Kremlin appointed Taimuraz Mamsurov, the 51-year-old speaker of the North Ossetian legislature. In contrast to Dzasokhov, Mamsurov gained stature, during the Beslan crisis, when he rejected an opportunity for the release of his two children from the besieged school, saying that he would never be able to look his neighbors in the eye. Like Aliyev in Dagestan, Mamsurov is a principled and popular leader. As in Dagestan, the Kremlin served the interests of most local people when it replaced an elected leader with an appointee.

Other Kremlin appointments in the region have been less auspicious. The worst occurred in Ingushetia in 2002 when Moscow forced the resignation of the popular and effective President Ruslan Aushev. In his place the Kremlin installed Murat Zyazikov, who had made his career in the Federal Security Service. Without a local political base, Zyazikov relied on the security services to combat Islamist extremism. The result was escalating police brutality that only served the cause of radicalism.

In Kabardino-Balkaria in 2005 the Kremlin appointed Arsen Kanokov, a Moscow billionaire who has never held any job in his ethnic republic apart from the presidency. In Chechnya, in 2004, the Kremlin allowed the apparently fraudulent election of Alu Alkhanov. Despite this inauspicious start, Alkhanov is a widely respected leader, with a reputation for integrity and courage. He has the support of the vast majority of Chechens, who credit him with progress toward stability and economic recovery. At the same time, Moscow has also tolerated Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who has overseen security forces that operated brutally beyond Alkhanov's control. Yet in recent weeks there have been indications that Moscow may be ready to reign in Kadyrov and throw stronger support to Alkhanov.

While the record of Kremlin appointments in the North Caucasus has been mixed, it has sometimes provided genuine administrative improvements. Moreover, there are signs that the Kremlin is learning. Moscow not only picked the best man for the job in Dagestan, but it did so with finesse that impressed people in the republic. If appointments like this are seen by local populations as serving their own best interests, then they cannot be hastily dismissed as anti-democratic.

American leaders have a history of unrealistic assessments of Russia. Political rhetoric that plays well in America may not serve the interests of democracy in Russia.

Robert Bruce Ware is a professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardville who studies the North Caucasus.