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Apr 8, 2005 | 19:08 GMT

8 mins read

Bashkortostan: First Rehearsal of a Pro-Western 'Revolution'

Summary
Protesters gathered in Bashkortostan's capital of Ufa on March 26 and in Moscow on April 7 to demand the ouster of Bashkortostan's president. These demonstrations, along with the organization of opposition forces in other non-ethnic Russian regions of the central Russian Federation, could be the first signs of another "velvet revolution" — this time, in Russia proper.
Bashkortostan, an autonomous Russian Federation republic located in the southern Urals, witnessed a mass protest March 26, when as many as 20,000 demonstrators gathered in the central square of Ufa, the Bashkir capital, to demand President Murtaza Rakhimov's resignation. The rally — dubbed a "meeting" by Russian media — was organized by the Coordination Council of the United Opposition of Bashkortostan, an alliance of eight political parties from both the left and the right, to protest a massive police operation on Dec. 10, 2004, that resulted in hundreds of arrests. The protesters claimed to be defending human rights, but their top demand was Rakhimov's ouster. They also threatened to break into the republic's presidential and parliamentary offices. The protests in Bashkortostan mark a turning point: Western-inspired "revolutions" have moved from former Soviet republics into Russia. They are in early stages and are on a regional level rather than national, but "velvet revolutions" are brewing in the Russian Federation. Bashkortostan is strategically located between the European and Asian parts of Russia. The only strategic full-size highway from Russia's east to its west goes through Bashkortostan, as do several major energy pipelines from western Siberia to Western Europe. The republic itself is rich in oil (400 million tons in found deposits), natural gas (55 million tons), coal, iron ore, table salt, manganese, copper, gold and other minerals — not to mention the republic's vast forest reserves. Bashkortostan also is home to several large refineries; the largest oil-processing center in Russia is in Ufa. Among republics in the Russian Federation, Bashkortostan ranks eighth in per capita gross domestic product, sixth in total industrial output, third in total agriculture production and eighth in foreign trade sales (oil, chemicals, helicopters and vehicles). If a "revolution" leads to Bashkortostan's breaking away from Russia, it would severely disrupt much of Russia's strategic communication, transportation and energy lines between the country's European heart and the vast, remote and underpopulated Asian region. The blow would be felt especially in Russia's energy sector. More importantly, though, such a break would set a precedent that would be deadly — for Russia and its territorial integrity — if other republics followed. Bashkortostan's separatist, anti-Moscow tendencies began with former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and continued under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's government. Though Russians long have been the dominant ethnic group in the 4 million-strong Bashkortostan, accounting for 39 percent of the population, Bashkirs (who account for 22 percent of the republic's population) moved quickly — either by threat, force or through Bashkir clan connections — to remove Russian officials from virtually all government positions in Bashkortostan. Neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin intervened; they allowed moderate anti-Russian nationalists to come to power in Bashkortostan to avoid the more dangerous threat of radical nationalists. Moscow also feared the rise of Islamism in the republic. A majority of the population there — Bashkirs and Tatars — is Muslim. In particular, Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist group preaching Islamist revolution, founded several cells in Bashkortostan, local security sources say. Extremist Wahhabist cells were also founded in the republic; they sent dozens of young recruits to Chechnya to fight Russian troops. The Kremlin opted for an alliance with moderate nationalists, like Rakhimov, who at least has not encouraged the republic to walk away from Russia — so far — and has demanded and received more and more freedom from Russia's central government in return. Russian President Vladimir Putin has upheld this alliance, thinking Rakhimov is probably the best choice Russia has for checking Bashkir separatist tendencies. A 2004 episode in which Rakhimov and his close associates — all Bashkir nationalists, considered moderate — played a prank on Putin during his visit to Ufa indicates how little leverage Putin feels he has over the Bashkir nationalists. While Putin was drinking koumiss, a traditional Bashkir beverage of fermented mare's milk, one of Rakhimov's associates pushed him lightly. Putin's face went into his milk from his eyebrows to his jaw in front of television cameras. Putin, usually very quick to anger, had to visibly force himself to control his temper and pretend to enjoy the joke. Sources in the Kremlin said he was furious but told his entourage that he had to swallow his pride because he could not afford to break ties or clamp down on the Bashkir leaders. The Bashkirs' message to Putin was clear: Know your limits on Bashkortostan. So when the March 26 protests broke out in Ufa, Moscow continued its conciliatory line toward the Bashkirs, advising Rakhimov to listen to the opposition leaders' demands. Rakhimov followed this advice and also fired the Bashkir deputy general prosecutor in an attempt to assuage the protesters' concerns. The opposition was not satisfied, however, and its leaders promised April 5 they would stage a velvet-type "revolution" emulating Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, to demand Rakhimov's resignation May 1. Two days later, 200 to 300 Bashkir opposition members traveled to Moscow and protested downtown to make their point to Putin: If he does not want to see more trouble spread from Bashkortostan to the rest of the Russian Federation — starting with Moscow — he had better remove Rakhimov by decree. However, it seems the Bashkir opposition will hold new protests regardless of the Kremlin's policy on the matter. Radical opposition sources in Ufa said they are greatly encouraged by the timidity of Putin's response and think — rightly or wrongly — it is becoming possible to extract Bashkortostan from the Russian Federation, especially with the West providing major political and financial support. Opposition sources in Ufa said Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are actively providing support to the Bashkir opposition — from organizing seminars on protest tactics to financing the printing of opposition propaganda materials to providing other financial help. The Soros Foundation-funded Open Society Institute, also supported by Putin's archrival oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is particularly active in Bashkortostan. Much of the support from Western NGOs is meant to go to pro-Western liberal opposition groups in Bashkortostan, but some money and support ends up going to other opposition groups. All the opposition groups are united in Bashkortostan, and its Coordination Council distributes funding to everyone — from liberals to nationalists and Islamists, local sources say. The Bashkir National Front — a hard-line Bashkir nationalist group and member of the united opposition — announced it has rehearsed a plan to overthrow Rakhimov, conducting staff-command exercises similar to those conducted by the military. The plan, which will be announced April 16 at a large opposition rally in Ufa, demands Rakhimov's immediate resignation and that the Bashkir Parliament call new elections in July. The Provisional Revolutionary Committee, composed of all opposition groups, will control the republic until the elections. Should Rakhimov refuse to resign, the opposition will break into the Parliament and presidential office, kick Rakhimov out and make the Parliament — where the opposition has numerous open and secret supporters — call for new elections and hand power to the Provincial Revolutionary Committee. If carrying out this plan leads to violence, it will not stop the opposition. As Bashkir National Front leader Airat Dilmukhametov told RIA Novosti: "If there are several people unaccounted for after the revolution, so be it — because this is a revolution." Opposition forces behind the regional revolutionary movement in Bashkortostan come from a number of sources. They have left any disagreements and even moral considerations aside to work together, making unlikely alliances. Russian liberals and organizations who want to model their society after the West are keen to see regional presidents allied with the Kremlin overthrown and a new democratic order put in place — all in order to help eventually bring in a pro-Western "revolution" to Moscow. Increasing numbers of politicians and people from ethnic groups such as the Tatars and Bashkirs, who do not see themselves as Russian or pro-Russian, seek more regional autonomy and want to move out from under the umbrella of Russian influence, with radical nationalists planning eventual independence. Ethnic nationalist alliances in Bashkortostan sometimes include moderate Islamist forces that would like to break away to form an Islamic state in Bashkortostan independent from Russia. Radical Islamist groups (like Hizb al-Tahrir), whose goals are to initiate an Islamic revolution by masses in Bashkortostan and in other Muslim-dominated areas, ally themselves with pro-Western and nationalist opposition groups in hopes of turning the protest movements to advance their goals. Drug syndicates in Bashkortostan are a powerful political force, too. They have an interest in seeing a regional government form over which they might be able to exert more influence than the current Russian-backed regional authorities. In fact, the earlier police operation that inspired the March 26 demonstrations was an effort by authorities to clamp down on the local drug mafias, Bashkir sources in local law enforcement and opposition said. The mafias, in return, have found it useful to ally with local pro-Western and nationalist forces to overthrow these authorities. They also are financing a good part of the effort, local sources say.

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