Jul 18, 2010 | 22:13 GMT

4 mins read

Russia: The End of Bashkir and Tatar Independence

Longtime Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov has resigned, only months after the long-serving president of another semi-autonomous Muslim republic, Tatarstan, left office. Their departures provide an opportunity for Moscow to reconsolidate control over the two regions and integrate their substantial energy resources into the larger state-owned firms like Gazprom and Rosneft, and point to an increased confidence on the part of the Kremlin to contain any potential outbreak of violence in the country's restive Muslim regions.
The Bashkir government will vote July 19 on the nomination of Rustem Khamitov to replace the long-serving president of Bashkortostan, Murtaza Rakhimov. Rakhimov announced his retirement July 13 following a three-hour closed-door meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, according to STRATFOR sources. Rakhimov had led the autonomous Muslim republic for the past 16 years and, along with longtime Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiyev who resigned in April, was one of the last regional leaders left in Russia appointed by former President Boris Yeltsin. These two regions were some of the last strings the Kremlin had yet to tie up in its consolidation of Russia. With the old leadership being pushed out in both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the Kremlin is showing it is confident it can eliminate the last relics of the Yeltsin era, manage the Muslim populations in the country and bring the final pieces of Russia's mighty economic wealth under Kremlin control. Bashkortostan and its sister republic, Tatarstan, are two of the more important and independent-minded autonomous republics in Russia. Both have large Muslim populations and are tied together through shared ethnic, cultural, religious and historical bonds — acting in unison during much of the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Both have significant oil and mineral wealth, which has played an important role in facilitating their independence. Former President Boris Yeltsin gave both republics unprecedented autonomy during his terms, leaving the Kremlin very little room to control either republic. Bashkortostan and Tatarstan have fiercely guarded their sovereignty for years, threatening economic sabotage or to provoke more Muslim dissent in Russia should Moscow ever attempt to take further control over them. This is a threat the Kremlin has not taken lightly, since not only do both regions produce a large amount of Russia's oil, but the governments of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan also hold deep links with the more militant Muslim republics in Russia's North Caucasus, like Chechnya and Dagestan. Because of this, both Bashkortostan and Tatarstan's leadership had survived the series of leadership eliminations under Putin's presidency, as well as under his successor Dmitri Medvedev's term. But these past months have seen both republics finally fall under the Kremlin's focus. Longtime Tatar President Shaimiyev stepped down in April and now Bashkir President Rakhimov has followed. Before leaving office, both leaders had criticized the Kremlin over its recentralization of power across Russia, with Rakhimov saying in January that the current Kremlin leadership is "even worse than in Soviet times." But the Kremlin was loath to publicly go after either leader for their dissent until they were confident that Moscow could control the political and energy landscapes within the republics and make sure a larger Muslim reaction to Russia's centralization could be prevented. The Kremlin's confidence in controlling its more volatile Muslim republics has been seen in Russia claiming victory in the Chechen war. But to have the Bashkir and Tatar leaders step down means that Moscow feels confident it can prevent any larger Muslim backlash against replacing the leaders. Pressure had been slowly building on both Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, but the leaders' ages — they are both in their 70s — along with being surrounded by Kremlin consolidation across every part of the country finally forced them to concede and step down. The Kremlin has replaced both leaders with Bashkir and Tatar natives loyal to the Kremlin. With the change in leadership for both republics, now is the time to watch for larger Kremlin moves on the much-coveted assets inside these regions. Each republic runs its own powerful oil firm, Bashneft and Tatneft, respectively, which are the republics' primary sources of funding. Tatneft is the fifth-largest oil firm in Russia, while the much smaller Bashneft is still in the top ten. The next step would be to put both Bashneft and Tatneft back under Kremlin control and further integrate the firms and their networks into the larger state-owned firms. Both Kremlin-owned behemoths Gazprom and Rosneft will be salivating at the thought of finally being able to acquire these long-sought assets.

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