Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 2

Development, Bashkir-style: Ufa’s internal policy benefits the Kremlin

By Igor Rotar

A good meal costs only five new rubles (approximately 80 cents) in the employees-only cafeteria of the presidential administration in Ufa, capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. In the city outside, a meal like that would cost about 50-60 new rubles ($8-10). "It’s not surprising," Aleksandr Arinin, a State Duma deputy from Bashkortostan, told Prism. "This kind of special treatment was widespread during Communist rule. The leadership of our republic is very cautious about the past."

The system of special rations is only one example — and not the most glaring — of the aversion to change of Bashkortostan’s leaders. As Prism’s correspondent saw for himself during a visit to the republic, red flags continue to fly over many village soviets. The collective-farm system remains almost completely intact. A system of state (republic) subsidies and agricultural credits continues to operate. The situation in industry is also, in many ways, unchanged. According to Deputy Arinin’s estimates, more than 90 percent of the republic’s enterprises remain in state hands.

In an interview with Prism, Bashkortostan’s president, Murtaz Rakhimov, did not deny these facts. "Things like reform in the villages have to be approached gradually — you have to look for the best way. A good manager builds the foundations of a new house first, and only later destroys the old one. Conditions here are normal. We are getting natural gas out to the rural areas and building new homes. As for reform in the villages, we’re not going to do it like they do in other regions — destroying everything in one day. And as for industry, we too have auctioned off enterprises. But we have done so according to our own laws. All of the managers have signed a contract with the Council of Ministers. The state maintains at least partial control over these enterprises," President Rakhimov told Prism.

Another similarity between the situation in Bashkortostan today and that which existed during Soviet times is the absence of a political opposition in the republic. The only person from Bashkortostan who is openly critical of Ufa’s policy is State Duma deputy Arinin, but he lives in Moscow, beyond the reach of the Bashkir authorities. In the local newspapers — virtually all of which are state-subsidized — there is no criticism of Ufa’s policy; on the contrary, letters from "workers," praising the policy of the president of Bashkortostan, are published regularly.

One example which Prism’s correspondent encountered is typical. A well-known Bashkir columnist drove the author all over the republic for several days, showing him concrete examples of the successes of the Bashkir authorities. But two hours before Prism’s correspondent had to go back to Moscow, this person suddenly told him that the republic was "on the path to dictatorship," and explained all his previous statements by saying that he was afraid of losing his job.


At the time of the last census, taken in 1989, ethnic Russians made up 39.3 percent of the republic’s population; Tatars, 28.4 percent, and Bashkirs, only 22 percent. In fact, the number of Tatars may be significantly higher. About 200,000 Bashkirs living near the border with Tatarstan consider Tatar to be their native language. The Tatars themselves are inclined to consider these people fellow Tatars who registered as Bashkirs in the hope of professional advancement. From the point of view of radical Bashkir nationalists, the phenomenon is clear evidence of the gradual "Tatarization" of the republic. Interestingly enough, during Soviet times, the first secretary of the CPSU organization in the republic was appointed from among these Tatar-speaking Bashkirs.

In the republic government, however, the relation between these ethnic groups is quite different. In the House of Representatives, (the upper house of the Bashkir parliament), 38.7 percent of the deputies are Bashkirs, as are 55 percent of the deputies in the lower house. These percentages were reached with the help of Bashkortostan’s electoral law, under which electoral districts coincide with administrative districts. This means that sparsely-populated rural districts, where the population is predominantly non-Russian, have significantly greater representation in legislative bodies than more densely-populated city districts. Although Russians make up 57 percent of the population in Ufa, only three of the seven city districts are run by Russians.

The most serious ethnic tension is that between Tatars and Bashkirs. "The ‘Tatarization’ of Bashkirs is today an even more pressing problem than their Russification," one of the ideologues of the Bashkir national movement, Professor Damir Valeev, told Prism. "Tatars and Bashkirs are closely related peoples speaking very similar Turkic languages. Tatars tend to consider us members of the same people, but ‘spoiled’ in some way — ‘second-class Tatars.’ In these circumstances, the danger that Bashkirs will be assimilated by Tatars is very great. There has already been talk of teaching ‘the western dialect of the Bashkir language’ — essentially, that is, the Tatar language. There are many closet Tatars among the republic’s leadership. Although they are officially described as Bashkirs, their native language is Tatar."

"When Bashkiria joined Russia," Professor Valeev went on, "Bashkirs constituted an absolute majority of the republic’s population. Bashkirs always considered themselves first and foremost to be Bashkirs, not Turks. The national consciousness of our people was always very high. A vivid example of this is that, following the October Revolution, the first autonomous Soviet republic was set up in Bashkiria."

In Valeev’s opinion, a 50-percent quota in the republican parliament should be reserved for Bashkirs, to protect the interests of the native population. The same quota should be observed when staffing ministries and appointing heads of enterprises and educational institutions.

Prism’s correspondent was unable to obtain any official confirmation of allegations of discrimination against local Tatars from the official representatives of that people (members of the Congress of Tatars of Bashkortostan and journalists from Tatar-language publications). But Tatars who do not hold official government positions speak about it openly.

"If you’re involved in business, then your ethnic background really isn’t all that important. But if you are a Tatar, and you want to get a high position in government service or in the mass media, it is very hard. For example, I wanted to work for the republic’s television news service, and happened to overhear them discussing my candidacy. People started shouting at the person who recommended me: ‘Who do you think you’re trying to sneak in here? She’s a Tatar, and not only that, her last name’s Russian!’ You can quote me on that. I’m no longer afraid of losing my job. I understand that I’m going to have to leave here anyway," Leila Osetrova, an assistant director for Bashkortostan Television, told Prism.

A Greater Turkestan?

When one looks at the actions of the leaders of Bashkortostan and neighboring Tatarstan, one sees that the republics act as a team in their relations with the Kremlin. Back in 1990, Tatarstan and Bashkiria were among the first of Russia’s autonomous republics to proclaim themselves "sovereign states within Russia." Both republics won exemptions from the overwhelming majority of federal taxes. Both have their own constitutions, which state, among other things, that candidates for the presidency of the republic must be fluent in the language of the titular ethnic group. Both Kazan and Ufa are currently refusing to distribute the new version of the Russian passport, which contains no entry for "nationality" (i.e., ethnic identity). (1)

The idea of a Bashkir-Tatar confederation has supporters in both Kazan and Ufa. Bashkortostan’s president Rakhimov told Prism that such a confederation was quite possible in the future. Since both republics are known for their stubbornness in relations with the center, the creation of a confederation with a total population of about 8 million would further reduce the center’s already ephemeral ability to exert influence in the region.

That is not the only reason why the idea would set off alarm bells in Moscow, however. Pan-Turkism has long been Russia’s fear and Moscow’s nightmare scenario sees the Turkic republics on its southern rim forging links with the Central Asian republics, whose populations are also Turkic. At present, Bashkortostan is separated from Kazakhstan by some 30 kilometers of territory belonging to Orenburg Oblast; this strip of land is populated by Tatars and Bashkirs. If a confederation were created, the new alliance might raise the question of redrawing the border to give it direct access to Kazakhstan and, through it, to the other Turkic-speaking republics of Central Asia. The end result could be a contemporary version of "Greater Turkestan" (uniting the Turkic-speaking peoples). President Rakhimov referred to this possibility in a 1992 interview with Nezavisimaya gazeta: "We shall never resign ourselves to the fact that Bashkortostan is separated from Kazakhstan, which is friendly and related to us, by some 37 kilometers of Orenburg Oblast." (2) Speaking to Prism at the end of last year, Rakhimov again stressed that Bashkortostan’s present borders are artificial, designed to ensure that it remains an enclave within Russia. (Under the Stalin constitution of 1936, only republics bordering on a foreign state qualified for Union republic status and the theoretical right to secede from the USSR.)

A Kazan/Ufa alliance is nonetheless unlikely since it would not benefit the Bashkir political elite. Were such a confederation to take shape, the proportion of Bashkirs in the population would be insignificant, while Tatarstan’s strong economic capability would guarantee Kazan the leading role. Bashkirs would find it difficult to hold onto their dominant position even in Bashkortostan itself.

Kremlin Ally

Bashkortostan’s authoritarian model is very different from most of the rest of Russia. For the present at least, that seems to suit the Kremlin perfectly well. Events in Bashkortostan during the 1996 presidential election, as described by Moskovsky komsomolets, are instructive. (3) Rakhimov and Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov reportedly struck a secret agreement that, if Zyuganov won, Rakhimov would receive a post in the new Russian government. But the results of the first round scared Rakhimov: although Zyuganov led in Bashkortostan, it was clear that Yeltsin had a good chance of winning in the country as a whole. It didn’t matter to Rakhimov who won, as long as the new president kept his nose out of Ufa’s business. Rakhimov accordingly formed a tacit agreement with Yeltsin that the Bashkir leader would guarantee the Russian president’s victory in his republic, in exchange for a pledge of non-interference in Bashkortostan’s internal affairs.

Rakhimov kept his promise: according to Moskovsky komsomolets, he threatened to sack the heads of administration in the districts where Zyuganov had won in the first round, and Yeltsin won in Bashkortostan in the second round. In private conversations, the heads of rural districts told Prism’s correspondent how, during the second round, they stood at voting precincts and reminded voters "how they should vote." In this way, Rakhimov showed Yeltsin that authoritarian rule has its uses, not only for the Bashkir political elite, but for the Russian leader himself.


1. See Gulnara Khasanova, "Russia’s New Passport and its Implications for Tatarstan," Prism, December 19, 1997

2. Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 18, 1992

3. Moskovsky komsomolets, July 29, 1996

Translated by Mark Eckert

Igor Rotar is an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.


Prism is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is edited by Elizabeth Teague and Stephen Foye.

The opinions expressed in Prism are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jamestown Foundation.

If you would like information on subscribing to Prism, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at <>, by fax at 202-483-8337, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 1528 18th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of Prism is strictly prohibited by law.