Friday, June 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia Now More Centralized than in Soviet Times, Bashkir President Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 5 – Russia today is “a one-party system” with a level of centralization “worse than in Soviet times,” according to Murtaza Rakhimov, the longtime and often outspoken president of Bashkortostan who, many Moscow observers say, may soon be sent into retirement by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But his indictment of the current system merits attention regardless of whether they are the swansong of someone who knows he is a lame duck, as his “Moskovsky komsomolets” interviewer implied (, or a reflection of what many regional leaders think, as a observer said (
Rakhimov, who rose to his current position at the end of Soviet times, has been re-elected several times, and dominates the political and economic scene in Ufa, denied that he was playing “the nationalist card” to save his job. Indeed, he said, he is proud of the multi-national nature of Bashkortostan.
At the same time, however, the Bashkir leader said that he had spoken out “categorically” against those actions of the center that he believed and believes are not in the interests of his republic, including in the first instance the elimination of the national and regional comoponent of educational programs.
But his most important comments concerned the state of federalism in Russia and the shifting balance of power between Moscow and the regions and republics. According to Rakhimov, Bashkortostan took “only as much power as Boris [Yeltsin] gave and no more.” And now Moscow is taking back too much power.
Any lack of balance between the center and regions is “harmful,” the Bashkortostan leader said, and now, because the center appears to have forgotten that the essence of federalism is “in compromises between the central powers and the regions,” there are real problems for the system as a whole.
Much is now said about “the vertical of power,” Rakhimov says, but “no less important is the horizontal construction of the state. Only in that way can one take into consideration all the interests of the republics, oblasts, and peoples,” and consequently, now “it is necessary to give more authority to the regions.”
Those who fail to do so forget, he said, that the Soviet Union fell apart precisely because Moscow was unwilling to give the regions the necessary amount of authority. Rakhimov said that as for himself, he remains convinced that “perhaps,” if Moscow had done so at the time, “the Soviet Union would not have collapsed.”
Challenged by his interviewer to answer whether Rakhimov thought “Russia could repeat the fate of the Soviet Union,” the Bashkir leader said that some Russian officials now unfortunately share the same failing of their Soviet predecessors: “they do not want to understand and acknowledge the absolute need for federalism.”
As a result, he continued, “now everything is imposed from above. The level of centralization is even worse than it was in Soviet times. [Moscow demonstrates] a lack of trust and respect in relation to the localities,” as when it replaces local cadres in federal offices in the region with “people sent from the center.”
And such attitudes and policies are compounded by the approach of the Kremlin’s United Russia Party, of which Rakhimov was one of the “founding fathers.” The party, Rakhimov said, appears to be modeling itself on the CPSU when “the chairman of the oblast executive … was subordinated to the party’s obkom secretary.” At least two parties are needed, he said.
Asked whether “local people are always worthy of respect” and whether slogans like “Bashkortostan and Russia, together forever!” did not somehow imply that Bashkortostan is not part of Russia, Rakhimov replied with blunt language that will outrage many in the Russian capital now.
“Without Russia, there is no Bashkortostan,” Rakhimov said, “but it is also the case that without Bashkortostan, Russia does not exist. Russia is a federal state, and we [in Bashkortostan who at the dawn of Soviet times] formed the first Russian autonomy, laid the foundation” of the country.
In addition to these general criticisms of the current Russian system as it has evolved since Yeltsin’s time, Rakhimov sharply criticized Moscow for relying on the export of oil and gas rather than processed goods and for failing to send the earnings from these sales back to regions like Bashkortostan which are the source of this wealth.
And he said that those who justify what is going on by saying that it is the only way to live, Rakhimov noted that “it was possible to live even under Soviet power when everyone said, ‘As long as there isn’t a war!’ But with such an approach,” Rakhimov said, “we will never build a normal civil society and law-based state.”

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