Protest in Urals Seeking Ouster of a Putin Ally

By STEVEN LEE MYERS

New York Times

April 25, 2005

UFA, Russia - Here on the southwestern edge of the Urals, a popular uprising against a regional government is posing one of the most significant challenges yet to President Vladimir V. Putin's political control, raising the possibility that civic protest may be spreading into Russia from its periphery.

Heartened by the political upheavals in two of Russia's neighbors, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, thousands here have staged a series of demonstrations since February calling for the ouster of the president of the Bashkortostan region, Murtaza G. Rakhimov.

An ally of President Putin, he has served as the leader of this largely Muslim region, formally an autonomous republic within Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He won re-election in 2003 in a contest in which his chief opponent withdrew from campaigning, reportedly at the urging of the Kremlin.

The issues are largely local, but the complaints against Mr. Rakhimov's government evoke those that were raised against the recently ousted leaders in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and are now increasingly heard about Mr. Putin. They include allegations of manipulated elections, increasing state control of business, and corruption.

While Mr. Putin's authority seems to remain solid, events here reflect an emerging sense of grievance and impatience that is increasingly being expressed to one degree or another on the streets across Russia.

"An end will come," Ramil I. Bignov, a businessman and leader of a diverse coalition of Mr. Rakhimov's opponents, said after the latest protest, on April 16. "And it will come soon."

Although Mr. Bignov limited his comments to his hopes for Mr. Rakhimov's political demise, the implications of a successful street campaign against the regional leader would reach Mr. Putin as well, most obviously because Mr. Putin has supported Mr. Rakhimov and because Bashkortostan, like the rebellious Chechen republic, is a part of Russia.

In addition, Mr. Putin has had a hand in shaping the way the dispute here has played out, as a consequence of his decision last year to abolish direct elections of governors and other regional leaders.

"It is evident now that instead of making its life easier with this proposal, the Kremlin created huge problems for itself," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center who studies regional politics. "There are now no legal means for the opposition in this or that region to beat the incumbent governor."

So Mr. Rakhimov's critics were left with only two courses of action: go into the streets and appeal to Moscow. They have done both.

In mid-April, with no elections on the horizon after two months of protests, some 200 opponents flew to Moscow to make their case, holding a rally and presenting to Mr. Putin's administration a petition with what they said were 107,000 signatures calling for Mr. Rakhimov's dismissal. Meanwhile, rallies here continued, and another is scheduled for May 1.

Mr. Bignov said the opposition leaders had made their case directly to Mr. Putin's aides, though he declined to say whom in the Kremlin they had met. Mr. Petrov said Mr. Putin was unlikely to agree, for fear that a precedent set here would ignite protests against other unpopular leaders.

Since Mr. Putin abolished regional elections, which he defended as a means to strengthen executive power, protesters in three other southern regions - Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Ingushetia and North Ossetia - have unsuccessfully demanded the dismissal of their leaders. So far, though, the protests here have been the most significant and sustained.

"We are facing a new wave of social activism," Mr. Petrov said. "And it is dangerous, because there is a lack of democratic institutions through which this energy can be channeled."

The authorities here in Bashkortostan's capital have responded vigorously, though they have not yet forcibly cracked down. Two hours before the protest on April 16, Mr. Bignov and another opposition leader, Anatoly N. Dubovsky, were summoned by the Federal Security Service and questioned for five and a half hours, until the rally was over, as part of an investigation into charges of extremism.

Mr. Rakhimov's supporters, meanwhile, staged a large counterdemonstration in Lenin Square here, arriving in more than 100 buses and swarming the spot where the opposition had a permit to assemble.

Among them were several dozen young men, many in camouflage, who scuffled with Mr. Rakhimov's critics at least twice. They punched an elderly woman in the face and accosted the leader of the newly created People's Front of Bashkortostan, Ayrat Dilmukhametov, who was then whisked away in a civilian car for several hours of questioning by the security service. [Mr. Dilmukhametov was released that night, Mr. Bignov said later.]

"This is the agony of the regime," Mr. Dilmukhametov said in an interview moments before he was attacked, referring to efforts to disrupt the protest. "They are doing everything to bring these young people here and to organize them against their mothers."

Bashkortostan, an energy-rich region the size of Illinois, is one of Russia's 21 ethnic republics - of 89 regions overall. Here the ethnic group is the Muslim Bashkirs, who carved out a large degree of autonomy from Moscow when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Mr. Rakhimov, a Bashkir, previously displayed a strong streak of nationalistic independence. His critics say he has grown despotic, ruling the region as his own fief, with much of the region's natural resources controlled by companies run by his son, Ural.

The recent protests erupted after four days of police sweeps last December in the town of Blagoveshchensk, where hundreds of young men were arrested and beaten after a brawl involving local police officers.

Fueling them further was a new federal law this year that replaced social benefits for pensioners - including free transportation and subsidized prescriptions - with cash payments, a change that has provoked large protests across Russia.

The opposition now includes many pensioners who complain about a diminishing quality of life even as powerfully connected businessmen in Bashkortstan, led by Mr. Rakhimov's son, have grown rich.

Mr. Rakhimov declined to be interviewed. His spokesman, Rostislav R. Murzagulov, said the president was too busy with the spring planting season to address his critic's complaints. Mr. Murzagulov described the opposition leaders as a disgruntled few who want to seize political power and the region's riches.

He dismissed what is being called the "orange" inspiration, after Ukraine's mass protests against a fraudulent presidential election. "We do not have a revolutionary spirit," he said. "What we have is a small group of people who want to try to manufacture this spirit."

Surrounded by a scrum of Rakhimov opponents beneath the square's hulking statue of Lenin, Mr. Dilmukhametov outlined demands including free and fair elections, a suspension of the new benefits changes and the seizure of the assets of Mr. Rakhimov's son.

He said the opposition would act within the law, but his remarks sounded ominous. "The time of resolutions, requests and appeals has passed," he said, and then alluded to the poet Mayakovsky's exhortation about a pistol commonly used by Bolshevik revolutionaries, the Mauser.

"As the poet wrote, it is time for Comrade Mauser to say, "Yes.' "