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Russian Region Plays Independence Card in Referendum

April 19, 1993

UFA, Russia (AP) _ Standing at Europe’s doorstep to Siberia, the well-off Russian region of Bashkortostan plans to use this month’s nationwide referendum to advance its economic independence from Moscow.

The republic already has claimed control over state-owned property, including refineries that provide two-thirds of Russia’s gasoline, farms that keep the region self-sufficient, and defense and chemical plants.

Its power play illustrates a fundamental peril for Russia and President Boris Yeltsin in the April 25 referendum on Yeltsin’s rule. Such moves could lead Russia down the same path of breakup taken by the former Soviet Union.

The referendum is designed to end the power struggle between Yeltsin and the Soviet-era Congress of People’s Deputies. To win, both sides are offering political and economic favors to the country’s 88 regions and republics.

Delivering on those promises will mean change in the political structure of the Russian Federation. It could mean collapse.

″If Yeltsin doesn’t take firm measures after the 25th to stop this political orgy, we’ll have no choice but to reorient ourselves against a hopeless Russia,″ said Rafis Kadyrov, the main political rival of Bashkortostan’s leader, Murtaza Rakhimov.

Emotions and ambitions are running high in the Wisconsin-sized region 680 miles east of Moscow, in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. Local leaders say they do not seek secession from the Russian Federation, but Muslim Bashkir nationalists want to end four centuries of Russian control.

Rakhimov and Bashkortostan’s industrial chiefs want voters to say ″no″ to Yeltsin and ″yes″ a separate question on economic independence. They hope to strengthen their hand before the inevitable renegotiation of the Federation Treaty, signed last year by Yeltsin and all the regional chiefs.

″Practically everything comes down to whether we, as a self-sufficient republic, can manage our own productive potential,″ said Alexander Kopylov, an aide to Rakhimov.

Nationalists, government officials and opposition leaders agree that economic independence probably will be approved, even though ethnic Bashkirs comprise only 22 percent of the region’s 4 million people. Tatars comprise 27 percent and ethnic Russians, attracted by economic opportunity, 39 percent.

But Kadyrov and others pro-Russian politicians remember the political whirlwind in 1991 that led to the Soviet collapse. They say Rakhimov and Bashkortostan’s leaders are playing with fire.

″I’m not against the economic independence of Bashkortostan,″ said Radik Rakhmatullin, local organizer for the conservative Democratic Party of Russia. ″But I am against the collapse of Russia, and these people are just playing with national passions for their own interests.″

Turkic-speaking Muslim Bashkirs were under the yoke of Mongol invaders until the 16th century. Czar Ivan the Terrible conquered neighboring Tatarstan in 1552 and the Bashkir lands five years later.

Russia never let go. The province became an autonomous republic under Soviet rule, then a republic under Yeltsin’s Russia. The Bashkortostan parliament declared sovereignty two years ago.

Founded in a wedge of land between the Ufa and White rivers, the capital now numbers 1.1 million people. Its wide Soviet-era avenues run past pre- fabricated concrete buildings toward smokestacks on the horizon.

Bashkir nationalists claim thousands of supporters, but their true strength is hard to gauge.

″We’re for a federation. Only the (Russian) chauvinists immediately think we’re trying to break up Russia,″ said Zufar Yenikeyev, a legislator in Bashkortostan’s parliament.

But Kadyrov said that’s what could happen unless Yeltsin wins the referendum and moves swiftly to give reformers firm control across the country.

In his office above the private bank Vostok, which he founded, Kadyrov took out a piece a paper and sketched a Russian ″matryoshka″ nesting doll and compared it to Russia and its regions.

″If after this referendum, (Yeltsin) does not dissolve the parliaments at every level and destroy every vestige of this puppet system, these little matryoshkas will go out and destroy the big matryoshka,″ he said.

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