Rakhimov's Double Mutiny

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Rady Khabirov, the former chief of staff to Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, was fired in early July. The formal reason was based on allegations of corruption, but it was really as a result of a power struggle between the Bashkortostan republic and Moscow.

Rakhimov used his political muscle to have Khabirov investigated on corruption charges and Khabirov was expelled from the United Russia party.

Khabirov was fired just before he was supposed to be appointed to an important post in Moscow. He was to work directly under Vladislav Surkov, Kremlin deputy chief of staff, with the responsibility for overseeing the regions. Since the Kremlin has suggested that Rakhimov consider stepping down, Khabirov may have been slated for appointment as the republic's next president. In fact, Khabirov's Moscow posting would have put him in a position to manage the transfer of authority in Bashkortostan.

At its core, Khabirov's dismissal is a direct challenge to the Kremlin. It was a bold act of insubordination and a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's new authority.

Who is Khabirov? He is the person who, acting on behalf of the aging Rakhimov, 74, had real control in the republic. Khabirov also held the political ambitions of Rakhimov's son, Ural, in check.

Khabirov once faithfully served Rakhimov and helped him to triumph over more influential Moscow clans to gain re-election. It was Khabirov who was incriminated in 2003 for illegally having hundreds of thousands of additional ballots printed. Now Khabirov, who headed the United Russia ticket and brought in 90 percent of the vote for the party, has been accused of putting pressure on the republic's election commission and falsifying election results for the benefit of, strangely enough, the Communist Party.

The incriminating evidence presented against Khabirov highlights the high level of corruption in Rakhimov's regime. It reminds me of the scandal involving former Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov, when authorities went public with hidden-camera video about purported intimate dealings with prostitutes. In the recent scandal in Bashkortostan, the mass media announced the existence of a price list detailing the cost of various government posts that could allegedly be obtained "through Khabirov." Anyone wanting to become a State Duma deputy, for example, had to hand over a cool 30 million rubles ($1.28 million), while membership in the State Assembly cost 6 million rubles ($255,000), and becoming the chief of a department in the presidential administration would set you back 5 million rubles ($213,000). Other jobs, such as regional and municipal chief, justice of the peace or notary public were also allegedly put up for sale.

The system of inheriting government posts, already perfected in post-Soviet Azerbaijan and practiced in a host of other former Soviet republics, has not seen use in Russia's regions. The sole exception involves Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

Rakhimov is not overly worried that the firing of his colleague could lead to politically damaging disclosures from the Khabirov camp because he has such a firm hold over the Bashkortostan political machine.

It is worth noting that Rakhimov has his sights on Moscow, trying to gain maximum political advantage from the entire Khabirov scandal. In particular, the sacking of Khabirov is a move intended to undercut Medvedev, who has made many public statements about his commitment to battle corruption. And it is a direct blow to Surkov, whose political standing had been weakened recently even without those problems.

It would seem that we have a double mutiny on the great ship of state. Rakhimov showed no mercy in squashing the revolt aimed at his presidency. It remains to be seen whether Medvedev will be able to put down Rakhimov's defiance of the Kremlin.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.