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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

200 Fly From Ufa to Deliver a Letter

MTFrom left, Dilmukhametov, Bignov and Rus leader Anatoly Dubovsky with boxes of signatures at a rally Thursday.
Some 200 opposition activists flew in from Ufa on Thursday to demand the ouster of Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov at a rally on Lubyanskaya Ploshchad. Some protesters warned that brewing unrest could prompt a popular revolt like the one that recently toppled the president of Kyrgyzstan.

Political analysts, however, expressed doubt that the protests would turn violent and overthrow Rakhimov.

Protesters streamed onto Lubyanskaya Ploshchad with six cardboard boxes containing 107,000 signatures asking President Vladimir Putin to dismiss Rakhimov. Several protesters wore black-and-white striped prison garb, and one carried a poster reading, "No to the Rakhimov family clan."

"It is impossible to live there," said protester Ferdaus Mukhamatdinov.

Rally leaders accused Rakhimov of keeping regional gas and oil companies in family hands and of offering miserly cash payments under a social reform that eliminated many state benefits from Jan. 1. They also criticized Rakhimov's handling of a police operation in the town of Blagoveshchensk in December in which police detained hundreds of residents and allegedly beat many of them.

Many protesters said the last straw was a Rakhimov-organized referendum last month that paved the way for him to appoint mayors and discontinue popular elections.

The short rally was organized by several opposition groups, including the Bashkir National Movement, the Tatar National Movement and Rus, which represents Russians living in Bashkortostan. The parties' activists were joined by members of Bashkortostan's local branches of the Communist, Yabloko and Russian Pensioners' parties.

Thursday's flight to Moscow was delayed by four hours after the single passenger on board who was not a rally participant decided to disembark, said Ramil Bignov, leader of the opposition Tatar National Movement. The passenger demanded to be let off the regular VIM-Avia flight with his checked-in baggage after the plane had pulled away from the boarding gate, he said.

Bignov speculated that perhaps Rakhimov's loyalists had tried to prevent the protesters from going to Moscow or that they had hoped to seize the boxes containing the signatures for Putin. The boxes had been brought on board as carry-on luggage, he said.

After the rally, protesters delivered the boxes of signatures to a presidential administration office just off Lubyanskaya Ploshchad.

Airat Dilmukhametov, leader of the opposition Bashkir National Movement, warned that protest actions would grow if Putin did not dismiss Rakhimov. He said a rally would be held in Ufa on April 16, and protesters will set up tents in the city's main square on May 1 for a demonstration that would continue indefinitely.

"We will call this a people's liberation revolution," Dilmukhametov told reporters. "The 'interim revolution committee' has planned scenarios of what to do depending on how the situation develops."

He said his supporters would arm themselves with gardening tools to resist any attempt by riot police to disperse them at upcoming protests.

Bignov, however, insisted that the opposition would act "within the law" -- even though, he said, the building housing the government in Ufa is identical to the government building that protesters violently stormed in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, last month. The buildings share the same design thanks to Soviet-era centralized planning, he said.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said Bashkortostan's protests were unlikely to result in a regional revolution. Protests last year in the southern republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia -- which cumulated in the storming of the regional government building, although Putin refused to meet demands to sack the regional president -- had a chilling effect on opposition protesters in other regions, Petrov said.

He said the Kremlin could not afford to dismiss Rakhimov under pressure. "Doing so would show that rallies can be successful and prompt a change in leadership," he said.

"The Kremlin doesn't want such a precedent," said Alexei Makarkin, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

Makarkin said, however, that Putin could dismiss Rakhimov later -- and make it appear that he had not yielded to the opposition.

Several rallies calling for Rakhimov's resignation have been staged across Bashkortostan in recent months. Several thousand people gathered in Ufa at the largest protests, on Feb. 26 and March 26.