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The Wrath of Khans: The other presidents of Russia

In between musings about the economy and his republic’s famous honey, Rustem Khamitov admits he is the last President of Bashkortostan. In case your knowledge of ‘stan’ geography is a bit rusty, Bashkortostan is a semi-autonomous republic within Russia, home to some 4 million people and located to the north of Kazakhstan.

Under a federal law passed in 2010, the leaders of Russia’s regions can no longer use the term “President.” The Russian Federation is currently divided into 83 administrative units, of which 21 are autonomous republics. Of these, only two (Tatarstan and Bashkortostan) use the title “President” to note the highest figure in those regions. Strangely, Russia’s republics were given until 2015 to comply with this law. Neither republic has yet acted to enact the law.

In the tumultuous Boris Yeltsin years much autonomy was devolved to the Russia’s republics. The Vladmir Putin years, however, have seen a return to increased centralization. The current President of Bashkortostan, Rustem Khamitov, was appointed to his post by Putin in 2010 after serving as a Moscow bureaucrat for a number of years.

Khamitov is only second president of the republic since independence. In a recent interview, Khamitov affirmed that the Republic would comply with the name change. “It is a federal law and we have to comply with it and like Tatarstan we’re going through a process of evaluating potential names of the head of the republic,” he said.

Khamitov has little time for the naming issue, focusing instead on issues of economic autonomy and development. Not all his countrymen feel the same way. Bashkir and Tatar nationalists are against the renaming of the head of either republic. Indeed, nationalist sentiment in particular is on the resurgence amongst the global Tatar community; in December, the Fifth Tatar World Congress, taking a page from Palestine’s playbook, approved a resolution to seek observer status in the United Nations.

It’s an interesting gesture especially when the majority of Tatars, unlike several other titular ethnic groups, reside outside of Tatarstan. Bashkir and Tatar nationalists see the law as a further erosion of regional sovereignty and autonomy. Indeed some Tatar nationalists have called for the use of an alternative title: Khan.

Khan is an ancient Central Asian title for a sovereign ruler or tribal leader. Elsewhere, the word “Khan” or “Han” or was once used to denote rulers of political fiefdoms from Bulgaria or Korea. The term is closely associated with the Mongols, who used the term to denote an emperor, and its use spread across Asia, into Persia and South Asia. In South Asia, in particular, the term has lost any regal connotation and is now used as a family name. The last ruler to use the title led the princely state of Bantva Manavdar. He was removed from power when India annexed the territory in 1947.

While admitting that such titles had been proposed in the past, President Khamitov dismissed the idea that the term could be used.

“We’re a modern people — we will not allow ourselves to fall back into ‘medieval times’ in choosing a name for the head of the region” he said with a chuckle. President Khamitov favors the Russian title “Head of the Republic, but also admitted that the Bashkir language contains many options for titles of the republic’s rulers. President Khamitov stated that he would prefer the Bashkir term “Il-Bashi,” which could be translated as “Leader” or “Head” of the republic.

The idea of changing the names of the republics’ leaders has an unlikely source: Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov came up with the idea after serving as part of a delegation headed by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Kadyrov was disturbed in which several presidents from Russia were introduced at formal meetings during international trips. Kadyrov subsequently became a vocal advocate of removing the title of President from all of Russia’s republics and saving the title solely for the federal president. (For his part, then President Dmitri Medvedev demurred on the issue suggesting it be left to the individual republics.)

The Chechen parliament subsequently approved the name change from “President” to “Head of the Republic” in September 2010. However, the title “Head of the Republic” has proved less catchy in English than Kadyrov might have hoped. The Chechen President is still occasionally referred to as a “President” in English language publications and Wikipedia.

Republished from DoubleThink with permission from the original author.

Joseph Hammond


Joseph Hammond is a former Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe and an energy market analyst. His career has ranged widely from boxing writer to the United Nations Refugee Works Association in Jordan. Joseph is also an alumnus of the Atlantic Council's Young Atlanticist program.

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