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Freshly Retired Tatar President Reflects On Legacy

It's been three weeks since Mintimer Shaimiyev stepped down as president of Russia's republic of Tatarstan after almost 20 years in power. Shaimiyev, however, has not given up his annual presidential holiday in the Czech Republic. He reflects on his legacy in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary.

Almost every April since becoming Tatarstan's president in 1991, Mintimer Shaimiyev has spent a few weeks in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary, a popular hangout for Russia's rich and powerful.

This year is no exception. Shaimiyev is back in the picturesque resort once favored by Prussian kings to take the waters and enjoy the balmy Bohemian spring.

What has changed, however, is that he is no longer president. The man dubbed Tatarstan's "babai," or grandfather, stepped down last month after ruling over one of Russia's largest and most prosperous regions for almost two decades.

Sitting in his plush hotel suite, Shaimiyev confesses he hasn't quite adjusted to the idea. "It might hit me a bit later, but right now it's all too recent," he said.

Dressed in a striped rugby shirt, Shaimiyev looks surprisingly youthful for his 73 years -- perhaps a result of his annual spa vacations and strict exercise routine.

The former leader will retain some influence as an adviser to the new president, and will also be involved in a project to restore ancient monuments linked to Tatar history. But he insists he is no longer fit for the tumultuous world of politics, dismissing speculation that the Kremlin pushed him out of power as part of its campaign to replace veteran regional leaders.

Power Sharing

After formally asking President Dmitry Medvedev not to renew his mandate, he handed his powers over to his trusted prime minister, Rustam Minnikhanov, who succeeded him as president on March 25. Analysts say Minnikhanov is likely to be a more compliant partner for the Kremlin, which has actively sought to consolidate its "power vertical" and curb regional autonomy over the past decade.

This is causing some concern in Tatarstan, where many resent Moscow's efforts to dismantle the power-sharing treaty signed in 1994 by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin giving the region a high degree of autonomy within Russia.

Shaimiyev himself was forced to give up a number of privileges in recent years and had strongly opposed the 2004 decision of then-President Vladimir Putin to scrap the direct election of regional governors, who are now nominated by the Kremlin for approval by local legislatures.

Today, the retired Shaimiyev strikes a more conciliatory tone. He says he is confident the power-sharing treaty will continue to ensure that Tatarstan's future leaders are ethnic Tatars acting in their region's interest.

"In the agreement there is a clause stating that Tatarstan's president must know the Tatar language, it's a condition," Shaimiyev says. "Much can be achieved on the basis of this agreement."

Whatever path Minnikhanov will choose to take in Tatarstan, he has big shoes to fill.

Even opponents concede that Shaimiyev has navigated the murky waters of Russian politics with brio to grow into one of the country's most powerful politicians.

Thanks partly to the power-sharing agreement, Shaimiyev was able to prevent Tatarstan's oil wealth from trickling out to Moscow and retained the bulk of oil revenues at home, where he oversaw an impressive economic boom.

In 2005, the Tatar capital offered itself a vast facelift for its 1,000-year anniversary. Kazan now boasts a revamped historical center, a high street lined with fashion boutiques, and even an IKEA store -- the ultimate sign of normalization in Russia.

'Not An Oasis Of Democracy'

Shaimiyev's efforts to revive the region's Muslim traditions and culture after decades of Soviet domination also earned him a strong following.

He says one of his greatest achievements has been to restore the good name of Tatars, stressing that Soviet discrimination once forced Tatars to conceal their ethnicity.

The former leader also credits himself with what he claims is a flourishing independent media.

"Journalists became independent earlier in Tatarstan than in other regions," Shaimiyev says. "You know the newspaper 'Vechernyaya Kazan' and [the television channel] Efir, we haven't shut down anyone. I am a man from the old system, but we were clever enough to put up with everything."

But many, both inside and outside Tatarstan, take a bleaker view on Shaimiyev's legacy.

Political analyst Aleksandr Kynev says Shaimiyev's clan took countless steps to dominate the local political scene and stifle dissent.

"Unfortunately, Tatarstan is definitely not an oasis of democracy in Russia. It has always been much more authoritarian than Russia, even in the 1990s," Kynev says. "Mr. Shaimiyev says that he hasn't closed down newspapers, but one can argue that Tatarstan is a leader when it comes to the number of criminal cases and pressure attempts against representatives of civil society and rights activists."

A skilled strategist, Shaimiyev is no doubt well aware of his failures and shortcomings. The "babai" is nonetheless confident that Tatars will remember him kindly, if only just for restoring a sense of pride in their nation:

"Tatars have risen in the past 10-15 years, their national self-consciousness has grown both in Russia and abroad. And that's something we badly needed," Shaimiyev says.

Interview by Rim Gilfanov and Alsu Kurmasheva, with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service