(RFE/RL) -- The Kremlin announced today that Mintimer Shaimiyev, the long-standing leader of Russia's Tatarstan republic, will step down when his current term expires in March.
Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova as saying that Shaimiyev -- who has led the oil-rich region since Soviet times -- told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he did not want to be nominated for another term.
Timakova said 73-year-old Shaimiyev had decided to make way for a younger generation of politicians.
She added that Medvedev would nominate Tatarstan's Prime Minister Rustam Minnikhanov, who was Shaimiyev's preferred successor, as the republic's new leader.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, Damir Iskhakov, a Kazan-based ethnologist and political analyst, said the announcement had not come as a surprise.
"There has already been a change in the elite at the federal level and something like this was expected in Tatarstan, as well," Iskhakov said. "Shaimiyev, as a major political figure, doesn't enjoy a great deal of sympathy in Moscow, so he wouldn't be left in his post anyway. There is also talk of abolishing regional presidencies in order to eliminate any signs of statehood other than Russian statehood. Taking into consideration that aspect, Rustam Minnikhanov is a more appropriate figure."
Shaimiyev has long been a powerful Kremlin ally but one who enjoys a level of autonomy unusual in Russia.
In the early 1990s he sought -- and won -- broad independence from the central government under President Boris Yeltsin. During his presidency, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reversed this trend, bringing Russia's regions more firmly under the Kremlin's control.
Nevertheless, Shaimiyev, who turned 73 on January 20, managed to hold on to more autonomy than most regional leaders.
Shaimiyev served as the Soviet-era leader of predominantly Muslim Tatarstan and was elected its president in June 1991 as the USSR was breaking up. He was reelected twice, in 1996 and 2001.
Putin abolished the popular election of regional leaders in 2005, replacing them with a system in which the Kremlin nominates candidates who are then confirmed by regional legislatures.
Shaimiyev indicated at the time that he wanted to step down, but Putin reportedly persuaded him to remain for another term.
In March 2005, Putin nominated Shaimiyev for a new term, making him one of the first regional leaders named under the new system.
Since then, rumors of his impending departure have been common. In 2007 there was widespread speculation that Shaimiyev would be removed and replaced by Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, an ethnic Tatar and a favorite of the security service veterans surrounding Putin. The rumors, however, proved to be unfounded.
Midkhat Farukshin is a political analyst and fierce critic of Shaimiyev who claims he lost his job at Kazan State University due to his opposition to the Tatar president.
Farukshin tells RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service he thinks Shaimiyev did not step aside willingly, but rather was pushed out by the Kremlin.
"This wasn't Shaimiyev's decision. He was put up to this. He was put up to leave," Farukshin says. "The federal center has decided to liberate Tatarstan from the people of the past. Shaimiyev is a figure of the past."
RFE/RL correspondent Brian Whitmore contributed to this story