Bashkortostan celebrates 450 years with Russia
The traditional home of the Bashkirs, but now one of the country's most ethnically diverse regions, the Republic of Bashkortostan is marking the 450th anniversary of its union with Russia. President Putin is visiting the capital Ufa.
Bashkortostan is tucked away at the southern foot of the Ural Mountains. It's home to more than four million people from 60 ethnic groups – mostly Russians, Tatars, Bashkirs and Ukranians.
The history of the region’s ties with Russia goes back to the reign of Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich, or Ivan the Terrible.
450 years ago the Bashkirs, suffering from bloody wars with the Tatars, sought Russian protection. They approached the Russian Tsar and asked if they could join Russia.
Russia's industrial heartland
Centuries later, in Soviet times, the Bashkir Republic with its vast oil and gas reserves, was the first in the country to be granted broad autonomy. It quickly became a major industrial centre, and has remained so ever since.
An engine factory in Ufa, which was close to bankruptcy a decade ago, has now grown into the largest manufacturer of its kind in Russia. It produces more than 150 engines for Sukhoi aircraft every year and its export contracts to India and China are topping $US 500 million annually.
With millions being pumped into the development of Bashkortostan's industry, economists say the republic is becoming more and more attractive to private investment.
“Today the value of investments is less than $US 500 million a year, but our aim is to have more than $US 1 billion of investment by the year 2010,” said economist Andreay Nazarov.
However, the growth in industry comes at a cost to the ecology. For decades Bashkortostan was considered to be Russia's dirtiest region. It’s rumoured that at some time the republic even had several nuclear waste burial sites.
Over the years, dedicated government programmes have improved the local environment. But experts say it has gone from catastrophic to being stably poor.
Ecologist Aleksey Veselov puts the present situation in perspective.
“Petrochemical and machine-building factories do not worsen the ecological situation. Their capacities are smaller now than in the 1990s. Transport is also one of the factors of pollution,” he said.
But concerns for the environment have been put aside for the time being. Celebrations of the union with Russia are taking centre stage.
Posters proclaiming “Naveki s Rossiyei”, or “For centuries with Russia”, can be seen all across Ufa. Four and a half centuries after they joined Russia, the Bashkirs say their strength lies in this unity. And it seems they want it to stay that way.