Located more than 1000 kilometres east of Moscow, Yelabuga, the closest town to Special Economic Zone Alabuga (SEZ Alabuga), is not particularly well known even among Russians. That is, unless they happen to be fans of 19th century landscape paintings or Napoleonic wars. The town is the birthplace of Ivan Shishkin, a realist painter famous for his forest landscape paintings. And Nadezhda Durova, the first female officer in the Russian army, also lived here. She joined the army disguised as a man and later fought in an anti-Napoleon campaign.
However, the republic of Tatarstan, where Yelabuga is located, is among the most widely known regions in Russia. With its population of 3.8 million, Tatarstan is not only known as one of the country's most populous areas, but also the most diverse. Tatars, an ethnic group that can trace its history back to the times of Genghis Khan and his Mongol Empire, account for more than 50% of the population of the republic, but there are also 1.5 million ethnic Russians living in Tatarstan, as well as significant Chuvash, Mari, Udmurt and Ukrainian minorities.
Tatarstan is also known as a region of peaceful religious coexistence, as demonstrated by the way in which the Sunni Muslim Tatar population of the republic lives in the republic amicably with Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Kazan Kremlin, a historical citadel and main landmark of Kazan, the republic’s capital, houses both the 16th century Orthodox church and Qol Sharif mosque, completed in 2005. Although geographically the republic sits firmly in central Russia, elements of Tatar culture, manifested in traditional outfits, music and cuisine, bear closer resemblance to Turkey or the Middle East than Russia.
Economically, Tatarstan is among the most industrialised regions of Russia. Manufacturing accounts for 57.9% of the republic's industrial output, followed by mining and energy production. The region's largest local companies include oil company Tatneft, which has revenues of about $14.5bn a year, and Kamaz, a truck manufacturer with estimated annual revenues of $3bn.
Kazan is not only the capital of the republic, but also, with a population of more than 1.1 million, the biggest city in Tatarstan and eighth largest in Russia. The city houses many of the republic's 36 higher educational institutions and ranks as the third largest financial centre in Russia, after Moscow and St Petersburg. Kazan brands itself as the sports capital of Russia and is home to a number of the country's teams in football, ice hockey, basketball and volleyball.
In 2018, Kazan will be one of the hosts of FIFA Football World Cup and last year the city hosted the summer Universiade, a multinational sporting event organised for university athletes. Although relatively low key, the event was used by local authorities spearheaded by Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of the republic, and Ilsur Metshin, the Kazan mayor, to conduct a major overhaul of Kazan.
Preparations for the event took five years and included the construction of 30 sporting venues, a riverbank protection project, and the expansion of the city’s metro and airport. More than $7bn has been invested in the new infrastructure, nearly 10 times initial estimates, but according to Control Risks, a London-based consultancy, the event was a success in terms of its legacy and FDI attraction.
Indeed, a report by Control Risks published shortly after the games ended says: “The student games have opened up myriad opportunities for foreign businesses working in construction, transport, telecommunications, and the service and hospitality industries. Many of these opportunities are likely to endure beyond the games, putting Kazan firmly on the radar of foreign companies looking to invest in Russian cities beyond Moscow and St Petersburg.”
While Kazan is the region's dominant urban area, a number of smaller cities close to Yelabuga, most of which are located along the Kama River, have survived well since the collapse of the Soviet Union. These industrial centres have a combined population of more than 1 million people.
The biggest of them is Naberezhnye Chelny, located 20 kilometres from SEZ Alabuga with a population of more than 500,000. The city is not exactly aesthetically pleasing, consisting mostly of post-Soviet blocks of flats built around the Kamaz truck plant, but access to shopping malls, restaurants, bars and nightclubs makes it a popular destination for expats that come to work in SEZ Alabuga. Apart from the Kamaz plant, Naberezhnye Chelny’s economic significance stems from its infrastructure: it has a seaport, and passenger and cargo rail stations.
Nizhnekamsk, a city of 234,000 people located south of Yelabuga, houses a large petrochemical complex and the recently modernised Begishevo Airport, which connects the region with cities across Russia, as well with Turkey, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan. North of Yelabuga, one of the largest chemical plants in Tatarstan is located in the town of Mendeleyevsk.
Yelabuga itself, with a population of only 70,000 people, may initially appear quiet and small to some expatriates, but with a modernised old town and a movie theatre, bowling alley, restaurants and nightclubs, the town is not the same tired, sad place it was just a couple of years ago, according to Ali Kilic, managing director of Kastamonu, an SEZ Alabuga-based fibre board plant.
“My wife came back here after four years and she could not believe the improvement in the area,” says Mr Kilic, whose family has recently moved to the region. “Not all amenities are here, but we are a short drive from Naberezhnye Chelny. Plus, I believe that in a couple of years Yelabuga will have [these amenities] too.”