Battle Over Names of Republics and Titles of Governors Erupts in Russia’s Volga Region

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 22

Tatarstan remains the only republic in the Russian Federation whose governor has the official title of president. The Kremlin has insisted that there be only one president in the country—the president of the Russian Federation—and all of the autonomous republics have ultimately bowed to Moscow’s request, rejecting presidential titles and adopting the titles of “governors” or “heads” (glava) of regions. Neighboring Bashkortostan officially renounced the title of President of Bashkortostan in March 2014 (, accessed November 17) even though the official website of the governor of Bashkortostan still has the title of president all over the place (, accessed November 17), betraying the muted recalcitrance of the republican elites.

Tatarstan is supposed to elect its regional head next year, and the republican parliament is required to resolve the issue of the title of the leader of the republic by January 1, 2015. The current leader of the republic, Rustam Minnikhanov, plans to run for a second term, but the republic’s parliament apparently remains undecided about the title. Tatarstan’s establishment apparently wants to hold on to the title of president, but is under heavy pressure from Moscow to renounce it (, October 22). Minnikhanov’s evasive explanations indicate how sensitive the issue is. The current president of Tatarstan reportedly said that he liked the title of the president, but that “federal law should be executed.” Nevertheless, the republican parliament has postponed the issue once again (, October 22).

Meanwhile, Russian nationalists, who are fairly active in Tatarstan, have signaled that Moscow must take advantage of the worsening economic situation in the republic to eliminate the last vestiges of republican political autonomy. Tatarstan’s strong negotiating position vis-à-vis Moscow was due to demographic, cultural influences and economic factors. Tatars are the second largest ethnic group in the Russian Federation after ethnic Russians. Tatars are predominantly Muslim and Tatarstan has a relatively high level of industrial development, hosting large manufacturing and oil industry plants. However, the republic’s budget heavily depends on oil revenues, and with oil prices falling, it is increasingly harder for Tatarstan to make ends meet. The republican budget for 2014 was based on oil prices at the level of $100 per barrel. According to some reports, if the price of oil falls below $80 per barrel, Tatarstan’s economy “will collapse.” The republic’s current debt is about $2 billion, its projected budget in 2015 will be about $4.5 billion and it has requested nearly $3 billion in credit from the Russian government (, October 24). Moscow’s coffers are also projected to shrink significantly due to the low oil prices and Western sanctions. Still, the Russian government has far more resources than Tatarstan, and Russian nationalists think the time is ripe for putting more pressure on the Tatars to make them relinquish more political autonomy.

The battle over titles also involves the names of the republics. Civil organizations from Bashkortostan called on the Russian government to officially ban calling the republic Bashkiria, the Russified name. “Many people are upset when Bashkortostan is called Bashkiria,” said Bashkir activist Fanit Muratbakiev. “Especially against the backdrop of neighboring Tatarstan, which nobody calls Tataria. Residents of the republic perceive this as meaning the republic is undervalued” (, November 10). Sensing pressure by Moscow to nullify the country’s ethnic diversity and reduce cultural differences as much as possible, ethnic minorities are trying to hold on to at least the names of the republics.

The Russian government’s current drive to play down ethnic differences in the country and to suppress ethnic identities is reminiscent of what happened during the Soviet period. However, there are also important differences. In the Soviet Union, the authorities attempted to suppress all ethnic identities, including that of the ethnic Russians. The contemporary Russian government is intent on suppressing ethnic identities of the ethnic non-Russian peoples of the country, but is more than willing to boost ethnic-Russian identity.

Russian State Duma deputy Mikhail Starshinov declared that the government “should seriously become concerned with implementing a federal policy that would create psychological comfort for the [ethnic] Russian population, especially, in the territories where [ethnic] Russians make up less than half of the population.” Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church organized a session of the World Russian People’s Council in Moscow earlier this month. The Russian government appears to have been involved in it as well: indeed, in a sign of the Kremlin’s involvement, a Kremlin administration official, Andrei Tretyakov, said that the forum is promoting the unity of the country and the gathering of Russian lands (, November 7).

On November 11, in the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, declared at the session of World Russian People’s Council that the privileged status of ethnic Russians should be legally codified. The Russian identity should be cherished and strengthened, not fought against, he said. Citing the war in eastern Ukraine, the clergyman warned that the main threat to Russians is an intra-ethnic-Russian conflict (, November 12).

Russia appears to be increasingly worried about the well-being of ethnic Russians, while quietly working against the identities of other ethnic groups in the country. This combination is unlikely to result in improved relations between ethnic groups. While minorities, even large ones like the Tatars, cannot challenge Moscow openly, they are certainly willing to block Moscow’s efforts to impose ethnic uniformity on the country.