Kazan Exploits Russia’s Nationality Policy in Ways Moscow Never Intended

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 145

President of Tatarstan Rustam Minnikhanov (Source: tatar-inform.ru)

Just as the Republic of Tatarstan did routinely under its former President Mintimer Shaimiev, Kazan has again taken a Moscow policy and transformed it in a way that is very much at odds with the one articulated by the central Russian leadership. It has cleverly done so in a way that Moscow will find difficult, if not impossible, to counter in Tatarstan or prevent other non-Russian republics from copying, thus only adding to Moscow’s problems.

Several months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a nationality policy concept paper that called for Moscow to be the defender of the titular nationality of the Russian Federation. The policy paper said Moscow was to protect ethnic Russians or, even more generally, non-ethnic Russian citizens of Russia wherever they live, and specified that Moscow was to be responsible for protecting the Russian nation from the unwanted effects of mass immigration and religious extremism (Interfax, Newsru.com, December 19, 2012).

Last Thursday, current Tatarstani President Rustam Minnikhanov approved a new nationality concept paper for the Republic of Tatarstan that called for Kazan to be the defender of the titular nationality of Tatarstan. This concept paper said Kazan was to protect ethnic Tatars or even more generally non-ethnic Tatar Tatarstanis (“Tatarstantsy”) wherever they live, and specified that Kazan was to be responsible for protecting the Tatar nation from the unwanted effects of mass immigration and religious extremism (nazaccent.ru/content/8622-v-tatarstane-prinyata-novaya-koncepciya-nacionalnoj.html).
By making Tatarstan rather than the Russian Federation responsible for all these things, Minnikhanov has, by sleight of hand, significantly undermined the authority and even power of the center. Moscow can hardly object to the notion that a government should be concerned about its titular nationality or the members of that nationality beyond its own borders when it is proclaiming that as a value. And the Russian government cannot object to a republic government assuming more responsibility over the effects of mass migration or religious tensions, especially since the central government has demanded that federal subjects do just that.

But by articulating its own nationality policy concept paper—and it did so both in the 1990s and as recently as 2008 (an-tat.ru/natsionalnaia-politika-v-rt/kontseptsiia-gosudarstvennoi-natsionalnoi-politiki-v-rt/)—Kazan has raised the stakes in three ways. First, it has directly challenged Putin’s centralism in all things. Second, it has again emerged as a spokesman not just for that largest non-Russian republic but as a bellwether for other non-Russian republics, many of which are likely to follow suit with concept papers of their own. And third, the Tatarstani government raised the stakes in any effort by the Kremlin to change the borders or status of federal subjects, something Putin has pledged to do but will now find more difficult to carry out.

Some commentators in Moscow are already attempting to define the new Tatarstan concept paper as a retreat from Kazan’s position in 2008. They note that Minnikhanov’s document, unlike the one Shaimiev prepared, does not refer to Tatarstan as “a democratic legal state within the Russian Federation,” a formulation that had offended many in Moscow. But Artur Kaziyev, a specialist at Moscow State University, told “Kommersant” that the elimination of this formulation “does not mean anything” and that if anything the pretensions of the 2013 document are more far-reaching than those of the document adopted five years ago (kommersant.ru/doc/2245439).

Other Russian experts are inclined to agree. Some said that the 2013 paper, by its specificity, showed that Kazan is now interested in “real politics” rather than mere declarations. But others like Vladimir Belyayev, a member of the Russian Academy of Political Science, argued that the new document’s stress on ethnic Tatars rather than “the multi-national people of the Republic of Tatarstan,” suggests that “one people has more rights than others,” thus contradicting the Russian and Tatarstani constitutions.

There are two more reasons for thinking this new concept paper may prove a turning point in nationality relations in the Russian Federation. On the one hand, Kazan has put its money where its mouth is, committing 75 million rubles ($2.5 million) to achieving the document’s goals. Most of this money will be spent by the republic’s Academy of Sciences, long a bastion of Tatar nationalism of the clever type that this document represents.

And on the other, Moscow has already shown that it is ready to negotiate with Kazan on nationality issues, a willingness that makes this new document truly part of real politics. Three weeks ago, Russian Duma Speaker Sergey Naryshkin came to Kazan to talk about the preparation of a single history textbook for Russian Federation Schools. There, he ran into a brick wall: Rafael Khakimov, vice president of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, told him bluntly that Moscow’s views on that subject and those of Kazan “do not entirely coincide.” Neither do the provisions of the two republics’ nationality policy concept papers.