Kazan Surrenders Last Vestiges of Sovereignty

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 20

Meeting of the State Council of the Republic of Tatarstan. (Source: tatarstan.ru)

After fighting a delaying game for more than a decade and assuming as recently as December 2022 that it had come up with a compromise that would conceal its essentially abject defeat, the government of the Republic of Tatarstan surrendered to Moscow’s demands across the board on January 26 by gutting its constitution and bringing its basic law into correspondence with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s understanding of “federalism” (Tatar-inform.ru, January 26). Kazan now finds itself at its weakest since 1991 both within the Russian Federation and abroad, with the authority of the current head of the republic, Rustam Minnikhanov, wholly undermined. All this likely opens the way to more degrading steps both in Tatarstan and the other non-Russian republics, including their final reduction into entities indistinguishable from the predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts and krais. Not surprisingly, Tatar nationalists are in despair. Yet, some believe that Kazan will continue to fight for its sovereignty and that of the other non-Russian regions, albeit from a weaker position.

Since becoming president, Putin has worked to re-centralize the country by destroying the powers the regions had acquired in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. One of the most symbolic of these moves came after 2010, when Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov called for republics to refer to their leaders as “head” (glava) rather than “president” (prezident). Kadyrov argued for this, because, in his words, “Russia should have only one president, Vladimir Putin.” Over the next decade and under pressure from Moscow, all non-Russian republics, except for Tatarstan, fell in line (Idelreal.org, December 14, 2022). However, the end of Kazan’s resistance appeared to have come in December 2021, when the Russian State Duma adopted a law, over the objection of six deputies from Tatarstan, requiring all republics, by January 1, 2023, to call their leaders “head” rather than “president.” Tatarstan’s top leaders signaled they would comply, but Tatar politicians continued to resist (Window on Eurasia, December 19, 2022).

Not only did the republic’s legislature not comply immediately, but it also pushed off a decision on what to do until the end of December 2022. Then, after a lively debate that recalled the heady days of the 1990s, members of the Tatarstan State Council agreed to drop the use of the term “president” for the head of the republic, but not now and not in favor of the Russian term “head” (Business-gazeta.ru, December 23, 2022). Instead, the State Council, by a near unanimous vote, decided that the title of president would be retained by the current leader of the republic until the next election, given that he had already been elected as such. The Tatar officials also established that every subsequent head of the republic would be known as the rais, an Arabic term long used informally among Tatars to designate their leader.

Many in Tatarstan and some outside the republic believed that Kazan had once again outplayed Moscow and that the Kremlin would not take any additional steps against the republic, lest it produce an explosion there and elsewhere, something the Kremlin does not need given its war against Ukraine (Business-gazeta.ru, December 24, 2022; Idelreal.org, December 25, 2022; Kasparov.ru, December 25, 2022; Milliard Tatar, January 6). On this, they were proven wrong. On January 23, Putin met with Minnikhanov and pointedly referred to him as “head” rather than “president” or rais, and three days later, the Tatarstan State Council capitulated in an act that one Tatar activist, Fauziya Bayramova, lamented as “the liquidation” of Tatarstan’s sovereignty (Business-gazeta.ru, January 28).

Others were not quite as pessimistic. But it is difficult to disagree with Bayramova’s words given the subsequent actions of the Tatarstan government. At a meeting of the State Council on January 26, Tatarstan senators gutted, without debate, the republic’s constitution by eliminating all references to sovereignty and any suggestions that Kazan could pursue policies at odds with those of Moscow. They also declared that Minnikhanov would become known as the rais and not at the end of his current term, as Kazan had insisted at the end of December 2022, but rather it would come into force on February 6. (For details on the meeting and the changes they approved, changes that the republic’s constitution specifies could not be made without a referendum, see Tatar-inform.ru, January 26; Business-gazeta.ru, January 26; and Idelreal.org, January 27, 29). Some Tatar politicians tried to call what happened a compromise, but it is difficult to describe it as anything but an act of surrender—all the more so because Minnikhanov signed the changes into law on the same day they were adopted (President.tatarstan.ru, January 26).

It seems likely that Minnikhanov felt he had no choice; Putin almost certainly delivered an ultimatum to him at their meeting only three days earlier. The results of these events, of course, do not mean Kazan will refrain from defending its positions and advancing its own goals, but it will do so from a much more weakened position. As a result, Putin almost certainly sees these developments in Tatarstan as a major victory. One analyst, however, has outlined an intriguing strategy that Minnikhanov could have—but did not—pursue, which could serve as a future blueprint for other republic leaders seeking to resist Moscow’s push toward total centralization.

Russian commentator Andrey Grigoryev, citing Winston Churchill’s observation that appeasers who chose shame to avoid war end up with both as a result, says Minnikhanov should have acted in an entirely different and unexpected way, which might have won out if he had. Specifically, Grigoryev argues that Minnikhanov should have fled abroad and denounced both Putin’s demands and the Kremlin leader’s war against Ukraine. Instead of suffering his humiliating defeat, the Tatar leader would have gained Western support and might even have found backing for Tatarstan’s independence (Idelreal.org; Window on Eurasia, January 30).

While Minnikhanov did not choose to do so, other leaders of the non-Russian republics might, given that Western leaders appear increasingly open to the idea that Moscow cannot be reformed but must be dismantled. The possibility that some other republic’s leader might now choose that path is certainly something for the Kremlin to worry about, because if any republic “head” did, Moscow’s victory over Tatarstan could turn out to be a Pyrrhic one.