In early November Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the State Duma a draft of a power-sharing treaty between the federal government and Tatarstan, an autonomous republic in the Volga region.
Power-sharing agreements between Moscow and Russian regions were common under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, but they have been absent under Putin. In 2003 a new federal law was adopted that obligated all of the Russian Federation’s 89 constituent republics and regions to remove all local laws contradicting federal legislation by mid-2005. Some officials in the Kremlin have repeatedly told the media that “the time of the treaty federation has gone” and has been superceded by Putin’s vertical power structure.
However, the fact that the Kremlin is ready to sign the power-sharing treaty with Tatarstan indicates that the vertical power structure is not as rigid as originally thought.
The treaty with Tatarstan is so humiliating for the federal center that the Kremlin is trying to sign it as quietly as possible. There have been scant reports in the Russian media about the draft sent to the State Duma, and, in fact, the actual date when the Russian parliament received the document is unknown. Nevertheless, the fact of signing such a treaty cannot be a secret and some details quickly leaked to the public.
As it turns out, the draft sent to the State Duma in November is little different from the draft offered by the Tatar authorities this spring (see EDM, May 25). Both contain concessions to Tatarstan such as tax exemptions on mineral resources and the right to declare Tatar the official language of the republic. The latest draft also says that federal passports for residents of Tatarstan will have special inserts in the Tatar language, and individuals who want to run for the republican presidency should know the Tatar language (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 9).
Officially, the Kremlin attributed the long delay in sending the draft to parliament to a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure that required the approval of 25 federal ministries and agencies (Radio Liberty, November 13).
Analysts are debating why Putin finally agreed to a special treaty with Tatarstan. Clearly, he realizes that this step could challenge his reputation as a strong, uncompromising leader. Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian nationalist deputy in the State Duma, told Nezavisimaya gazeta that the Kremlin needed the support of ethnic regions like Tatarstan, because they could guarantee a certain number of votes for the Kremlin during federal elections. A newspaper source in the Kremlin administration confirmed Rogozin’s assessment (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 9). Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center offered a similar analysis: “Facing the risk of aggravating the conflict with the Tatar authorities and getting political complications with a loss of millions of votes as a result, the Kremlin has chosen the second option: a way of compromise with Tatar President Mintimir Shaimiev, who controls those votes” (Radio Liberty, November 13).
However, there is at least one other possible explanation, one that few in Russia dare to broach. This is the rising popularity of separatist and radical Islamic groups in Tatarstan. Russian security officials responsible for conducting anti-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus have repeatedly said that the Caucasian insurgency has sought allies among Muslims of the Volga region and have already announced the establishment of “Volga and Ural Fronts.” The reported commander of the “Volga Front” is Abdurakhman Kamaludin, an ethnic Tatar. In September he claimed responsibility for bombing the pipeline that transports natural gas from Central Asia to Russia. Kamaludin said in a statement posted on the Kavkaz Center rebel website that acts of sabotage on Russian main pipelines would continue (Kavkaz Center, September 29).
There have been several acts of sabotage during the last two years in Tatarstan and other Volga regions. Last summer a group of Tatar Muslims was sentenced to prison for organizing an underground militant group in Tatarstan (Regnum-VolgaInform, August 7).
Along with the Islamic underground there are many radical nationalist groups in Tatarstan that are very hostile to the Russian authorities. Organizations like the All-Tatar Public Center in the Name of Marat Mulukov call for more sovereignty for Tatarstan within Russia, while even more radical organizations like the Tatar All-National Center advocate confederal status for the region. Such organizations also pose a potential threat to the stability of Tatarstan and Russia as a whole.
The Kremlin needs Tatar President Shaimiev to keep the republic firmly under control, as well as to be a reliable “supplier” of votes in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia. Tatarstan seems to enjoy more privileges than other regions in Russia because it can satisfy this vital need.