Russian Nationalists in Tatarstan Ask Moscow to Protect Russians in Ukraine

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 7

With a patriotic frenzy under way in Russia in connection with the crisis in Ukraine, annexation of Crimea and ensuing tensions with the West, ethnic minorities living in Russia are predictably coming under increased scrutiny by the state security services and Russian nationalists. As one of the most economically viable territories in the Russian Federation and a region with a strong national identity, Tatarstan has received particularly high attention from the Russian government and Russian nationalist organizations. This is especially evident now after Russia annexed Crimea with its native population of Crimean Tatars. For their part, Tatarstan’s authorities are trying to carve out a new role for themselves by making themselves useful to Moscow. According to Refat Chubarov, the head of the Crimean Tatars’ Mejlis, Tatarstani President Rustam Minnikhanov visited Crimea to meet Crimean Tatar leaders shortly before the scandalous referendum on joining Russia was held on March 16 (http://www.unn.com.ua/ru/news/1315200-r-chubarov-sprostuvav-vizit-ramzana-kadirova-do-krimu).

During a meeting of the European Parliament, the speaker of Tatarstan’s parliament, Farid Mukhametshin, reportedly defended “the Crimeans’ choice” to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. However, Russian nationalists and the state security services are still unhappy with the Tatars. For example, a Russian analyst in Kazan, Gleb Prozhilov, told the Regnum.ru news agency: “Well, of course, they can visit Crimea on Moscow’s orders, but does this change the internal politics of the Kazan Kremlin, the attitude toward the Russian Question? Such patriotism among the elites of Tatarstan is permeated with falsity.” An outspoken critic of Tatarstan’s authorities, Rais Suleimanov, said the republican authorities were trying to use their influence with the Crimean Tatars as leverage in their negotiations with Moscow. “The local elites expect to extend their right to continue an ethnocracy in the republic’s government, to experiment with Islamism, provide state support for only one of the two main religions in the region [Islam] and disregard the unresolved issues of Kryashens [Christian Tatars] and [ethnic] Russians,” he said. “I do not exclude that, against the backdrop of Crimean victories of Russia, the Tatar authorities  will continue a policy of double standards in their own backyard, the pressure on Russian activists will only increase, while Tatar separatists will be as active as ever in the republic” (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1783117.html#ixzz2xHG1nYtK).

Suleimanov works for the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, which is headed by ex-Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, or SVR) general Leonid Reshetnikov. In an apparent clash between Tatarstan’s authorities and the Russian security services in September 2013, the office of the General Prosecutor of Tatarstan issued an official warning to Suleimanov, accusing him of extremism (http://www.business-gazeta.ru/article/87208/).

On March 27, Russian nationalist organizations in Tatarstan appealed to President Vladimir Putin, asking him to expand Moscow’s involvement in Ukrainian domestic affairs. “If the fascists capture Ukraine, tens of millions of Russians and Russian-speakers will become truly slaves and NATO’s military will be stationed in Kharkov,” the appeal stated. “Our country, Russians and Russian-speakers in Ukraine, will be in great danger. We must stop fascism, prevent it from proliferating in Europe. Supporting Russian-speaking and anti-fascist Ukraine has become a necessity for Russia. Russia’s security depends on how well the rights of Russians and of Russian language are protected in Ukraine” (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1783656.html#ixzz2xIbawsJH).

Tatarstan’s Russians, on the one hand, implied that the West is acting irresponsibly in Ukraine by ignoring the spread of “fascism” in the country while, at the same time, warning that Russia had to stop the West’s encroachment on Russian interests in Ukraine. The appeal, therefore, vaguely implied that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the West are also fascists who are threatening Russia.

Encouraged by the success of violence by pro-Russian crowds in Ukraine, some Cossack leaders in Tatarstan started voicing muted threats of similar actions in the republic. Complaining about Tatarstan’s bureaucracy, a Cossack chieftain, Oleg Loginov, told the Regnum news agency: “Such an attitude by Tatarstan’s officials resembles the situation in Ukraine, where the authorities also annoyed the people to the extent that it resulted in a social implosion. Similar conflicts against the backdrop of Russophobia of some of the officials can be seen in Tatarstan as well. Time will tell what will happen in the Volga region in the future” (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1784229.html#ixzz2xIesv9oC).

The leaders of Cossack and ethnic Russian organizations sounded as if they were on the verge of calling on Moscow to send troops not only to Ukraine, but also to Tatarstan and other areas of the Russian Federation where ethnic Russians are in a minority. The Crimean example certainly provides encouragement to Russian nationalists in Russia to continue on the path of “defending” ethnic Russians within Russia itself. If Russia does not get the chance to continue its quest for “protection” of ethnic Russians abroad, it may likely to turn to “protecting” ethnic Russians within its own borders.

Ironically, by proclaiming a crusade against the alleged fascists in Ukraine, the Russian government, willingly or not, is creating an atmosphere of high expectations among ethnic Russians throughout the country who want to see themselves in an elevated status in comparison to the large non-Russian parts of population of the country. In their fight against “fascism” in Ukraine, Russians are increasingly framing the problems of their country in strikingly fascist terms.