On September 2, a key figure in the Russian government, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, visited Tatarstan. After watching a presentation on the republic’s educational reforms, modeled on the Singapore school system that is renowned worldwide for its success, Shuvalov noted that “the benefits of foreign programs in the teaching of some disciplines should be combined with the traditionally strong Russian programs in the hard sciences.” He added that “everyone who lives in Tatarstan must speak Tatar, regardless of nationality” (https://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1701803.html#ixzz2etrjyqzU).
Shuvalov’s remark about Tatar language in Tatarstan produced a large public outcry among ethnic Russian activists in this Volga republic. Leaders of the Russian community in Tatarstan and Kazan published an open letter to President Vladimir Putin, asking him to fire Shuvalov. The authors of the letter wrote that the deputy prime minister broke the legal requirements of a Russian statesman that should promote inter-ethnic peace and understanding. “In this case he disregarded the special problems of the ethnic group RUSSIANS [sic], of which there are about 1.5 million in the Republic of Tatarstan and provoked the escalation of the long overdue language conflict.” The authors of the address complained that Tatar authorities made the learning of the Tatar language at the republic’s schools mandatory against the wishes of many ethnic Russians. Russian activists in Tatarstan expressed their fear that Tatarstan’s authorities “will perceive the deputy prime minister’s statement as direct approval of their language policies and that layoffs of the Russian population of Tatarstan due to their overwhelming lack of knowledge of Tatar language may ensue” (https://www.regnum.ru/news/1704807.html#ixzz2etuq9UCI).
Tatar language instruction in the republic’s schools has long antagonized Tatarstan’s Russian population. Both Tatar and Russian are legally considered the state languages of Tatarstan, and both must be taught in state schools. Russian nationalist activists regard the Tatar language as one of the cornerstones of Tatarstan’s sovereignty, which the republic declared back in 1990 and never fully retracted despite Moscow’s repeated demands that it do so (https://rus-rt.ru/main/rus-vopr.aspx). The head of the Russian organization of Tatarstan, Alexander Salagaev, emphasized the importance of language policy for Moscow’s control of the region. In an attempt to scare the Russian government, he compared Chechnya to Tatarstan: “In Chechnya, there was an ethnic balance—Ingush, Chechens, Russians. In this situation, the federal center could defend its own interests. But later, the Ingush were separated, Russians were massacred and displaced and, essentially, only Chechens remained in Chechnya. Now, the federal center practically has no room for maneuver. The same thing might happen here, because the ethnic balance has been broken in Tatarstan. For example, 85 percent of the commanding positions in the republic are occupied by the Tatars.” The Russian community leader also lamented the low fertility rate of ethnic Russians and high fertility of ethnic Tatars, which make the outlook for the Russians in the republic especially grim in Russian eyes (https://ruskultura.narod.ru/bolrus.htm).
The school language issue is an extremely hot one in another Volga region, the Republic of Bashkortostan. There, the republican authorities started to require that Bashkir be taught in the schools, outraging many ethnic Russians in the republic. Russian parents complain that schools in Bashkortostan expand school hours devoted to teaching the Bashkir language at the expense of Russian (https://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/bash/1707462.html).
Moscow has frequently attacked Tatarstan and Bashkortostan for their purported separatist aspirations and the substantial economic prowess that could potentially sustain the two republics. Both of the republics’ constitutions were amended under pressure from Moscow to remove elements of state sovereignty, and the two republics’ oil industries were largely taken over by Russian oligarchs dispatched by Moscow. Still, they retain significant de-facto political and economic power.
Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are neighbors with many common features, and both republics are mutually strengthening each other’s resistance to pressure from Moscow. Both republics are relatively wealthy due to their large oil reserves and oil refining industries and military industrial base. Their material well-being positions the two republics favorably in their political struggles with Moscow. Both Tatar and Bashkir are Turkic languages and both ethnic groups are predominantly Muslim. The Tatars are the second largest ethnic group in Russia, with 150,000 Tatars residing in Moscow alone. Tatars comprise about 53 percent of Tatarstan’s total population, while ethnic Russians constitute nearly 40 percent of the total. In Bashkortostan, ethnic Bashkirs make up approximately 30 percent of the total population, while ethnic Russians comprise 36 percent of the total. Ethnic Tatars are 25 percent of Bashkortostan’s population, and they together with the Bashkirs outnumber the republic’s ethnic Russians (Russian State Statistical Service, 2010 census results).
With Russian nationalism on the rise in Russia, other nationalisms are inevitably following the lead. Language policy is one of the spheres crucial for the future of ethnic minorities in Russia. Unlike many other non-Russian minorities in the Russian Federation, both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are well suited to dominate language policies in their respective regions, because they do not rely on funds from Moscow and are able to sustain their own educational programs. At the same time, ethnic Russians living in these republics have become increasingly galvanized over their Russian identity. The process of ethnic competition in the Volga regions is reminiscent of the same processes in the North Caucasus, where the ethnic Russians of Stavropol region are seeking affirmation of the region’s status as an ethnic Russian region (see EDM, September 9, 10).