In January 2013, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that the Tatar youth nationalist organization Azatlyk declared 2013 the year of a famous historical figure—the Mongol Khan Batyi. The Tatar nationalists hope that Khan Batyi, who was known for his devastating incursions into historical Russia and Eastern Europe, will boost “the spirit and national morale of the Tatars.” The leader of the organization, Nail Nabiullin, told the paper: “Through the personality of Batu-khan (a.k.a. Khan Batyi) we want to recollect and remind Tatars about the periods of [their] great history, when all steppes, Russia and Europe trembled with fear hearing the galloping of the Tatar warriors’ horses. We want to show the might and power of the Tatar spirit and Tatar arms.” The organization plans to popularize the figure of Khan Batyi among Tatars, who has invariably been described as the archenemy of medieval Russia, in both Russian and Soviet school textbooks (http://www.ng.ru/regions/2013-01-15/3_kartblansh.html).
Nezavisimaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Konstantin Remchukov played down the importance of Batyi becoming a hero for the Tatar youth organization. However, he noted that the return to the past as demonstrated by Azatlyk’s activists indicated the bad situation currently in Tatarstan, pointing to the problematic level of material well-being in the republic (http://www.echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/989832-echo/#element-text). Remchukov may well be correct that people turn to the past when they are experiencing trouble in the present. However, the reason may not necessarily be confined to material wellbeing. Remchukov is well aware of Moscow’s increasing pressure on the non-Russian regions of the country to abandon as many signs of their distinctness as possible. This certainly creates tension and a backlash from the minorities living in the Russian Federation.
According to Azatlyk’s website, the three major pillars of the organization are Tatar nationalism, Islam and Pan-Turkism. Tatars are a Turkic-speaking people, even though the Tatar language is very different from the bulk of modern Turkic languages. In its year 2012 review report, Azatlyk mentioned staging 40 public protest actions, celebrating a national hero of the Tatars who revolted against Russian rule in the 18th century and number of other events (http://azatliq.info/ru/news/adverts/183-отчет-о-деятельности-азатлык-за-2012-год). Tatar nationalist youth also help other youth organizations stand up to defend their culture and rights, which they believe are being infringed upon by the Russian state. A visit by Chuvash activists to Tatarstan’s capital Kazan in August 2012 was an example of this (http://azatliq.info/ru/news/adverts/159-чуваши-и-татары-объединяются).
Tatarstan’s government tried to adopt the Latin alphabet for the Tatar language, but Russia’s Constitutional Court struck down the decision. In December 2012, Tatarstan’s parliament had extensive deliberations on the issue. Eventually, the republican parliament voted to abandon the Latin alphabet, under heavy pressure from Moscow. However, the deputies gave residents of Tatarstan permission to address government institutions in the republic using the Latin alphabet and also receive official responses in Latin script. Moreover, the republican parliament’s speaker Farit Mukhametshin declared that with the ongoing globalization processes, the government was bound to come back to the Latin alphabet issue at a later time (http://www.ng.ru/regions/2012-12-24/100_graphics.html).
On December 26, the Lenta.ru website reported that the Tatarstani branch of the Russian agency for media oversight had issued a warning to Zvezda Povolzhya (Star of Volga Area), a newspaper in Tatarstan. The paper apparently published two articles by Zaki Zainullin, an engineering PhD who, among other things, accused ethnic Russians of “having no ideology, apart from the ideology of striving for world domination.” Russia, according to Zainullin, “got by thanks to seizures of foreign territories.” The Tatar academic further cited the first president of de-facto independent Chechnya, Jokhar Dudaev, who reportedly told him that all Russians were chauvinists regardless of their social standing and position (http://lenta.ru/news/2012/12/26/paper/). The incident is interesting because it shows that Tatar discontent with the situation is not limited to Tatar youth, the Tatarstani republican government or Muslims. Academia in the republic apparently breeds and spreads disaffection with the current state of affairs in relations between Kazan and Moscow, just as it did in the union republics of the Soviet Union before it fell apart.
According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta reporter Gleb Postnov, who appears to be highly critical of the Tatar activists and the republican government in Kazan, Tatarstani leaders in the past used Tatar nationalists to improve their bargaining positions against Moscow. Postnov points out that under the first president of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiev, the republican government “demanded greater autonomy for the region in exchange for reigning in the ephemeral threat of Tatar separatism” (http://www.ng.ru/regions/2013-01-15/3_kartblansh.html). However, if the threat of Tatar separatism was so “ephemeral” in 1990s, it is unclear why Moscow granted exceptionally great autonomy rights to Tatarstan at the time, or why Postnov himself regularly writes about the dangers of Tatar nationalism now.
On January 16, Russian media outlets hailed the closing down of the Al-Islakh mosque in Kazan. The mosque was suspected of supporting the group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is officially outlawed in Russia. The mosque’s parishioners reportedly favored building a “caliphate” and organized an “Islamist rally” in Kazan on December 22—the same day Tatarstani President Rustam Minnikhanov reassured journalists at a press conference that there were no Islamic fundamentalists in the republic. The real reason the mosque was closed, however, must have been the parishioners’ refusal to submit to the republic’s Muslim Spiritual Board. A news report noted in passing that the administration of the mosque refused to pledge allegiance to the “the Hanafi school, traditional for Tatars” (http://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1613538.html). Apparently, this made the mosque’s parishioners “Islamic fundamentalists” in the eyes of the government.
The authorities in Tatarstan became markedly harsher in dealing with Islamic organizations following the attempt on the lives of Tatarstan’s mufti and his deputy in July 2012 (see EDM, July 26, 2012). Mufti Ildus Faizov was wounded and deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov was killed in the attack. Yet, the circumstances surrounding the attack were very obscure and the authorities failed to provide convincing evidence of who had staged the attacks and why. Some observers pointed out that the Russian authorities may have been interested in exaggerating the Islamic threat in Tatarstan to curb the local government’s powers. Regardless, Tatar nationalism and Islam appear to be on the rise in this strategically important Russian republic. Moscow so far has used mainly political pressure to tip the balance in the republic in its favor. In the long run, however, this is a losing position.