Following the September 2004 tragedy in Beslan, the Russian State Duma adopted President Vladimir Putin’s new law to eliminate the direct election of regional leaders. Now, all incoming governors in Russia are appointed by the president, subject to approval by local parliaments.
Tatarstan, a republic in the Volga region, is famous for its special position among the constituent units of the Russian Federation because of the strong nationalist and separatist feelings of the Tatar people. Not surprisingly, resistance to the new law on governors was strongest in Tatarstan (see EDM, November 19, 2004).
However, there were no serious protests by the Tatar authorities or unrest in Tatarstan when Putin’s law was finally adopted. Many observers believe that this calm reaction was possible because of a backroom deal between Putin and Tatarstan’s semi-authoritarian ruler, President Mintimir Shaimiev.
Early in 2000, only a few weeks after Putin was first elected president, Fauziya Bairamova, a leader of the Tatar Ittifak opposition party, told the press that she believed there was a secret agreement between Shaimiev and Putin. According to her, the Russian president agreed to not block Shaimiev’s plans to seek a third term (in violation of both the Tatar and Russian constitution) if the Tatar president would adjust all local laws to be in accord with federal ones. At the time, Bairamova worried, “Our sovereignty, even those aspects that we now have only on paper, will totally disappear” (ewarn.ru, April 11, 2000).
Subsequent events have shown that Bairamova was right about a Putin-Shamiev deal. All articles of the Tatar constitution that contradicted the Russian Federation constitution have been deleted, and in 2001 Shaimiev secured a third term. Although Tatarstan had originally been a stronghold of resistance to the law on appointing regional governors, in March Shamiev became one of the first local leaders to ask for Putin’s confidence. (Under the new regulations, the president must “trust” regional leaders if they hope to be reappointed.)
Despite great changes in the relations between Tatarstan and Moscow, the republic still has a special place in the Russian political structure, and its government is capable of taking an independent stand in its dialogue with the Kremlin. Shaimiev managed to make even his re-appointment by Putin looks as though he were doing Putin a favor by agreeing to serve an additional term: “I said many times before that I would not go for another term, but since the situation with elections in Russia had changed, and the price of stability in Tatarstan is too high, the President asked me to stay on for another term. We discussed the details and I decided to do it,” Shaimiev confessed to the press (lenta.ru, March 11).
The Tatar leader may have deliberately stressed the phrase “I decided” to demonstrate his remaining ability to make his own decisions. At the same time, there were widespread rumors that Shaimiev had been ready to confront Moscow if the Kremlin did not approve his candidacy. He was not even afraid to blackmail Putin in public. On February 28, when the State Council of Tatarstan discussed amendments to the republican constitution to bring Tatarstan’s presidential selection process into conformity with Putin’s law, Shaimiev declared, “If a nomination that the public and the parliament dislike is forced on the parliament,” then the latter would be ready for voluntary dissolution” (Vremya novostei, March 28). Under the new law, a local parliament will be dissolved if it does not accept the Russian president’s nominee three times in a row.
Shaimiev’s independence was also on display during the celebrations for the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan.
“In many ways we have already become a good example for the whole Russian Federation,” Shaimiev said in his address to the people of Tatarstan on the eve of the Kazan anniversary (Agentstvo natsionalnikh novostei, August 30). To understand the implications of these words, remember what the Tatar leader said in 2000 when Putin first became president. At that time Shaimiev announced that the Russian president wanted to build a political structure based on the current situation in Tatarstan (ewarn.ru, April 11, 2000). Now in 2005, Shamiev wants to see Putin as a good student of his brand of politics.
It is also symbolic that the Tatar authorities chose to celebrate the Kazan millennium on the same day that the declaration of Tatarstan’s sovereignty is usually commemorated. It is unlikely that the Russian president, a hard-line supporter of the “vertical power structure,” welcomed the idea of coming to Kazan to celebrate not just the millennium, but the local independence day as well.
During the celebration, Shaimiev again confirmed Tatarstan’s right to pursue its own foreign policy. On August 30, he met Turkish Prime Minister Beshir Atalai to discuss bilateral “trade and cultural relations” (Interfax, August 30).
Nevertheless, the most significant sign that Tatarstan will retain at least a part of its sovereignty is the Kremlin’s willingness to sign a new power-sharing treaty between Tatarstan and the federal center. Putin is a man who does not like compromise, and he did not dare sign a formal treaty on special relations with Chechnya, the most problematic of the republics. But he has now agreed to have a new bilateral agreement with Tatarstan. Of course the new treaty will not include any radical Tatar demands for independence. According to an official statement from Kazan, the republic will only ask for some tax concessions for mineral resources (ANN, August 30). But the fact that the agreement will be signed is telling. It means that the Kremlin is still afraid of Tatar separatism and Moscow realizes that the leader of Tatarstan is not a puppet, like other regional governors, but an independent political figure.