This summer, the first extension of the Republic of Tatarstan’s ten-year power-sharing agreement with Moscow runs out. Kazan is currently pursuing another extension and possible modifications to the accord. In particular, Tatarstan wants more democracy at both the local and all-Russian level, an end to Moscow’s appointment of regional heads, greater retention by federal subjects of the wealth their economies generate, and the adoption of one or more non-Russian languages as a “second” state language. These demands are energizing not only republican officials and the national movement in Tatarstan—often the bellwether of developments in this sector—but also local governments and societies in the other non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation. More ominously, from Moscow’s point of view, this process has even sparked calls for the adoption of a new “federal treaty” to replace the one Vladimir Putin has systematically gutted over the last 15 years (see Commentaries, April 4).
Tatars both in the government and otherwise have long viewed Kazan’s power-sharing agreement with Moscow as the primary guarantee they have of a special status for their republic within the Russian Federation (Idelreal.org, January 30). Its first variant was adopted when Tatarstan (along with Chechnya) refused to sign the Russian federal treaty in 1992. But many Russians believe that this special accord with Tatarstan represents a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity. They, therefore, believe it is long past time to do away with any such agreement lest its adoption lead to “a new parade of sovereignties” among the other Russian federal subjects, like the one at the end of Soviet times (Versia.ru, February 12).
But despite that Russian opposition, the government in Kazan as well as Tatar nationalists have pressed for exactly that extension, themselves energized by the economic crisis in Russia, which has left them with less and less money, even as they continue to send a majority of their earnings and almost all of their tax money to Moscow. Indeed, many in Kazan are convinced that unless they secure an extension of the power-sharing agreement by this summer, the future of Tatarstan will be at risk and radicalism, rather than moderation, will spread. It appears likely that Kazan is quite prepared to use the threat of such an outcome as leverage in Moscow to obtain the accord the republic government wants (Afterempire.info, Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, February 17).
All of these issues surfaced at a congress last week (April 8) of the embattled All-Tatar Social Center organization, better known by the acronym VTOTs. That group, which played a central role in the national movement in the 1980s and 1990s, had been marginalized in recent years. Many of its leaders were arrested, and Moscow has sought to disband first its individual branches and then the entire body, as a purported source of extremism. But this year, the VTOTs congress attracted more attendees than in previous years and met in a luxury hotel rather than on the streets (Business-gazeta.ru, April 9). Moreover, its deliberations and appeals garnered far more attention from Tatar and Moscow outlets alike than any similar session over the last decade (Nazaccent.ru, April 10).
Farit Zakiyev, VTOTs’ president, set the meeting’s tone by saying that an entirely new power-sharing agreement must be adopted, one that would ensure Russian respect for “budgetary federalism” and democracy. Under his proposed terms, Tatarstan must be allowed to retain 70 percent of its earnings and must be able to freely elect its own president and parliament. He also called for making Tatar the second state language of the Russian Federation because “only a third of the Tatars of Russia” now live in Tatarstan.
VTOTs’ call for making Tatar the state language attracted the most attention because it could affect other non-Russian and especially Turkic languages in the Russian Federation. Turkic speakers in the North Caucasus, for example, generally said they were against the idea because Moscow would use it to strip them of their rights to use their own national languages in schools and daily life; but non-Turkic groups generally support the proposal because they believe that if the Tatars gained that status for their language, they could pursue the same goal for theirs (Kavkazr.com, April 8).
The April 8 congress appealed to President Vladimir Putin on these points and urged him to recognize Tatarstan’s earlier declaration of state sovereignty and its 1992 constitution, from which many portions at odds with Russia’s basic law have been stripped. They also called for an expansion of Tatar-language education and media, the opening of a federal Tatar-language television channel, and the erection of a monument to those who defended Kazan against Ivan the Terrible in 1552.
Russian commentators were dismissive of both VTOTs and its proposals. According to Moscow political analyst Sergey Sergeyev, “VTOTs is a political instrument that the republic authorities are using in their talks with the federal powers.” He urged Moscow to organize its own pocket Tatar organization to oppose both this group and Kazan’s use of it (Kommersant, April 10).
But there are reasons for Moscow to worry, not only because of Tatarstan’s size and geographic location, but also because it has a major influence on the thinking of the country’s other non-Russians. Many are responding to what the Tatars are doing. The clearest example of this was in the Sakha Republic. There, 1,500 people demonstrated in Yakutsk just after the VTOTs meeting and called for many of the same things the Tatars want in addition to demanding a new federation treaty (Afterempire.info, April 9).
This is not yet a new parade of sovereignties. But it is the most important challenge to Moscow’s nationality policies since the early years of Putin’s reign, one the Kremlin has not yet figured out how to respond to.