Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 5

By Mansur Khasanov

The 20th century is passing into the annals of history–a century which has seen the collapse of colonial empires, the triumph of national liberation movements, and the creation of new independent states. In this sense, it can be termed the century of the “renaissance of peoples.” For the Tartars too, the 20th century has been a period of rebirth and the creation of a national statehood.

The treaty signed five years ago between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan–“On the demarcation of subjects of jurisdiction and the mutual delegation of powers between the organs of state power of the Russian Federation and the organs of state power of the Republic of Tatarstan”–can undoubtedly be termed historic, because it heralded a new stage in the creation in Russia of genuinely federal relations. Signing the treaty was a landmark in the development of Tatarstan’s statehood.

Traditions of statehood among the Tatars go back more than 1,000 years. Our ancestors’ first official union is generally considered to be the Turkic Kaganate (kingdom) which arose in the middle of the 6th century (552). From the 7th century onward, Turkic-Tatar states began to appear in Europe (Greater Bulgaria and the Khazar Kaganate). At the end of the 9th century, Volga Bulgaria was formed–the first feudal state in the central Volga region. A key stage in the creation of the Tatar state in the Middle Ages was the Golden Horde. During this period the main traditions of statehood were established: the ruling Djuchid dynasty; the kurultai, a representative organ of power made up of the estates; the military-administrative state structure, the basis of a state ideology; religion, culture and literature; a Tatar military service class and the ethnopolitical consciousness of the nation. There was one legal and tax system in the country.

After the collapse of the Golden Horde, new Tatar states appeared on its territory–the Kazan, Siberian, Crimean and Astrakhan kingdoms, the Great Horde and so on–practically all of which were incorporated into the rapidly developing Russian state in the second half of the 16th century. The Tatar statehood was destroyed, but the people never lost hope of restoring it. In the Russian empire, non-Russian peoples were almost entirely excluded from state affairs. The governing structures of the empire were formed without taking local ethnic features into consideration. Non-Russians had no rights and were defenseless in the face of the powerful military bureaucratic machine. Areas with a Tatar population were distributed between the provinces of the Volga and Ural regions, so that there was no Tatar majority in any of them.

The February Revolution of 1917 gave the Tatars the opportunity both to achieve the aspirations they had harbored for centuries and to begin the process of reviving their statehood. Whatever else may or may not be true about the October Revolution, it did provide a powerful boost to these activities. The attempts by the leaders of the national liberation movement to create a Tatar state culminated in the Tatar Autonomous Republic. Essentially this was a declining autonomy within the framework of a unitary state which was only federal in theory. The Soviet regime divided peoples into four levels of national statehood; including a nationality in any particular category was a random affair which did not consider area, population, economic or spiritual potential or cultural and historical features.

Meanwhile, a nationality’s official status and the political rights ensuing from that status depended on this random arrangement. It is significant, for example, that a union republic had thirty-two deputies in the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, while an autonomous republic–such as Bashkiri or Tatarstan–had only eleven, even if it had twice the number of people. Autonomous republics had even fewer rights in running their economy. In 1990, 98 percent of industrial enterprises in Tatarstan were under Union or Russian control, while the republic ran only 2 percent of “secondary” enterprises. Furthermore, the republic’s annual aggregate social product was significantly more than that of a number of union republics, and the national income was equal, for example, to the income of Lithuania and Estonia put together. Naturally, the people of Tatarstan could not accept the humiliating position of their statehood. The leaders of the republic persistently raised the issue of elevating its status. At the formation of the USSR in 1922, when Stalin’s idea of autonomy–which had been rejected by Lenin–was foisted on the Tatars and Bashkirs, the revolutionary and politician Mirsaid Sultangaliev–a great theorist on national and state structure–vigorously contested the idea, calling for including Tatarstan and Bashkortostan as independent entities within the new Union. For this he was crushed by Stalin in 1923–the first political victim of the Bolshevik totalitarian system.

Attempts by Tatarstan to raise its official status during the adoption of Stalin’s constitution in 1936, during the 1950s and again during discussions on the 1977 constitution were similarly unsuccessful. This inequality, this feeling of blatant injustice, contributed to the rise in national self-awareness and the drive to raise the official status of the republic during perestroika.

The current stage in the development of our statehood began with the Declaration on the State Sovereignty of the Republic of Tatarstan, passed by the republic’s Supreme Soviet on August 30, 1990. This act confirmed the will and drive of the people to raise the political and legal status of Tatarstan. At the time, the idea was to give it the status of a union republic within the USSR.

However, the break-up of the Soviet Union ruled out this idea. When Russia was declared an independent state, Tatarstan again faced a dilemma in the new circumstances: to remain without rights, totally dependent and subordinate to the center, or to begin building a new form of federal relations. The question was put to the multiethnic people of Tatarstan themselves in the form of a referendum which was held on March 21, 1992.

The referendum asked: “Do you agree that the Republic of Tatarstan should be a sovereign state, a subject of international law, organizing its relations with the Russian Federation and other republics and states on the basis of equitable treaties?” Eighty-two percent of Tatarstan’s citizens took part in the referendum, and 61.4 percent of them answered in the affirmative to the question posed. The wording approved in the referendum was incorporated into highly important constitutional provisions in the Basic Law of the Republic of Tatarstan, passed on November 6, 1992. Tatarstan’s constitution represented a program to further consolidate national statehood. In this context it is also worth looking at the background to and signing of a Treaty between Russia and Tatarstan on February 15, 1994.

This was the first treaty of its kind–not just in Russia, but in the world, for within the framework of federal relations no such treaties had been signed in foreign federations. The treaty laid down a new and extremely important practice in federal relations, which was then extended to cover the relationship between the center and other subjects of the Russian Federation. As at January 1, 1999, such treaties had been signed with forty-six regions.

What indisputably positive effect did these treaties have? Let us look back at the political situation in the country five years ago. At that time relations between Moscow and Kazan had reached a critical point, because of the desire in certain Russian circles to maintain the legal status of Tatarstan at its pre-perestroika level. Above all, the treaty was an effective tool in dissipating this tension. At the same time, these treaties allow for important regional geographical, economic, ethnic and other features to be taken into consideration. Without destroying the sovereignty and integrity of the federation, they facilitate rapprochement and reinforce cooperation between the two levels of power–federal and regional.

It is sometimes asked what sort of a federation Russia is–a constitutional or treaty federation. This is a false dilemma. Russia can and must become a constitutional treaty federation. Of course, the existing treaty system is not ideal. There is infinite room for improvement. For example, it would undoubtedly be sensible for the legislative authorities to participate in the preparation and signing of treaties in order to give them greater legal force. But in the current climate this is difficult to achieve because of the hostility of certain political forces and individual public officials, including legislators.

Treaties signed between the center and the republics clearly need to be classified as a separate type of interstate agreement, and there needs to be a separate section in the constitution of the Russian Federation for this. As distinct from truly international treaties, they would be of an internal federal nature, but unlike administrative agreements between the center and the territories, they would be of an interstate nature.

The further consolidation of the legal status of Tatarstan touches on the problem of the asymmetrical nature of the federal structure. This is the subject of heated debate in both academic and political circles. Those in favor of a unitary state and unification are opposed to asymmetry. Their main argument hinges on the principle of equality which, they believe, should determine the status of subjects of the federation.

It is difficult to agree with this, however. When discussing the symmetry or asymmetry of the federal structure, it is wrong just to use these terms to describe relations between subjects of the federation and the federal center (the vertical axis). The relationship between the different subjects of the federation is fundamental, and if there is no symmetry here, there cannot be symmetry in relations with the federal center, otherwise it would lead to the notorious Soviet egalitarianism.

In references to the constitutional principle of equality of the subjects of the federation, one basic truth is forgotten: Equality means not just equal rights, but equal responsibilities. In this sense, for example, subsidized regions have little grounds for demanding equality with those subjects of the federation which are donors. The equality of unequals is indeed a manifestation of asymmetry. As one foreign political scientist neatly put it: “fairness consists in equal treatment for equals and unequal treatment for unequals.” Practice shows that no federation anywhere in the world in symmetrical. The Russian Federation is no exception.

These theoretical discussions have a direct practical application in the field of interbudget relations, which make up the core of all federal relations. When applied to the Russian Federation, it is important to emphasize two points. First, the effectiveness of interbudget relations depends on the correlation between the financial resources allocated and the powers vested in the subject of the federation. In other words, the more responsibility for state functions that a republic or Russian region accepts, the better it should be backed up by financial resources. Second, budget federalism should take into consideration the fundamentally different tasks and responsibilities of the two types of subjects of the Russian Federation–those structured along administrative-territorial lines, and those structured on nation-state principles. For apart from the common tasks which all federation subjects are called upon to fulfill, the nation-state subjects deal with the difficult tasks of developing the national culture of ethnic communities as a whole, which requires extra funding. It should be obvious that if the Tatar language, education in the Tatar language, and Tatar national literature and art are not developed within the Tatar Republic, they will not develop anywhere. On top of this, there are other ethnic groups in Tatarstan as well. Should the need to fund national cultures be taken into account in interbudget relations? Absolutely.

A particular feature of the Russian Federation is that it is built on two principles: the nation-state principle and the administrative-territorial principle. This is the root of its asymmetry. In Russia there are no end of politicians who want to radically change the existing arrangement. Academically, they justify the necessity of getting rid of the nation-state division by stating that it has not been possible to reconcile the principles of state structure inherent in the Russian Federation anywhere in the world.

Indeed, most foreign federations are built without consideration of the ethnic factor–for a variety of reasons–though they have great experience in developing national-administrative arrangements. However, the Russian Federation, with its huge territory, its historical features and its complex ethnic composition, cannot resemble foreign federations in all respects. It should have its own model of federal construction, in some ways similar to and in other ways different from other federal models, though the basic principles of federal models which have demonstrated their value historically should undoubtedly be taken into consideration.

A worse scenario is when the idea of radical change in the federal structure is formulated as a call to divide Russia into gubernias–eight or ten large administrative-territorial units. This idea is blatantly designed to destroy the national statehood of non-Russian peoples and justly causes indignation.

There is one final question affecting the federal structure of Russia and the interests of the peoples of which it is made up: the proposed closer ties and possible unification between the Russian Federation and Belarus. There are various possibilities here. The first is that Russia and Belarus form a confederation with national organs of power, but remain separate, independent states. The second is that the oblasts of Belarus enter the Russian Federation with the rights of federation subjects. The third is that Belarus joins the Russian state as a special member of the federation.

In the first and third scenarios, the republics of the Russian Federation would have the right to demand that their official legal status be raised to that of a subject of the new federation or confederation. To judge by what Tatarstan’s president, Mintimer Shaimiev, has said, Tatarstan would also have to take that step.

On the question of the nation-state structure, we distance ourselves from those who propose unrealistic and shortsighted policies of full independence for Tatarstan and secession from Russia, but we also distance ourselves from those who support the destruction of the national statehood of peoples and who want to turn the Russian Federation into a unitary state. Our path is one of political dialog and of consolidating Tatar statehood within the framework of a democratic federal Russia.

Mansur Khasanov is an academician, and president of the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences. For twenty years he was the deputy chairman of the Tatarstan Council of Ministers.