A conflict is emerging in one of Russia's most prosperous regions. The autonomous Republic of Tatarstan is fighting to keep its autonomy, as the region's power-sharing agreement with the federal government of Russia has expired. Tatarstan's state council has proposed to extend the agreement, which allows the Tatar republic to remain autonomous. But the Kremlin has not been willing to grant an extension. This is part of a move away from federalism under Putin’s rule.
In 1992, Tatarstan declared its sovereignty and created its own constitution after the majority of the population supported its independence in a referendum. However, the federal government of Russia rejected this decision. After two years of negotiations between Moscow and the government in Kazan, they came to an agreement in 1994. Tatarstan became a constitutional republic that had its its own President and kept autonomous control over its budget, taxes, judicial system, police force, citizenship and foreign affairs.
In 2007, Moscow and Kazan signed an additional treaty in an attempt to clarify the rights of the Tatar government. That treaty extension came at a time when the Kremlin was revoking similar agreements with other republics. As of today all of Russia's republics have eliminated their presidential office and claimed Vladimir Putin as Russia's only President, except for Tatarstan.
Federalism or not?
In the 1990s, following Tatarstan, another 45 regions signed similar agreements with the federal government under then-President Boris Yeltsin. That trend shifted in 2000 when Vladimir Putin came to power. One by one, the regions were stripped off their power and their unique privileges were taken away.“The Russian system has been dominated by an authoritarian model of federalism,” political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov has said. “This became especially clear during Putin’s first term, when he was looking for easy victories.” Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov agrees: “It is clear why Putin started doing this in 2000. […] He wanted to accumulate power in Moscow.”
By 2009, only Moscow’s agreements with the restive Chechnya and Tatarstan were still intact. And at that point, Putin had already renegotiated the terms of those agreements, making them largely symbolic. For example, the President had removed most of Tatarstan’s special privileges, with the exception that local authorities could still issue passports with a one-page insert in the Tatar language.
The power-sharing agreement between Moscow and Kazan, which was up for renewal on 24 July, has expired. This could eliminate the Tatar presidency and the region's autonomy. Hence, members of Tatarstan's State Council composed a statement addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin on 11 July, urging him to prolong the agreement between Moscow and Kazan. Now that the agreement has not been extended, it is necessary to amend at least 14 articles of Tatarstan's constitution, as well as several federal-level laws. As a result, the Russian federation ceases to exist, essentially leaving its name as a façade.
The move to deny Tatarstan its autonomy could raise Tatar nationalism to a dangerous level. After Russia recognized the independence of Georgian enclaves Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, Tatar parliamentarians revived their own calls for independence, even petitioning the United Nations. In 2011, Tatar broadcasters clashed with Russian authorities, calling Russia an occupier and urging the Kremlin to leave Tatar affairs to Kazan. Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov has openly criticized the federal government. Especially since the collapse of the Russian economy in 2014, Putin’s government has been accused of taking too much money from the regions. Tatarstan has had to close three banks, which led to protests in the region.
In recent years, ethnic Russians in Tatarstan have complained of an increase in the teaching of the Tatar language and history in the republic's schools. The Kremlin will be keen to suppress this growing Tatar nationalism, particularly as such sentiments can bleed over to "brother" ethnic groups, such as the Bashkirs and Chechens. The Kremlin's concern is the fact that Russia's Muslim populations are increasing, while the ethnic Russian population is in deep decline. Moscow allegedly does not want Kazan to be the epicenter for anti-Russian sentiment among Muslims.
Tatarstan as a region
Tatarstan is one of the most economically successful regions in Russia thanks to its well-developed oil industry. It is the gateway between European Russia and Siberia, situated in the heart of Russia's strategic Volga region. More than half of the republic's population is made up of ethnic Tatars, originally a series of Turko-Mongol nomadic groups who settled along the Volga River a thousand years ago. The region has had some level of independence for hundreds of years, and it has maintained an atmosphere of markedly friendly relations between Russia's Orthodox Christian and Muslim populations, serving as a model for other regions.
Under Soviet rule, Tatarstan was one of the first autonomous Soviet socialist republics, and by the 1970s, there were 16 such republics. As an early example of regional autonomy, Tatarstan has long been the region that others looked to as an example in their own quests for sovereignty.