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reflections

Mar 8, 2017 | 00:28 GMT

5 mins read

Russia's Eyes Focus on Tatarstan

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) can respond one of two ways to criticism from Rustam Minnikhanov, the leader of Tatarstan: Offer the republic financial concessions or purge the popular outspoken critic of his administration.
(MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Political clashes, bank closures and protests have rumbled through Tatarstan in recent months, shaking a region that is key to Russia's stability. As in many of the country's autonomous regions, policies instituted by the federal government in Moscow as it copes with economic recession have not sat well with Tatarstan. Leaders of the Muslim region complain that President Vladimir Putin's administration is taking too much from Tatarstan, which has had to borrow money to keep the local economy running.

More than a dozen other regions have defaulted on government and international loans, and complaints from regional leaders have grown louder as the country's economic troubles have dragged on. Putin has responded with a purge, replacing six different regional leaders in the past six weeks. But that has not silenced some, including Tatarstan's president, Rustam Minnikhanov, one of the Kremlin's most vocal critics. In a nationally televised broadside, Minnikhanov called on the federal government to increase financial support to regional governments while exacting fewer economic concessions.

During his tirade, Minnikhanov compared Moscow's current economic policies to those followed during Josef Stalin's dekulakization program under which the Soviet state snatched private farmlands and turned them into collective farms, a catastrophic period in the country's history that resulted in millions of deaths. Minnikhanov's pointed criticism and call for more support was endorsed by four other regional leaders, none of whom have a direct tie to the Muslim republic or its chief. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was quick to respond, warning the regional leaders, particularly Minnikhanov, to "know their place."

Last week, Minnikhanov's fears for his region came to pass when, despite receiving bailouts, three banks in Tatarstan were forced to close because of a lack of funds. One of the banks, Tatfondbank, is among Russia's largest regional banks. Over the weekend hundreds of depositors took to the streets in Tatarstan demanding that the republic's government repay their lost cash — it had some $681 million in deposits. The protesters also demanded the resignation of Tatar Prime Minister Ildar Khalikov, who sat on the boards of each of the banks. And this week, the Tatar government, bracing for further protests, is discussing the matter internally and with the Kremlin.

Tatarstan's strategic location in the heart of Russia means additional unrest could spread. Situated on the Volga River, the autonomous republic is considered the gateway between European Russia and Siberia. It is the primary transit point between Russia's east and west, the stop for rail and flights heading from Asia to Moscow. The ethnic Tatars who constitute the majority of its population are by far the largest Muslim minority in Russia. Unlike the Chechen population, the Tatars have historically led and unified Russia's varied (and sometimes warring) Muslim populations. If it were not hamstrung by the Kremlin's financial demands, Tatarstan would be a regional economic power, with deep oil and mineral resources and a robust industrial sector.

Tatarstan has in the past entertained the idea of independence from Russia, despite its landlocked position in the middle of the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, pro-independence movements sprung up in Tatarstan — as they did in most other Russian Muslim republics. But after observing Russia's military response to a similar push by Chechnya, the republic backed off. The situation in the country today, however, bears a remarkable resemblance to the economic crisis that gripped it in 1998-99. During that period, many republics ceased paying taxes to the federal government and refused to heed Moscow's directives on a string of issues. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was forced to bring in Putin, then a little-known hard-liner, to rein in the regions. At the time, Moscow feared that Tatarstan's separatist rumblings could rally other Muslim republics to unify against the Kremlin. Under Putin's direction, Russia cut off natural gas supplies to Tatarstan and threatened a military incursion. 

Though today's Tatar crisis has remained manageable, the Kremlin's unease over the situation is palpable. Russia's regional governments are watching to see how the Tatar situation plays out. The Kremlin could try to quiet the region by offering subsidies or a bailout, much as it did with the Chechen republic earlier this year after its president, Ramzan Kadyrov, began a vocal campaign. Or, as he has done with other regional chiefs, Putin could decide to remove Tatarstan's leadership. Public anger against Khalikov would make purging him fairly simple, but Minnikhanov is wildly popular both at home and among most other Muslim regions, and even in Crimea. In addition, Minnikhanov is politically aligned with Kremlin factions opposing the Federal Security Service (FSB), factions that also include Kadyrov and Vladislav Surkov, a close Putin adviser. This could complicate the situation as the competition between the FSB and Kadyrov for national political and economic power intensifies despite Putin's warnings.

Considering those complications, while the tumult emanating from Tatarstan may on its surface appear to be a localized set of problems, it could ripple into crises that engulf both the country and Kremlin.

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