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reflections

Jul 13, 2017 | 21:52 GMT

Tatarstan: The Last Autonomous Republic in Russia

Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia.
(FRANCK FIFE/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.

In one of Russia's most important regions, a familiar struggle is building. The autonomous Republic of Tatarstan is fighting to keep its autonomy, as time runs low on the region's power-sharing agreement with the federal government of Russia. Tatarstan's state council has appealed to extend the agreement, which allows the Tatar republic to remain autonomous. But the Kremlin, which has grown wary of Tatarstan's increasingly combative stance toward the Russian government, may not be willing to grant an extension.

Tatarstan 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 sovereignty pushes. (The majority of Russia's republics are made up of non-ethnic Russian groups concentrated in regional pockets, and the Kremlin relies on its tight control over these republics as a means of quelling secessionist sentiments among those non-ethnic Russians.)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fragile Russian government was fighting sovereignty claims from several regions, such as Chechnya. And when Tatarstan declared its sovereignty and created its own constitution, the Kremlin rejected it. After several years of negotiations between Moscow and the government in Kazan about Tatarstan remaining a part of Russia, they came to an agreement in 1994. Tatarstan became a constitutional republic that had its its own president and autonomous control over its taxes, judicial system, police force, citizenship and foreign relations. Then in 2007, Moscow and Kazan signed an additional treaty in an attempt to clear up the rights of the Tatar government and the Kremlin. That treaty extension came at a time when the Kremlin was revoking similar agreements with other republics, and 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.

Kazan has continued to dig in its heels to maintain its autonomy from Moscow. And as one of the most developed regions in Russia, Tatarstan — unlike other republics — has the means to stand its ground. Tatarstan boasts Russia's sixth-biggest gross regional production per capita and controls the country's fifth-largest energy firm, the oil company Tatneft. The capital city of Kazan is also Russia's second-most industrialized city, producing trucks, planes and helicopters and running petrochemical and chemical production facilities. Compared with other, less financially prosperous Russian republics, Tatarstan has stability as well as leverage.

Over the past year, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov has become a vocal critic of the Kremlin. As Russia dwells in a recession that started in 2014, many regions have complained that the Putin administration takes too much from them. Tatarstan, in particular, has been forced to close three banks, which led to large protests across the republic. Minnikhanov called on the federal government to increase financial support while exacting fewer concessions and has compared the current Kremlin leadership with that of Josef Stalin, whose economic policies resulted in millions of deaths. And though Putin has purged a series of unruly regional leaders in the last year, he has yet to touch Minnikhanov.

One method Russia could use to keep Tatarstan in line and bring the republic closer to the Kremlin is to eliminate the power-sharing agreement with Kazan, which would also eliminate the Tatar presidency and the region's autonomy. Indeed, there are rumblings within the federal government that it may allow the power-sharing agreement, which is up for renewal on July 24, to expire.

But the move to deny Tatarstan its autonomy could rally 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. Then in 2011, Tatar broadcasters clashed with Russian authorities, calling Russia an occupier and urging the Kremlin to leave Tatar affairs to Kazan. 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 contain this growing Tatar nationalism, particularly as such sentiments can bleed over to "brother" ethnic groups, such as the Bashkirs and Chechens. Further stoking the Kremlin's concern is the fact that Russia's Muslim populations are burgeoning, while the ethnic Russian population is in deep decline. Moscow does not want Kazan to be the epicenter for anti-Russian sentiment among Muslims.

Thus the state of Tatarstan leaves the Kremlin in a dilemma. If Moscow continues to allow Tatarstan its autonomy, other regions may once again call for their own sovereignty. As the Kremlin sees it, Moscow cannot simply allow dissidence to go unchecked. But if Russia revokes Tatarstan's autonomy, it risks destabilizing one of the country's most important and strategic regions. This standoff between Kazan and Moscow has been centuries in the making, and in the past, the Kremlin has offered compromises to maintain territorial integrity. But this time around, growing Tatar nationalism and Russia's increasing need to rein in unruly regions casts doubt on Moscow's willingness to negotiate.

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