By Katherine E. Graney
Besides sending shock waves through the international system and shaking up conventional wisdom about the post-Cold War European balance of power, the recent and brief Russo-Georgian war and Russia’s subsequent recognition of the “independent” states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has also led to speculation about Russia’s own ethnic homelands and about its future as an ethno-federal state. In the wake of these events, independence-minded activists in the Russian national republics of Tatarstan and Ingushetia have made prominent claims that if Russia is willing to recognize the right of self-determination of Georgia’s former constituent ethno-federal units up to and including the right to independence, it must also logically do so for its own ethno-federal units. Such claims, while provocative, and useful as reminders that Russia is both in fact and by law and a multi-ethnic federation where fully one-fifth of the population is non-ethnic Russian and fully one-quarter of the over 80 federal constituent units in Russia has some form of designation as an ethnic homeland (as does Quebec in Canada), should not be taken as evidence that Russia is about to find itself ablaze in secessionist ferment. Rather, they should point us to look more closely at Russia’s ethno-federal situation, and in particular to realize that the quest for autonomy on the part of some of Russia’s constituent ethno-federal units, particularly Tatarstan, provides an opportunity for the United States and its Western allies to reaffirm and strengthen our ties with some of the most pro-Western, pro-federalist, pro-liberal democratic forces in Russia.
Since declaring itself to be a “sovereign state” in August 1990, the Republic of Tatarstan, under the able leadership of its first and only president, Mintimer Shaimiyev, has embarked on a remarkably diverse yet consistent set of initiatives aimed at fulfilling that declaration with real meaning while simultaneously avoiding the type of destructive claims to independence and secessionism that helped lead to the two wars in Chechnya and to the civil wars in Georgia of the early 1990s. Taking as its model the successful drives for meaningful sovereignty within an ethno-federal framework negotiated by Quebec in Canada and Catalonia in Spain during the 1980s and 1990s, Tatarstan’s leadership has also sought to take on as many of the administrative, cultural and economic attributes of a modern nation-state as it can while staying within (if also attempting to expand) the legal boundaries of Russia’s post-Soviet ethnofederal system. These include innovative legal reforms and economic policies that have resulted in Tatarstan having one of the highest standards of living in the Russian Federation and recently led the Russian-language version of Forbes magazine to name Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital, as the third-best city in Russia for foreigners to do business. Tatarstan’s leadership has also pursued what is at once both the most ambitious program of ethnic revival for a non-Russian people in Russia (in terms of promoting the Tatar language and culture and Tatar history among Tatars both in the republic and in the rest of Russia and the CIS) and the most sincerely multi-cultural program of cultural revival for other non-Russian peoples living in Tatarstan (including Bashkirs, Mari, and Udmurts). Tatarstan’s leadership has claimed, rightly, that in the absence of a meaningful commitment by the federal government in Moscow to protect and promote the cultural and linguistic rights of non-Russian minorities in Russia (despite the presence of such protections in the Russian Constitution), it has a moral obligation to provide for these needs.
The other significant aspect of Tatarstan’s quest for sovereignty over the past two decades is its extremely pro-Western and internationalist character. Since 1990, Tatarstan has taken the lead in establishing contacts between Russian ethno-federal units and their European counterparts, participating since 1990 in the activities of the Assembly of Regions of Europe and Committee of the Regions of the European Parliament. It has also sought closer ties with other all-European institutions, such as the EBRD, which held its annual meeting of shareholders in Kazan in May 2007, the first time it had been held anywhere in Russian since 1994. In its attempt to construct some sort of “international personality” that will help it to further its stated goal of “building a meaningful form of federalism in Russia,” Tatarstan has also instituted firm ties with the United States, Canada including Quebec), the United Nations and, as befitting a state where the 50% ethnic Tatar population is almost entirely self-declared Muslim, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, where the OIC’s 2001 invitation for Tatarstan to join the OIC as an observer state paved the way for Putin’s decision in August 2003 to pursue OIC membership for the Russian Federation. Indeed, another important part of Tatarstan’s attempt to institute its cultural, political and economic autonomy in the name of building a real and functional federalism in Russia is its self-promotion as a the home of “Euro-Islam”, an ecumenical, tolerant form of Islam, whose experience Tatarstan feels can be useful for the West in terms of both their domestic and international issues with Islam.
While Tatarstan’s leadership is not the crystal clean beacon of democracy that it often claims to be, plagued as it is by the same types of nepotism, corruption and authoritarianism that characterize all post-Soviet leadership in Moscow and the rest of Russia, on the matter of the liberal democratic commitment to federalism as a way of increasing representation in general and ethno-federalism as a way of ensuring the protection of the cultural rights of ethnic minorities in particular, Tatarstan’s leadership is the most consistent and authentic, and quite nearly the only, voice left in Russia today. Tatarstan’s leaders have also consistently turned to the West for support in their quest to make Moscow live up to its constitutional commitments to protect and promote a democratic form of ethno-federalism in Russia. The Georgia crisis has given us the opportunity to remember these requests, and honor them.
Katherine E. Graney is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Government at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her book, Of Khans and Kremlins: Tatarstan and the Future of Ethno-Federalism, will be published by Lexington Books in November.