Monday, July 2, 2007

Window on Eurasia: A Last Chance for Federalism in Russia?

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 2 – Last Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin resubmitted to the Russian legislature a treaty he signed last November 4 delimiting powers between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan following a slight modification in its language after the Federation Council rejected it in February 2007.
But reaction from the deputies so far has been far from enthusiastic, with most probably willing to go along either because Putin has proposed it or because they believe it will have little impact but a significant number saying that the accord would in effect legitimate separatism in Tatarstan and undermine the unity of the country.
Like many other regions of the Russian Federation, Tatarstan signed an earlier agreement with Moscow in February 1993 defining their respective powers even though Kazan, along with Grozniy, was the only federal subject that did not sign the federation treaty in 1992.
When the 1993 accord’s term ran out in 2003, Moscow then under the rule of Vladimir Putin rather than Boris Yeltsin chose not to renew it, arguing that there must be a common legal space across the entire country and that the time of such power-sharing arrangements was over.
“Formally,” as one analyst pointed out earlier this year, that left Tatarstan with little of “the special status” it had enjoyed. But “informally,” as Putin’s willingness to sign this accord suggests, the position of that republic and especially its leader Mintimir Shaimiyev is very different (
That special status appears to reflect three things: First, the Kazan Tatars are the second largest nationality in the Russian Federation, and Putin almost certainly is interested in doing nothing that would lead a significant portion of them to oppose him or his candidates next year.
Second, in many ways, this accord is beyond any doubt a reward from the Kremlin to Kazan for not pursuing greater autonomy or even independence violently or even in ways that might embarrass at least in public a Moscow no committed to re-centralizing the country.
And third – and this is beyond any doubt the most important factor – there is Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev, one of the cleverest republic leaders in the Russian Federation and a man who has dominated virtually all aspects of life in Tatarstan for two decades.
Even before the fall of Soviet power, Shaimiyev worked to limit the importance of defense industries in his republic lest Moscow use them to weaken his power. And since 1991, he has worked hard to ensure that neither Moscow nor anyone else will secure equivalent levers against him.
Indeed, Shaimiyev has been so successful in this that many Moscow commentators have referred to his republic as “Tatarstan, Incorporated,” in much the same way and for many of the same reasons that Western analysts refer to Putin’s Russia (
Moreover, Shaimiyev has succeeded in co-opting more nationalistic groups, simultaneously including them in his own circle and in the educational establishment of Kazan and preventing them from taking the kind of actions in the streets that might attract Moscow’s unwanted attentions.
That has allowed him unusual freedom to run Tatarstan, a freedom reflected in Putin’s decision not to replace him when he has had the chance and in the Kremlin leader’s willingness to sign and back the kind of agreement that he has opposed in virtually all cases. (Chechnya is an exception in this and many other ways.)
Indeed, so successful has Shaimiyev been that one Russian writer, Nikolai Silayev, suggested that “in Tatarstan, the ideal of Russian separatism has been achieved –to live according to one’s own rules while enjoying all the convenience of a large country” (cited in
Even as modified, this power-sharing treaty gives Kazan much of what it wants beyond a special status: the right to help Tatars outside the republic, the right to use Tatar in passports, and the right to limit Moscow’s future choice of republic leader to someone knowing Tatar.
Those may not seem like enormous concessions to some, but it is a mark of the sad state of federalism in the Russian Federation under Putin that even the mention of them in such a document has the potential to stir up so much anger not only in the Russian nationalist media but among Duma deputies.
The portal which specializes on developments in the far-flung regions of the Russian Federation last week asked several parliamentarians for their reactions to the Moscow-Kazan power-sharing accord and to Putin’s decision to resubmit it after the Federation Council earlier voted it down (
Among their reactions:
Senator Yuriy Sharandin, who represents the Evenk Autonomous District and serves as chairman of the upper house’s Committee on Constitutional Law, said that there was no need for such an accord as the Russian constitution and Russian law define the relationship between Moscow and Kazan already.
Senator Anatoliy Lyskov, who represents Lipetsk oblast and serves as chairman of the Federation Council’s committee on legal and judicial issues, said that the accord was “declarative” rather than specific in the way that any such document ought to be. And he suggested its poor formulations could open the door to problems in the future.
Petr Shelish, deputy chairman of the Duma committee on legal affairs, said that whether the measure was approved or not would make little difference given the powers of the president and the meaninglessness in actual practice of any such agreements as a result.
Konstantin Zatulin, who chairs the Duma committee on CIS and Compatriot Affairs, said that the accord should be approved because Tatarstan was a success story in contrast to Chechnya and it would be “strange” if the parliamentarians did not do as Putin asked on any particular issue two times running.
But Andrei Savel’yev, the deputy chairman of the Duma’s committee on constitutional law, took the opposite tact: “In whatever form this document takes, it would be a crude violation of constitutional norms. Thus, the president has committed a serious mistake sending it back to the Duma a second time.”
Who will prove to be the better prophet remains to be seen, but one thing is clear, as “Vechernyaya Kazan’” commented after the February 2007 defeat, “the contemporary history of Russian Federalism [is being] made in Kazan almost to the same degree that it is being made in Moscow.”

UPDATE: On July 4, the Duma approved the new power-sharing treaty with Kazan, but Gennadiy Gudkov, a member of the Just Russia-Motherland fraction warned that by doing so, the Russian parliament had “created the opportunity for other subejcts of the federation to propose that the center conclude special treaties with them on the delimitation of powers. Among the first,” he continued, “will be Bashkortostan, Chechnya and a number of republics of the North Caucasus. We are thus placing under the foundation of our state a delayed action mine which will at some point explode” (

UPDATE ON JULY 14 – On July 11, the Russian Federation Council voted to ratify the power-sharing accord between Moscow and Tatarstan by a vote of 122 to four, with one abstention. That reversed a February 2007 vote in which the senators rejected the agreement by a vote of 93 to 13 with 15 abstentions and means that the treaty, already passed by the Duma, now goes to President Vladimir Putin for promulgation. Not surprisingly, this action has touched off a firestorm of speculation ranging from the view of some Russian nationalists that the treaty threatens the territorial integrity of Russia to the arguments of some regional leaders who say that it will revive the country’s federal structure. For a survey, see

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