Baku, May 26 – Even those who acknowledge that international law protects both states and peoples tend to forget that the right of the latter to self-determination involves more than just independence. It is part and parcel of a general drive toward greater freedom within states as well, according to the scholar who negotiated Kazan’s power-sharing agreement with Moscow.
In an essay posted online last week, Rafael Khakimov, the director of Kazan Institute of History and until recently political advisor to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev, argues that “the striving toward a broadening of freedom is the main vector of history” and that no one can “stop it.” Indeed, the use of force against it will only cause people to try harder.
Many may see this as a defense of existing states, but in fact, Khakimov points out, it lays enormous burdens on them to meet the needs of national minorities, especially in the case of countries like Russia where “the ‘melting pot’ is impossible” because “the indigenous peoples have deep historical traditions” 9 (www.apn.ru/publications/article19926.htm).
“The principle of the equality and self-determination of peoples,” the Kazan scholar continues, “is a hard or, as jurists express it, a ‘firm’ norm.” That is, it takes precedence over other values, including majoritarian democracy and even the borders of existing states, however much states may insist otherwise.
That means that international bodies rather than individual states oversee these rights, again whatever individual states may think.
At the same time, however, Khakimov points out, “there can be in fact various forms of self-determination.” Independence is only one of them. Others include autonomy, power-sharing arrangements, partnerships, confederal and federal structures, and other agreements reached on the basis of negotiation.
Tatarstan, the Kazan historian says, “never raised the question about exit from Russia but demanded and this was entirely justified a broadening of its rights” and was able to reach agreement with the Russian side on doing just that, however much some in Moscow more recently have tried to walk back its provisions.
One reason that some Russian politicians (and not just they) have done so is that they have come to believe that “relatively numerically small peoples do not have any perspective for their own development” and that larger ethnic communities have the right via democratic means to limit the rights of smaller ones.
But this is a fatal mistake, Khakimov argues. “Yes, the Tatars in Russia are an order smaller than Russians. By a vote in the Duma, one could liquidate the Republic of Tatarstan, decide that the Tatars do not exist, limit the use of national language, and close Tatar Schools and television broadcasts.”
“That does not mean that the people itself will disappear,” he continues, and those Russians who think so should reflect that “the Russians themselves are a minority in comparison to the Chinese.”
Consequently, with regard to these rights, “democracy is not a panacea for the resolution of the problems which arise but only an instrument in political life. For the harmonization of inter-ethnic relations, it must be liberalized by taking into account the interests of numerically small peoples.”
In doing so, Khakimov insists, it is critically important to distinguish between “indigenous peoples” and “national minorities.” The European Framework Convention on the rights of national minorities is a great achievement,” but it fails to make this distinction, one critical since indigenous peoples view where they live as theirs from time immemorial.
Thus, their needs and their rights are somewhat different, something that needs to be recognized by all sides. In negotiating its power-sharing accords with Moscow, Tatarstan proceeded from this principle. Now, Khakimov hopes it can be enshrined into a broader international principle in order to protect not only the Tatars but other groups as well.
Many people assumed that Khakimov was fired as Shaimiyev’s political advisor earlier this year at Moscow’s insistence because the Tatar specialist on federalism had been so outspoken on the rights of Tatarstan and other regions and peoples of the Russian Federation. If so, those who took this step have made a mistake.
When he was political advisor, Khakimov was careful in what he said, always concerned that none of his remarks would rise to the level of a principled challenge to Russian political arrangements at least in terms, however much his words carried implications that others were capable of seeing in that regard.
But now that he is “only” an independent scholar, the Kazan specialist on federalism has demonstrated that he intends to be explicit about what he earlier was only suggestive, a shift that may mean his influence will be even greater and broader than it was in the past, exactly the reverse of what those in the Kremlin clearly hoped for.