Monday, September 8, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Majoritarian Democracy Threatens Eurasia’s Ethnic Minorities -- and the Countries They Live In, Tatar Scholar Warns

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 8 – The Russian Federation, like many of the other post-Soviet states, has embraced one aspect of democracy – majoritarian rule – without supporting another and equally important one – minority rights – an imbalance that threatens ethnic minorities in these countries in the first instance and ultimately the countries themselves.
If majorities ride roughshod over minorities, Rafael Khakimov, the director of the Kazan Institute of History and the former long-time political advisor to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev, said, the rights of the latter are at risk. And if the minorities respond by challenging majoritarian states, those states themselves are endangered as well (
In the course of an online interview, “the ideologue of Tatarstan sovereignty” argued that South Ossetians and Abkhazians faced that problem in Georgia because they had no guarantee that their ethnic rights would not be trumped by “a mechanical majority” and that Georgia lost control of them for precisely that reason.
In dealing with such situations, the Kazan scholar continued, the personalities of those directly involved enormously. The situation in Georgia might have gone in an entirely different direction, he said, had it not been for “the personality of [Mikhail] Saakashvili” who chose “the worst variant” among those available.
At the same time, however, Khakimov noted that “there were objective causes” for what happened and that much of the blame for what has occurred should fall on those, including many Americans, who gave the Georgian president bad advance because they did not and do not have any understanding of the complexities of life in Georgia and the surrounding region.
In today’s world, Khakimov argues, “self-determination is a leading principle, [while] territorial integrity is a derivative one. It is another matter that international legislators must precisely define the international procedure of self-determination.” That might include “a referendum under international supervision, and then there would not be a war.”
“But for this again, it is not necessary to create obstacles in the form of borders. Borders need to be made as far as possible soft and flexible. Europe by the same is heading in that direction. The Community is establishing regions which overcome borders. There now, the study of the language of one’s neighbor across the border is obligatory.”
And he added that “if in Australia, there is a single Estonian in a class and he demands that he be taught in Estonian, the government is obligated to provide him with that opportunity. For us this sounds fantastic,” Khakimov admitted, “but the world is moving in that direction,” if not everywhere then in many places.
The “melting pot, where everything is homogenized, no longer works,” he said, “even in America.”
Since the end of the Soviet Union, the Kazan historian said, Tatarstan has found itself forced to confront many of these problems as a component of the Russian Federation, but its leadership unlike some others has adopted a different approach, seeking negotiations and compromises rather than striking unilateral poses. That has brought real returns.
In the 1990s, thanks to the personalities of Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin real progress was made. At that time, Yeltsin frequently said: “Let’s resolve the questions which are resolvable and put off those which are not,” possibly allowing cooler heads to prevail.
But since Yeltsin’s time, Khakimov continued, relations between Moscow and Tatarstan have deteriorated with the former assuming that it has the votes in the Duma to do whatever it likes – including appointing governors and republic presidents, unilaterally overruling local laws, and reducing the local ethnic component in the educational system.
Some Russian parliamentarians, he said, had arrogantly told him: Tatarstan “’has what 15 deputies? And you want to decide which language and alphabet you will use! Well, we have 360 [deputies] who have a different opinion!’ and that’s the end of that” discussion. But of course it is not the end, Khakimov pointed out.
Moscow has seriously infringed on the rights of the Tatars, eliminating some of the things that they could count on even in Stalin’s time (like having a passport in their own language), and many of them are angry that under what are supposed to be democratic conditions, there is less respect for the rights as a community than in Soviet times.
Asked if he thought that Tatarstan should insist on its rights “even if this threatens tensions in relations with Moscow,” Khakimov said “Of course. Without a doubt.” That does not mean using force, he said, but rather demanding a referendum within Tatarstan to decide how Kazan should proceed.
Khakimov made it clear that he hopes things won’t become as tense and politicized as they were earlier and that Moscow and Kazan can find a common language. Otherwise, there is a risk, and “when more than 10 percent of the population is involved in politics, this is a revolutionary situation. A normal one exists when three percent are active.”
Seeking common ground its important and avoiding any use of force is critical, he said, but to everything in this sphere “there is a limit” on just how far Tatars will be prepared to retreat if the Russian government does not meet it at least half way and recognize that in a democracy, minority rights are just as important as majority rule.

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