Staunton, November 9 – Moscow’s decision to ban the use of the term president for the leaders of the non-Russian republics and its insistence that Tatarstan drop references to the sovereignty of that republic have not only created an identity crisis in that republic but led some of its leaders to suggest that Tatarstan should position itself as a Muslim republic.
And while even that step, Kazan political scientist Sergey Sergeyev says, almost certainly has been coordinated with some Russian leaders, it constitutes a serious threat because radical Islam in Russia typically grows in the shadow of “official Islam” and, “as is well known, it is impossible to escape from [such] a shadow” (www.regnum.ru/news/1344066.html).
Just before the November holidays, the Duma passed a law banning the use of the term president for republic leaders, and Moscow dispatched Valery Zorkin, the chairman of the Russian Federation Constitutional Court to Kazan apparently to press for further changes in Tatarstan’s constitution.
In contrast to his earlier remarks and the expectations of many, Farid Mukhametshin, the chairman of Tatarstan’s State Council, indicated that Kazan is now prepared to go along with Moscow, but at the same time, former republic president, Mintimir Shaimiyev, who now serves as advisor to the current republic head, talked about a bigger role for Islam in Tatar life.
These two themes came together in a comment by Gusman Iskhakov, the head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan. He suggested that the elimination of the institution of the presidency of Tatarstan was leading to “a crisis of Tatar identity” and noted that “now our culture and religion are flourishing” (www.islam.ru/rus/2010-11-03/#34572).
To sort this out, the Regnum.ru news agency turned to Sergeyev, who has often served as a commentator on Tatarstan affairs for that and other Moscow outlets in the past. The political scientist said that he was surprised Mukhametshin had surrendered so quickly, but he said Shaimiyev’s comments were utterly consistent with his past statements.
Only a few weeks ago, the head of the Tatarstan State Council had declared that “to do away with the presidency” was the personal right of the leaders of those republics who wanted to take that step but that this does not affect Tatarstan, which he said would find it “hard” to change its constitution.
What appears to have taken place, Sergeyev continued, is the kind of exchange that Moscow and Kazan have often engaged in: Moscow has agreed to allow the head of Tatarstan to retain his powers if the latter agrees to adopt the center’s requirement that he not label himself as president.
Moscow has reason to be grateful to Tatarstan for the smooth transition from Shaimiyev to Rustam Minnikhanov and for delivering the required percentage of votes for United Russia – although, Sergeyev continued, the 70 percent Kazan came up with doesn’t seem so impressive now that some North Caucasians are promising to deliver 120 percent in the future!
More significant, the Kazan political scientist said, are the words of Shaimiyev about Islam as “one of the vectors of Tatarstan politics” and Tatarstan as the center of the moderate Russian Islam which the center has suggested it is quite prepared to support, especially in contrast to the radical Islamism found elsewhere.
Sergeyev said that he was “practically certain” that Moscow had agreed in advance with Shaimiyev’s declaration, given that Kazan is now oriented “not to Saudi Arabia but to Singapore” and given that a Tatar Muslim will find it easier to talk with Muslim leaders than does “the Russian [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov.”
That does not mean, however, that what Shaimiyev is talking about is without real dangers, Sergeyev said. On the one hand, this interest in religious identity “can be a sublimation of the activity of Tatar leaders because their possibilities in the political sphere are being limited.”
And on the other, there is a danger that this will open the way for “radical Islam which develops in Russia as a shadow of ‘official Islam’ and with which ‘official Islam’ struggles as with a competitor. But, as is well known,” Sergeyev continues, “it is impossible to escape from [one’s] shadow.”
Many others are now discussing the impact of doing away with republic presidencies, and on Ryazan blogger, Vladimir Frolov, has pointed out an interesting aspect of the new Russian legislation: it bans the use of the word president but it doesn’t restrict how the republic leaders might style themselves otherwise (frolovchik.livejournal.com/84339.html).
As a result, he said, the Russian Federation may soon see an explosion in the number of titles regional leaders use. “In Ryzan, Smolensk, Tver and Vladimir oblasts,” he suggests, the leaders may call themselves “grand dukes.” In Rostov, Krasnodar, Orenburg, Chita, and Amur oblasts and Primorsky kray, perhaps “atamans.”
Meanwhile, the leaders of Tatarstan and Kalmykia might call themselves “khans,” and the heads of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Daghestan could identify as “emirs,” and the leader of Yakutia-Sakha as “a toyon.” Few of these are likely but the possibilities are as Frolov suggests almost endless as the latest unintended consequence of Russian legislation.