Tatarastan losing both autonomy and alphabet

Tatarastan, the only Muslim republic still in the Russian Federation, is losing the autonomy that it gained in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and had consolidated since then. It has also been forced to put on hold the legislation it passed in early 2001, in defiance of Russian objections, to distance itself culturally from Moscow by dropping the Cyrillic alphabet imposed by Joseph Stalin in 1939. Tatarastan, which is a small country of 3.7 million inhabitants (mostly Slavs until last year) only an hour’s flight from Moscow, was in no position to declare its independence, as Chechnya has done. But it was determined to work for, and succeeded in securing, a reasonable degree of autonomy, mainly thanks to the skill of Mintimer Shamiev, its president since June 1991 and also an old Soviet hand, in lobbying the Duma, the Russian parliament’s lower house.

In 1992 a Tatar constitution was adopted that provided for Tatarastan to be “a republic associated with Russia” and “subject to international law”. This enabled it to send emissaries abroad, apply for international loans and trade with other countries, without having to go through Moscow. For instance, it began to export oil and arms. The republic also declared Tatar to be the country’s official language, although this did not worry the Russians unduly at the time because they constituted the majority of the population and Russian remained (and continues to be) the lingua franca of the republic’s various cultural and linguistic groups (only about half of the Tatars speak their own mother tongue). However, things began to change last year, when Russians became a minority as a result of the return of migrant workers from Central Asia. President Putin of Russia redoubled his efforts to consolidate Moscow’s grip, particularly after the legislation dropping the Cyrillic alphabet the same year.

But even then president Shamiev’s relentless efforts to lobby the Duma continued to pay off, even as recently as February last year. In that month he persuaded the Duma to pass a bill that authorised a third term for the governors of the Russian Federation’s 89 territorial entities – a move that somewhat dented Putin’s so-called “verticality of power” programme for securing Moscow’s grip. That was, however, due to the fact that the Russian leader’s control over the Duma was not as effective then as it is now, and Shamiev’s ability to influence Russian legislators is now history. The result, unfortunately, is that Tatarastan’s autonomy has vanished and Moscow’s control of its affairs is assured.

The slide began when Tatar officials opened negotiations with Putin last November, and the Russian constitutional court threatened to dissolve the Tatar parliament. At the end of January, the court gave the republic six months “to bring its constitution into line with that of Russia”. The order of the court was implemented in February and the republic’s institutions fell under Moscow’s control as a result. For instance, the local secret service, previously controlled by president Shamiev, and the republic’s judicial system, were both put back under Moscow’s authority. Moreover the Tatar Communist party lost its independence, becoming once again a regional branch of the Russian party, which is itself reeling from the losses it has recently suffered in the Duma at the hands of the Kremlin-controlled ruling coalition. In the financial sector Tatarastan has suffered similar setbacks. This year, for example, it is expected to pay 64 percent of the taxes it collects to Moscow. This is much more than the 36 percent of its tax revenues that it had formerly been required to contribute to Moscow’s coffers.

To add insult to injury, a ‘federal inspector’ and his deputy have arrived in Kazan, the Tatar capital, to monitor the implementation of the new changes and to report to a ‘super prefect’ appointed by Putin. He is an official of the Volga region, which is itself a new administrative entity that now has authority over the republic. Many Tatars now feel that this disposal of their country’s “special status” is bound to end for the time being their dream of reviving their Muslim and Turkophone culture. They also believe that Putin’s unchallenged popularity among Russians will encourage him to reduce Tatarastan’s autonomy to nothing. That Tatars now comprise 52 percent of the population matters little, because the levers of power are in the hands of officials in Moscow.

Putin now commands a popular approval rating of between 70 and 75 percent, partly because of the war he continues to wage against the Muslim people of Chechnya. And although the Tatars have not declared a war of independence, and are content (for the time being) to remain within the Russian federation, Putin’s high-profile attack on their cultural ambitions and their country’s autonomy is likely to appeal to Russians, earning him even greater popularity. With Duma elections due late next year and a presidential election early in 2004, Putin and other Russian politicians are bound to fight on strictly nationalist platforms. Even political parties opposed to Putin and his ruling coalition, like the Communist Party in Moscow, will not dare to be seen or heard in public to be sympathetic to Tatarastan’s cultural or autonomy aspirations.

Nor is the outside world interested in what is happening to the Tatars in their own country. The western countries, which have a strategic alliance with Russia against ‘Islamic terrorists’, have no interest in backing Tatarastan’s Islamic revival. After all, they are silent about Moscow’s war against Chechen Muslims and China’s against Muslims in East Turkestan. They label both Chechen and Chinese Muslims ‘terrorists’ and ‘separatists’ and leave the matter at that.

More significantly, the Muslim world is oblivious to what is happening in Tatarastan. If the Muslims can abandon the Palestinians, what chance have the Tatars of securing their support?