Tatarstan’s Autonomy Movement, Levada Center on Tolerance, and Protests outside Myanmar’s Embassy

Tatarstan’s Autonomy Movement Ends not with a Bang but a Whimper:

Tatarstan’s post-Soviet relations with the federal centre in Moscow entered a new era on 11 August as the power-sharing treaty between Kazan and Moscow expired, with neither a new treaty- nor even prolongation of the existing one- proposed by the Kremlin.

The treaty is stipulated in Tatarstan’s constitution as one of three documents- together with the constitution of the Russian Federation and Tatarstan’s own constitution- underpinning its union with the Russian Federation (unlike Russia’s other republics which all state that they are part of the Russian Federation). Legally, the argument goes, no treaty = no union.

RBK focused on these unresolved aspects- no regulatory commission has been set up and it seems that the federal authorities expect Tatarstan to solve these issues itself. This process could stagger: Farid Mukhamedshin, the Chairman of Tatarstan’s State Council, told RBK that the constitution can only be amended by referendum, for instance. Moscow’s hands-off approach seems to be strategic, avoiding any drastic changes yet allowing for federal intervention later on.

Moscovskiy Komsomolets argued that treaties with the regions were a stop-gap solution to the political challenges of 1990s Russia, and whilst there was no need to replace this treaty, face-saving efforts would be particularly advisable considering Tatars’ “Eastern” culture. A good question was raised as to whether anything substantive had even changed following the treaty’s expiration: the almost total lack of protest from both officials and the public was surprising from a region which had come close to full independence from Russia in the 1990s. One demonstration was held demanding a new treaty on 30 August- Tatarstan’s Sovereignty Day- attended by few more than a dozen activists from the All-Tatar Public Center, a nationalist organisation.

Kommersant ran with the headline “Kazan constitutes the end of treaty-based relations between the federal centre and the regions” and speculated that the lack of a new treaty may have been the workings of the recently-appointed First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration of Russia, Sergei Kirienko. Kirienko was rumoured to have had disputes with Mintimer Shaimiev, the first President of Tatarstan.

This point was raised in a RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty podcast featuring Mark Galeotti and Rim Gilfanov. Much of the discussion concerned Tatarstan’s elites, who personally benefited from the region’s autonomy so much that most of them are now “trapped” with sizeable assets within the region, effectively precluding any dissent towards Moscow. For Galeotti, this is part of a wider dynamic which is 1) seeing the power vertical transform from a broad-based pyramid of competing structures to something more “military-like”; 2) consolidating these structures into a handful of “super-structures”; and 3) part of Russification.

Ramifications:

What about the current elites? For one, Tatarstan’s current president, Rustam Minnekhanov, remains the only regional leader with the title of “president”. As of 1 January 2016 this became illegal, though huge turnout for Tatarstan’s presidential elections in that year were seen largely as a referendum on the title itself. Minnekhanov was able to retain the title until the end of his tenure in 2020- a rather paltry concession to a leader who failed to prolong the treaty.

Nevertheless, the decision not to prolong the treaty pointed was seen by the discussants as being pre-emptive- Tatarstan still has ““symbolic…but prepared structures” beyond the institution of president. Whether there is any real risk of Russia collapsing remains a moot point, but there are still areas in which a challenge to Tatarstan’s autonomy could draw public ire, such as language policy.

Putin criticised regional language policy earlier this summer in Mari-El, which concerned compulsory teaching of languages other than Russian in the regions. This has already set the wheels in motion in Tatarstan, where on 30 August the Federal Service for Supervision of Education (Rosobnadzor) announced it would be investigating compulsory Tatar lessons in schools. According to one expert, Abbas Gallyamov, this could result in the disappearance of compulsory Tatar lessons in the republic.

So what’s left at stake? Certainly the lack of any treaty hasn’t greatly impacted the region as of yet, but processes are under way which could greatly diminish the region’s autonomy in the near future, Tatar lessons being just one example. The recent crisis with Russia bailing out Otkritie Bank made headlines, but Tatarstan also had its own  bank crisis earlier in the year, leaving just one regional bank with close links to the regional elite- Ak Bars Bank- in operation.

Unsanctioned Protest of Moscow’s Muslims outside Myanmar Embassy:

On 3 September hundreds of Muslims protested outside Myanmar’s embassy against its treatment of its Muslim Royingya minority. Though police found no violations and made no arrests, it’s worth commenting that the demonstration was planned the previous day on social media, and not approved in advance by the city authorities. Its spontaneity, plus the fact that events in far-away Myanmar were able to mobilise a relatively large number (despite the risks associated with unsanctioned protests) point to some of the inherent limits to controlling public mobilisation.

Have Russians Become more Tolerant? 

According to a recent Levada Center poll, xenophobic attitudes in Russia seem to be waning compared with previous years, at least when it comes to people of different ethnic and confessional backgrounds. Significantly, for the first time fewer than 60% of respondents expressed support for policies which would restrict the ability for certain ethnic groups to live in Russia. Kommersant interviewed Alexander Verkhovskiy of the SOVA Center who pointed to the possible positive role of television in this.

There are, however, numerous caveats to these findings. Alexander Brod, a member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, noted the role of “aggressive anti-Western propaganda” in creating a “siege mentality” which may have directed hostile feelings elsewhere. In August at least 19 people were physically assaulted in xenophobic attacks, the majority from an LGBT-rally earlier that month in St.Petersburg.

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