The dangers of giving Tatarstan additional powers

From now on, certain regions of the Russian Federation will be legally entitled to secede. On February 9, the Duma voted to ratify the treaty dividing authority and powers between federal government bodies and the government of Tatarstan. Does this mean that Russia faces the threat of disintegration?

From now on, certain regions of the Russian Federation will be legally entitled to secede. On February 9, the Duma voted to ratify the treaty dividing authority and powers between federal government bodies and the government of Tatarstan. Does this mean that Russia faces the threat of disintegrating like the Soviet Union? Who would have an interest in this, and why?

Three hundred and six Duma members voted in favor of ratifying the treaty on dividing powers between the Russian Federation and Tatarstan, with 101 members voting against. The debate lasted around 90 minutes. That’s not very long, given the importance of this issue. Perhaps the lawmakers were following somebody’s unwise orders, not thinking of the consequences; or maybe they simply failed to realize the potential consequences of their decision. The fact remains that President Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan has now been given the same rights that were exercised by Leonid Kuchma and Stanislav Shushkevich in 1991 – the ability to withdraw politely from Moscow’s protectorate, taking an entire republic with them.

Russia does have something to lose

Bashkortostan is watching Tatarstan with an unhealthy interest. Bashkortostan is also prepared to divide powers and authority between itself and Moscow in such a way that if it faces any pressure at all, it could break out into independence, along with all its economic infrastructure. Both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan have an enviable amount of economic infrastructure, enabling them to cover their expenses without resorting to federal subsidies. Both republics also have quite a few hot-heads, especially among their university professors, who are inciting the ethnic intelligentsia to move toward a break with Moscow. Their voices were heard in the 1990s, and are still being heard today.

And Russia does have something to lose – even if we don’t count oil reserves and other natural resources. The two republics striving to secede from Russia aren’t entirely populated by the native ethnic groups, Tatars and Bashkirs; around 40% of the people who live there are ethnic Russians. They are unlikely to welcome the prospect of a break with Russia. And what then? Civil war?

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has expressed support for Tatarstan’s wish for greater independence, right up to separation. But Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov is prepared to fight to the death to keep Tatarstan. Mironov, leader of the Just Russia party, told us that he would “lay down his life” to prevent the ratification of this treaty. “Endorsing this division of powers treaty isn’t merely dangerous – it would be fatal for the Russian Federation,” said Mironov, not concealing his emotion. “Federalism is and will remain our chief principle, and it will apply to all regions of the Russian Federation. There will be no exceptions. All we need now is to lose our country!”

Other regions could follow Tatarstan’s example

This move to give certain regions additional powers seems particularly odd against the backdrop of another bill recently passed by the Duma; this empowers President Putin to dismiss regional leaders if they are charged with any crime, regardless of how serious the crime may be. This bill has only been passed in the first reading so far, but it’s a start.

In principle, President Putin doesn’t need any additional powers to dismiss regional leaders. Six months ago, for example, Putin exercised this right by dismissing Alexei Barinov, head of the Nenets autonomous district, on the grounds of “a loss of confidence.” Barinov had been arrested on suspicion of fraud and misappropriation committed when he headed the ArkhangelskGeolDobycha company. The Nenets autonomous district is now headed by someone else. However, in light of Tatarstan’s new ambitions, the Duma is offering Shaimiyev expanded powers with one hand while seeking to restrain him with the other. Just in case.

But let’s get back to Mironov, who has permitted himself to exercise what is a rare privilege these days: disagreeing with the opinion of the parliamentary majority. Mironov is aware that he’ll have a hard time convincing the rest of the Federation Council: “The senators hold various opinions on granting Kazan special powers. There’s one naive opinion: relations between the Russian Federation and Tatarstan are an exception to the rules, and one exception can be permitted. But isn’t it obvious that other republics will seek to follow this example? And why not, if a precedent is set? I’m not opposed to debate – far from it – but personally, I’ll be voting against this bill. This is a matter of principle.”

Mironov’s stance is drawing some support from both the left and the right.

Duma member Viktor Alksnis, for example, invited his colleagues to look at archives from 1988-91 and see that the situation was very similar in the lead-up to the Soviet Union’s disintegration: “Everyone thought it would all blow over, but our country fell apart. I feel like I’ve traveled 15 years back in time.”

Independent Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose political views are diametrically opposed to those of Alksnis, says that giving additional powers to Shaimiyev will not cause Russia to fall apart – but he adds the cautious comment that special terms and special status for Tatarstan might stir up the political elites in other ethnic republics. And Ryzhkov says he won’t venture to predict where that may lead.

Is Rakhimov working on a similar treaty for Bashkortostan?

The arguments used by proponents of giving Shaimiyev extra powers seem unconvincing, to put it mildly.

Duma member Alexei Mitrofanov (LDPR faction) maintains that although the treaty with Tatarstan seems “somewhat strange,” it “might be only a token of respect for Shaimiyev as an individual – after all, a great deal depends on individuals in Russia.” President Shaimiyev is a respected person, 70 years old, who has governed Tatarstan successfully for a long time. So why not do something nice for him? “That’s the only explanation I can see for giving him extra powers,” says Mitrofanov.

Viktor Grishin, chairman of the Duma’s Federation affairs and regional policy committee, presents an even less convincing argument. Grishin says that although the treaty with Tatarstan is “a rather peculiar project,” it should be passed, “if only as an experiment, so that we can subsequently make some corrections to legislation covering the distribution of powers between regional and federal levels of government.” Well, that’s some experiment!

Grishin offers the following argument: a hierarchy of governance has been established in Russia, and legislation concerning the distribution of powers has been passed. Now we need to test this legislation, in order to take regional specifics into account more effectively. And we have decided to test the legislation in Tatarstan (without considering the consequences, apparently).

Even the unanimous ranks of United Russia are showing some dissent. Duma member Viktor Nefedov says: “I’m apprehensive about all this. Why single out certain regions, treating them as better than others? All this will certainly cause tension. I’ve already heard reports that President Murtaza Rakhimov is working on a similar treaty for Bashkortostan. The process has begun. Attempts are being made to destabilize Russia, and I’m fairly concerned about this.”

Communist Party leader Gennadi Zyuganov: “We’re repeating the mistake made by President Yeltsin when he handed out sovereignty to the regions. We could end up paying a very high price for this, when Russia starts splitting along a line running from Grozny to Kazan.”

Many politicians agree that the very existence of this treaty is unconstitutional. We might argue about the good and bad points of the Constitution in its present form, but we have no other way of maintaining our country’s territorial integrity. If other ethnic republics follow Tatarstan’s example and start signing special treaties with the federal government, this won’t lead to anything but division, suspicion, and mutual distrust.

The treaty, as its explanatory note indicates, entails a division of powers “other than the divisions specified by federal legislation.” It will affect a broad range of areas: the use of oil-fields, environmental protection, national language status, the internal passport system, and Tatarstan’s international and foreign trade relations. Thus, we are returning to the treaty system of federative relations which arose after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This system proved unworkable, threatening Russia’s integrity and the principle proclaimed in the Constitution: that all regions of the Russian Federation have equal rights.