Tatarstan, the last region to lose its special status under Putin

The special status enjoyed by the Russian republic of Tatarstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended on Monday, when its agreement with the federal government expired.

The republic was once one of 46 Russian regions that negotiated some degree of autonomy with the Kremlin after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as of July 24 this year, only Tatarstan had retained some semblance of autonomy.

In the months leading up to the deal’s expiration, the Kremlin gave little indication of its intention to renew the deal. Under President Vladimir Putin, power was returned to the capital.

What is “special status”?

In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of Russia’s regions except Tatarstan and Chechnya signed agreements with central authorities that solidified Russia’s federal structure.

Tatarstan officials demanded a separate deal that would preserve their regional sovereignty. Two years later, he finalized a deal with Moscow that gave the ethnically diverse republic its own laws, tax rules and citizenship privileges. Tatarstan kept control of its resources and budget, and could even participate in international affairs.

Later, 45 other regions signed similar agreements with the federal government under then-President Boris Yeltsin, who was willing to give the regions additional sovereignty.

This trend changed in 2000 when Vladimir Putin came to power. One by one, the regions were brought into line and their unique privileges stripped away.

“The Russian system has been dominated by an authoritarian model of federalism,” political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov told the Moscow Times. “That became particularly clear during Putin’s first term, when he was looking for easy wins.”

Political scientist Abbas Gallyamov agrees: “The reason why Putin started doing this in 2000 is clear. He was like the Queen of England. He wanted to amass power in Moscow.

In 2009, only Moscow’s agreements with Chechnya and restless Tatarstan were still intact. And by then, Putin had already renegotiated the terms of those deals, making them largely symbolic.

In 2007, the president removed most of Tatarstan’s special privileges, except that local authorities could still issue passports with a one-page insert in the Tatar language.

Then, in 2010, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, voluntarily renounced the special status of his republic, declaring that Russia could only have one president. This show of allegiance earned Kadyrov informal benefits from the Kremlin, but it also meant that Tatarstan was the last Russian region to enjoy such a special status.

And now?

Tatarstan is one of the most economically prosperous regions in Russia thanks to its well-developed oil industry. It was the 16th richest region in Russia in 2015 with around 434,509 rubles ($7,270) of GDP per capita, according to the state-funded RIA Rating.

Its capital, Kazan, is the sixth largest in Russia, religiously diverse and host city of the 2018 World Cup.

Even though Tatarstan’s deal with Moscow was largely symbolic for about a decade, the authorities have defended it passionately, using it to tout the region’s independence and exceptionalism.

The deal is proof for Tatarstan that the region has a special place in Moscow, Gallyamov told the Moscow Times. If the agreement is not extended, it will be considered “a slap in the face”, he says. “It looks like Moscow put them in their place. People there won’t like it.

This could drive a wedge between Moscow and local authorities, which have been a useful political ally. In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Tatarstan helped mediate between the local Tatar diaspora and central Russian authorities.

Ahead of the presidential elections next March and the World Cup tournament next summer, it could also fuel the potential for protest in the region.

“Now the agreement is essentially symbolic in nature, but [if if is not extended] it will indicate a loss of trust,” Vinogradov said, referring to the republic’s relations with Moscow.

At home, the end of the agreement will be a particularly hard blow for the President of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov. His position, which has been historically strong, was recently weakened by a banking crisis this winter, Gallyamov said.

While the authorities in Tatarstan will always try to obtain concessions, such as retaining the title of president for the head of the republic, Gallyamov does not expect Minnikhanov to be able to convince the Kremlin to renew the agreement.

“There will be no battle. Minnikhanov is not that strong,” he said.

Rose D. Jones