Putin’s power play? Tatarstan activists say losing ‘president’ title would be existential blow
KAZAN, Russia – One of the first bills to be submitted to Russia’s newly elected State Duma, even before the lower house of parliament convenes for its first session on October 12, is a measure that would unify the titles of the chief executives of all regions of Russia.
Instead of presidents, governors, mayors, etc., all of Russia’s 83 regions – plus the Ukrainian region of Russian-occupied Crimea and the city of Sevastopol – will be led by a ‘regional leader’ if the measure is passed . And, although the bill was jointly submitted by Duma deputy Pavel Krasheninnikov and Andrei Klishas of the Federation Council, the upper house, it is widely believed that it was drafted within the administration of the President Vladimir Putin, meaning its adoption would be certain.
Many residents of the Tatarstan region see the bill as aimed directly at them, as Moscow strives to consolidate the so-called “power vertical” in the interval between September’s Duma elections – in during which official results gave the ruling United Russia party a constitutional majority – and the end of Putin’s fourth presidential term in 2024. Another key milestone in this process came when a massive set of constitutional amendments were passed in 2020, including a provision allowing Putin to run for two more presidential terms, potentially keeping him in the Kremlin until 2036.
“The order to change ‘president’ to ‘head’ comes from the administration of the Russian president,” Midkhat Farukshin, a political science professor at Kazan State University, told RFE’s Tatar-Bashkir service. /RL. “There is nothing Tatarstan can do about it.”
Neither the regional legislature nor Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov commented on the bill. In response to a question from RFE/RL, the press service of the regional parliament wrote that “it is not within the competence of the parliament of Tatarstan” to say whether the abolition of the title of “president” is legal or no.
With a population of around 3.8 million, the mid-Volga region of Tatarstan has long had a reputation as one of the Russian regions that embraces federalism – the distribution of power between the central government of the country and its constituent parts – most seriously. The Tatars form the second largest ethnic group in the country after the Russians. In March 1992, three months after the demise of the Soviet Union, the region passed by nearly a two-thirds vote a referendum approving Tatarstan as “a sovereign state…establishing its relations with the Russian Federation and the other republics on an equal footing.”
Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, once urged the regions to “take as much sovereignty as possible”.
Under Putin, federalism has been seriously eroded, notably with the creation of federal districts supervised by the Kremlin in 2000, changes in the formation of the Council of the Federation and modifications in the methods of selecting regional heads. In 2015, a law was passed banning regions from using the term “president” to refer to their chief executive, with the Kremlin saying Russia can only have one president. However, pressure from Tatarstan prompted Putin to grant the republic an exception to the law.
In response to the latest bill, the Tatar Nationalist World Youth Forum called on Moscow and Kazan to allow Tatarstan to retain the post of president, arguing that it symbolized “political status, the image of the republic and the Russian federalism”.
“The post of president in Tatarstan is not only the post of head of the republic, but also a symbol of leadership for the 7 million Tatars in the world, a symbol of unity of Tatars living in other Russian regions and more than 30 countries around the world”, the group on October 4 appeal bed.
This could be exactly why the Kremlin wants to see the title abolished, argued Vadim Sidorov, a Prague-based expert on regional and ethnic relations, in a test October 4.
The Putin government, writes Sidorov, fears “a synthesis of liberal institutional reforms and republican nationalism”, which he sees as the driving force behind the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine.
In what may be a reflection of such fears, political blogger Valery Kaplenkov argued in an October 7 post column that the bill before the Duma does not go far enough to “strengthen the state unity of the country”. He argued that Russia also needed a single term for all regional legislatures to eliminate words like Turkish “kurultai” – meaning “assembly”, a form of which is used in Bashkir, Tatar, Buryat and in other Russian languages - and what he called “other hard-to-pronounce people’s assemblies”.
“The authority of the federal center is restricted by national law [constitution] and by republican constitutions, according to which the titular nationalities have – look! — state sovereignty,” Kaplenkov wrote. “From the point of view of its national-territorial structure, Russia is a real patchwork: at the constitutional level, there are more than 20 quasi-states!
“We are now reaping the consequences of the 1990s,” he concluded, warning – without providing evidence – of “creeping separatist tendencies” and power-hungry “ethnocrats” in the regions.
For some defenders of Tatarstan’s sovereignty, the bill before the Duma is an existential threat.
“Without the post of ‘president’, the republic itself will cease to be a republic,” Rafis Kashapov, a Tatar activist who emigrated to London after being released from prison in 2018, told RFE/RL. there will be no need for a coat of arms, an anthem or a flag. People who support Tatarstan will have no choice but to join us, the activists in exile. But, frankly, I don’t think the most people care.”
Kazan politics professor Farukshin agrees it is probably too late for Tatarstan to resist the erosion of federalism, saying the adoption of a new Tatarstan Constitution in 2002 – which enshrined restrictions on sovereignty and power-sharing of the region – has made the current developments inevitable.
“Tatarstan will swallow this again,” he predicted. “There may be small gatherings, but activists have no opportunity to influence what happens. 2002 was much more dangerous for Tatarstan – it was time to shout. What is happening today is just a follow up. [president] the title will be lost and it will only be possible to recover it if the policy in Russia changes.”
On October 10, former Tatarstan State Duma deputy and pro-autonomy figure Fandas Safiullin died of COVID-19 in Kazan at the age of 85. On August 30, 1990, Safiullin read a declaration of sovereignty of Tatarstan from the rostrum of the Republican Supreme Soviet. From 1999 to 2003 he represented Tatarstan in the State Duma and led the ultimately unsuccessful struggle to retain the Latin alphabet for Tatar.
At his funeral in Kazan on October 11, panelists cited saying to him shortly before dying: “I am leaving, but the nation remains. What will she become? Are there young people to replace us?