Tatarstan: Frustration is real but not uniform
In its current form, Russian federalism is defective
. The existing inequality across the federal subjects, as well as regional elites’ current lack of autonomy to independently resolve local issues, visibly fuels
social frustration in the regions. In the case of Tatarstan, this frustration has been building up, particularly over the last 10-15 years, as many Tatars have become increasingly embittered by the repeated attacks on minority rights and dissatisfied with the inability of Tatarstan’s political elites to offer resistance.
These political elites – in their vast majority ethnic Tatars – were brought to power by the national movement in the early 1990s. After the successful 1994 agreement on power delimitation with Moscow, they opted for good relations with the federal center; even if that meant a gradual but steady relinquishing of previous gains. When he was building the “power vertical” in the 2000s, Putin began curtailing rights granted to regions under Yeltsin, yet official Tatarstan hardly lodged a protest.
Over the years, neither Mintimer Shaimiev, Tatarstan’s first president, who continues to be involved in regional politics but mainly behind the scenes, nor his henchman
Rustam Minnikhanov, the incumbent head of the republic, showed resistance to Moscow as Tatarstan’s special privileges were chipped away. In 2017
, Moscow didn’t prolong the power-sharing agreement, effectively revoking Tatarstan’s right of self-governance; a 2021
decree prohibited Tatarstan from using the term “president” for its executive leader – though a symbolic move, it left no doubt that Putin isn’t interested in sharing control with regional heads.
Tatarstan has not only let go of symbols that marked its special status among the federal subjects. It also seems to be losing the struggle for the Tatar language. Officially, both Tatar and Russian are state languages in the republic; in practice, however, the use of Tatar has continuously declined. There are internal reasons for poor language acquisition. Language revival programs sponsored by Tatarstan’s government after 1991 have failed
to achieve real bilingualism in the republic: Russian continues
to be the language of upward mobility, whereas Tatar is limited to the cultural sphere and informal communication. Still, Moscow decided to speed up the language decline and recently delivered painful blows.
First, under pressure from the center, in 2016 the major university in the republic closed
its Department of Tatar Language and Literature, which had curated a program to train Tatar language teachers; a year later, Tatar ceased
to be a mandatory class at schools in the republic altogether. Local protests
against the decisions didn’t bring any change.
It is the case that the invasion of Ukraine has further antagonized those Tatars who were already critical of Moscow’s policy toward the ethnic minority. For them, the fact that the Parliament of Tatarstan unanimously approved
the Russian army’s operations in Ukraine wasn’t unexpected; however, the support for the war expressed by the World Congress of Tatars – an organization that claims to represent all Tatars, including diasporas worldwide – caused some discontent
. (At this year’s congress, prominent foreign participants
were absent, while the endorsement of Moscow’s foreign policy by the Congress leadership was supposedly articulated
without prior consultations with Congress members.)
However, the Tatars who regard this war as another manifestation of Russia’s imperial project constitute only a share of the ethnic minority. Others feel the need
to root for Tatars (and Russians) fighting in Ukraine. Some openly support
the “special operation” – out of conviction or under pressure; some, driven by economic
special battalions of Tatarstan residents to fight in Ukraine. There is no reliable data on the views among Tatars toward the war, but anecdotal evidence suggests that antiwar sentiment in the republic is less deep than observers suggest