Staunton, November 10 – Arguing that if the dispute over the study of Tatar “is not a crisis,” Moscow commentator Oleg Kashin asks rhetorically “then what is a crisis?” and suggests that the language dispute has transformed Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, into Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia.
By virtue of its size and importance, he says, “Kazan has the right to call itself the Russian Barcelona. Perhaps in the context of events in Catalonia, such a comparison makes a somewhat ominous impression” but under the circumstances, that is just as well given what is at stake (republic.ru/posts/87580).
Earlier this year, Moscow offended Kazan by not extending the power-sharing agreement Tatarstan had had with the center since the 1990s, an agreement more symbolic than real but important all the same for that. But the Kremlin clearly feels it can do what it wants and can ignore the Tatars and this history.,
But even before that conflict could cool down, “Moscow and Kazan got into an argument again,” Kashin says, but this time not about a symbolic agreement but about language which is “vitally important for nation building, statehood, and means power as such.” History should have taught Moscow that touching this issue was dangerous.
At the end of Soviet times, Moscow tried to strip Georgia’s constitutional provisions about language but in the face of protests had to back down. And more recently, the language issue in Moldova stood behind and exacerbated the controversy between Chisinau and Transdniestria.
However, “in the 27th year of its post-Soviet existence, the federal center suddenly focused on the problem of requiring Russian pupils in the republics to study the local language and chose Tatarstan in which to restore order, precisely the most complicated and potentially conflictual republic with the greatest traditions of soft … and yet very insistent separatism.”
If these two events, the refusal of Moscow to extend the power-sharing agreement and the challenge to non-Russian languages, had not occurred so close to each other, one might have considered these accidental “excesses which would not “violate the general course of Russian and Tatarstan history.”
But Kashin continues, “when these happened one right after the other without a break, both conflicts look like two parts of some greater process indicating a sharp change in the policy of the Kremlin toward the republics within the Russian Federation.” Clearly, if Moscow gets its way in Tatarstan, the other republics face the same or worse.
The Moscow commentator says that two “mutually exclusive remarks” need to be made. First, the administrative territorial system of Russia inherited from Soviet times is “unjust in regard to the Russian majority of citizens of the country who unlike Tatars, Sakha, Maris and others do not have any institutions of a nation state.”
“’I am a Tatar is the foundation not only of ethnic but of a regional identification of Tatars who in fact have their own state albeit within Russia … ‘I am a Russian’” has none of those meanings because the oblasts and krays are not charged with supporting the culture and identities of the Russian majorities.
The creation of a genuinely equal federal system would be difficult, Kashin says; but it is perhaps the case that Putin with his “practically absolute power” is the only one who could do it. But conflicts like the one he has launched are likely to set that process back or possibly block it altogether.
And second, Kashin points out, “neither Tatarstan nor even the less significant republics have lived through the 26 years of the post-Soviet era to no purpose.” They have been cultivating their mythologies and ambitions. “Depriving peoples even of certain signs of statehood is an obvious provocation, the result of which will be national radicalism up to separatism.”
“It is possible that no peaceful means of liquidating ethnic autonomies or limiting their rights exist and that a Kazan Gubernia – or even a Petrozavodsk one where there is a Russian majority and where the ‘titular’ nation doesn’t seriously aspire to power – is impossible” and the only way forward is not to tamper with existing arrangements.
But the current case suggests Moscow hasn’t thought this through and isn’t as interested in defending the rights of Russians as it is pleased to suggest, Kashin argues. Clearly what is at work are the ambitions of Sergey Kiriyenko, the presidential aide who used to be plenipotentiary in the Middle Volga, and the desire of Rosneft to take over Tatneft.
To the extent that is the case, the Moscow commentator concludes, “the final responsibility for both the conflict itself and its results always lies on the center simply because it has much greater chances, resources and experience. Thus, the position of Kazan looks logical and even a compromise, while the behavior of Moscow appears strange and irresponsible.”