Thursday, May 19, 2016

How Tatars Took Power in Two Chuvash Villages – By Majority Vote

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 19 – In Soviet times, the Communist Party determined who would be in which position, a fact of life that in many cases meant that a member of a titular nationality of a particular region could always count on having the top job, although real power was concentrated in the hands of his deputy who was typically an ethnic Russian.

            Now, with at least some progress to democracy at the local level, that has changed, and those groups with the largest numbers and greatest interest are the ones who occupy the top positions in cities and towns at least, a development that some fear could spark ethnic tensions especially where the new majority is different from the official titular one.

            That seems to be true when those losing out are ethnic Russian minorities, who see the rise of the titular or other nationalities in such positions as a threat to their status and dignity. (For an example, see But when other nations are involved, the situation is typically different.

            This situation is not often discussed in the Russian media, but Elena Zaytseva, a journalist in Chuvashia, provides some useful insights on how and why this is happening in an article called “Rural Nationality Policy: How the Tatars are taking Power in Chuvash Villages” (

            She examines the situation in two villages of the Shemurshin district of the Chuvash Republic: Trekhbaltayeva which has 1274 residents, and Bayderyakov which has 844.  Both villages are multi-national with the Tatars forming 65 percent of the total, the Chuvash 25 percent, and the Mordvins and Russians about six percent. 

            In Soviet times, Zaytseva says, the local leaders were “largely” ethnic Chuvash. “But in the last 15 to 20 years, power has ‘passed’ into the hands of the Tatars,” who occupy all the top government jobs there, a development that some outsiders have thought would spark conflict but which has not.

            To her “surprise,” the journalist says, “it turns out that the villagers are not agitated by the nationality question at all.” They explain to anyone who will listen that what has happened reflects “objective causes,” including Chuvash disinterest in taking low-paying government jobs and simple demographics.

            These are most important, Zaytseva suggests. On the one hand, “the Chuvash and Mordvin population in the villages mainly consists of elderly people” who are on pensions and have no interest in any jobs, let alone political ones.  And on the other, the Tatars are simply more numerous, the result of having larger families.

            In the local assemblies, all nationalities are represented, Tatars and Chuvash about equally, but there are ethnic Russians and Mordvins as well. In the schools, most teachers are Chuvash, and they now teach the Chuvash and Tatars in the same classes, something that helps overcome ethnic suspicious rather than promote it as separate classes did earlier.

            According to Zaytseva, the population of these villages is overwhelmingly multi-lingual and shifts from one language to another depending on the language of the other person, speaking Tatar with Tatars, Chuvash with Chuvash, Russian with Russians and so on.  Other languages are less widely used.

            There may be people in these two villages who are upset with nationality issues or the ethnic composition of the people in the top jobs, Zaytseva says, but she hasn’t met any of them. Instead, what she sees is a population whose various ethnic components have been living together for a long time and who will do so in the new situation as well.

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