Staunton, August 30 – Twenty-six years ago today, Tatarstan became the second republic in the RSFSR – Karelia was the first – to declare itself a sovereign state, thus triggering what many call “the parade of sovereignties” among almost all non-Russian republics within the RSFSR, a development that many believe pointed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
But this is a misreading of history in at least two ways. On the one hand, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev encouraged this “parade” in the hopes of undermining the RSFSR’s Boris Yeltsin and Yeltsin responded not by opposing such declarations but by welcoming them and thus increasing his own authority.
And on the other, as many now forget, these declarations did not call for complete independence and exit from the Soviet Union but rather for enhanced authority within the Soviet system and the elevation of the various autonomies to a status equal to that of union republics like Kazakhstan or Ukraine.
What might have happened had the Soviet leadership agreed to these demands? Today, a Tatar commentator, A. Shamilich, offers an intriguing suggestion. He argues that had the Kremlin done so, that might have led to the transformation of the USSR in a way that could have saved it, at least for a time (idelreal.org/a/27952559.html).
These days, he points out, officials in Tatarstan prefer to speak about the declaration in hushed terms because many in Russia see it as “an act of separatism.” In fact, there was nothing in the document suggesting the pursuit of separatism: the Tatars simply called for their republic to have the status of a union republic, that is, an SSR.
“In reality,” he continues, most Tatars at the same recognized that the disintegration of the USSR would be “extremely unprofitable” for Tatarstan and they hoped via the declaration to “form the conditions for the establishment in the country of an effective model of the equality of peoples.”
They and others, including the Bashkirs, the Buryats and the Sakha, had tried this route once before. In the early 1920s, they sought the status of union republics without success. (The only “autonomous republic” that did achieve that status was Abkhazia which from 1921 to 1931 was a union republic administered by another union republic, Georgia.)
The 1990 declaration was simply “a logical extension of these processes and attitudes,” the Tatar commentator says. And even today, when two-thirds of the population of Tatarstan supports sovereignty for their republic, almost all see that as something that will be achieved “in the framework of a single union state.”
Those who blame “the parade of sovereignty” within the RSFSR for the collapse of the USSR forget, he says, that even before the coup, six of the 12 union republics and all three of the then occupied Baltic countries had declared sovereignty, with the former actively seeking a new Union treaty and only the latter fully committed to the restoration of independence.
Moreover, he continues, while “skeptics” note that the Tatarstan declaration, unlike the others, didn’t mention the legal status of the republic (the USSR) of which Tatarstan was a part, they fail to note that the preamble to the declaration specifies that Tatarstan is to be “the Tatar Soviet Socialist Republic” which underscores its commitment to a renewed federation.
Had the center accepted such formulations and allowed the autonomies to become union republics with a status like the others, Shamilich’s analysis implies, it would have been far more likely to have been able to come up with a genuinely federal system and one that would have precluded the exit of Russia and thus of the other SSRs from the USSR.
Indeed, as various analysts have pointed out, federations that involve a large number of constituent elements are more stable than those that are divided in only a few, an argument that some have used against Vladimir Putin’s penchant for regional amalgamation and his formation of the federal districts.
“The disintegration of the USSR put the autonomous republics in a completely new political and social-economic situation,” he continues. “In this conditions, the provisions of the Declarations were realized only in part, in some cases more and in some less.” Tatarstan by achieving a power sharing accord created “a unique model” that others might have used.
On would like to hope, Shamilich says, that “the current backing away from this model is only a temporary shift and that in the name ‘Russian Federation,’ the second part of the term will be filled with new content and cease to be,” as unfortunately is now the case, “an unnecessary element.”