Staunton, Oct. 28 – The Russian justice ministry closed down the All-Tatar Social Center (VTOTs) after Tatarstan’s prosecutor declared that the group was guilty of extremism thereby ending the history of one of the most prominent national movements in the Russian Federation and likely opening the way for increasing radicalization among the Tatars.
Moscow took this step nominally on the basis of decisions made earlier in Tatarstan but in fact the Kremlin under Vladimir Putin had been engaged in a campaign against VTOTs for several years (nazaccent.ru/content/37019-minyust-priostanovil-deyatelnost-vsetatarskogo-obshestvennogo-centra-iz-za-ekstremizma.html
Moscow and its representatives in Tatarstan are especially angry that VTOTs has criticized the Kremlin for its downgrading of the Tatar language in the republic’s schools and its fight to continue to call the head of the republic a president, a title that under Russian law only the head of the Russian Federation – i.e., Putin – is entitled to do.
But as Regina Khisamova of the IdelReal portal points out, it was not always like this. At the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, the authorities in both Moscow and Kazan encouraged those who formed what was initially called “The Popular Movement in Support of Perestroika – the Tatar Social Center.”
VTOTs “was born on the initiative of several dozen intellectuals from Kazan University,” Khisamova recalls. “Many of them came from within the communist party of the republic.” VTOTs was the first but it was gradually joined by others outside of Tatarstan or inside and with more radical positions.
The Ittifaq Movement, which was headed by Fauziya Bayramova, viewed VTOTs as “too centrist and moderate” because it saw its role not in opposing Moscow and Kazan at every step in the name of moving toward an independent Tatarstan but rather in working with both to advance narrower but nonetheless important items on the national agenda.
Republic leaders were more than pleased at least initially to work with VTOTs for two reasons. On the one hand, its moderation helped them build bridges into the national community and generate support. And on the other hand, it was just radical enough to frighten Moscow and thus could be used by Kazan leaders to scare the center into concessions.
Throughout the 1990s, VTOTs played that role; but with the coming of Vladimir Putin to power, its position changed: it had to go on the defensive against a central government committed to homogenizing Russia and weakening non-Russian federal rights. As it shifted from offense to defense, it became more radical and attracted less support from Kazan officials.
Beginning a decade ago, Moscow lodged criminal charges against many of its leaders; and in 2017, it succeeded in having a Naberezhny Chelny court ban the regional branch of VTOTs. What is happening now appears to be the last chapter of this important national movement among the Tatars.
But in fact, it is not the last chapter. What Moscow is doing is counter-productive as far as its own interests are concerned. Because VTOTs focused on cultural and linguistic issues and sought to work with officials in both capitals, it was a bastion of moderation within Tatar nationalism.
By suppressing it, Moscow is only going to make Tatar nationalists even more radical than it has already done by arresting their leaders.