Staunton, Mar. 20 – The March 21, 1992, referendum in Tatarstan about its status relative to Moscow, the 30th anniversary of which falls this week, did not as many still imagine represent an important step toward genuine federalism in Russia but rather had the effect of undermining the possibility that Russia could in fact move in that direction, Valentin Mikhaylov says.
Most Tatars and many others look back at the referendum as a highwater mark of Tatarstan’s aspirations for autonomy and for the elaboration of new federal relations not only between Moscow and Kazan but between Moscow and all the other regions of the country, the Yezhednevny zhurnal commentator says (ej.ru/?a=note&id=37074).
The March 1992 vote did give the government of Tatarstan more autonomy from Moscow in economic terms than any other republic, but it did not promote federalism but rather simply a special relationship that had the effect of prompting others to seek equally special relationships with the center rather than a genuine federal system.
That in turn allowed Moscow first to play off one region or republic against another and then, having compromised one, use that as the basis for rolling up any concessions the center had made and restoring as now the hyper-centralized Russian state, a process few link to the 1992 Tatarstan referendum but should.
There are two reasons for that, Mikhaylov says. On the one hand, the referendum was so poorly worded that most Tatars who did vote for it saw it as a vote for economic autonomy but many in the Tatarstan government saw it as a mandate to press for independence or at least autarky from Moscow.
And on the other hand, the vote by which the referendum was approved was fundamentally flaws. Rural districts completely improbably voted 90 percent plus for it while the cities voted much less, an arrangement that reflected less popular attitudes in the either than the power of holdover communist officials accustomed to delivery 99 percent approval rates.
Moscow which opposed the referendum might have pointed this out and refused to negotiate with Kazan, but instead, it accepted the results of the referendum as genuine and entered into talks that led to a separate treaty arrangement with Tatarstan, something other republics resented and did not achieve but copied as far as voting is concerned.
Because that was the case, the 1992 referendum was not a victory for federalism but rather a nail in its coffin, not only because of the ways Tatar officials falsified the results and consciously distorted what the people had in fact voted for but also because Moscow accepted this rather than challenged it at the time.
But this, more than anything else, Mikhaylov suggests, put a delayed action mine under relations both between Moscow and Kazan and between the federal center and the republics and regions, a mine that Vladimir Putin was only too happy to set up as he pursued a return to a variety of centralization that quickly exceeded that of late Soviet times.