Washington, 28 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia can become a genuinely federal state only if Moscow and the regions agree to divide responsibilities, to respect the rights of both sides, and to learn from each other.
Otherwise, the country is likely to remain trapped in a zero-sum game, one in which gains by one side threaten the status of the other and in which efforts by Moscow to recentralize or by the regions to achieve independence could point to disaster.
That was the disturbing message Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev delivered on Saturday in a widely reported interview in Moscow.
As he has done for more than a decade, the Tatarstan leader struck a middle course between those who favor recentralizing power in Moscow and those who want the regions and republics to gain ever more authority.
On the one hand, Shaimiev urged the creation of "a single legal space in Russia," one of the key elements of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin's efforts at recentralizing authority in Moscow.
Indeed, the Tatarstan leader added, he fully approves Putin's plans to use federal power to implement political and economic reforms in the country's far-flung regions. Achieving those goals will be impossible, he said, if central authority remains "weak."
But on the other hand, he sharply criticized those in Moscow who "want to rule the regions from the center, like in old times, when we were dictated to about absurd things like the percentage of fat in milk and butter we sold."
Many people making that argument, Shaimiev continued, now "call themselves democrats but in financial and economic matters, they represent the central planning system at its worst."
And he stressed that his Republic of Tatarstan is now ready, willing and able to "increase our autonomy" just as it was when it declared its sovereignty and independence from Russia a decade ago.
At one level, Shaimiev's argument over the weekend represents only the latest example of his efforts to steer a middle course, to avoid offending both the powers that be in Moscow and his own more nationalist population.
But more importantly, Shaimiev suggested a way out of the last decade's struggle between Moscow officials which have seen their power decline and regional leaders which have sought to grab as much power as they can over as many issues as possible.
In extremely pointed language, the Tatarstan president argued that both the central government and the regional authorities must be strengthened, something possible only if they agree on who is responsible for what rather than fighting over everything.
His words justifying an increase in power for Tatarstan are striking in this regard: "Now I think we can increase our autonomy," Shaimiev said, "so that the federal center can deal with strategic problems only, which is what it is supposed to do."
If Moscow and the regions can agree to divide responsibilities rather than fight over power, Shaimiev argued, both sides can win and the country can benefit.
Moscow will be spared involvement in many local matters that local officials can more effectively address. And the central government can also benefit from regional experiments, such as Tatarstan's law allowing for the private ownership of land.
Indeed, Shaimiev said, he and his fellow Tatars had expected that Moscow would do that much earlier, even taking into account Tatarstan's constitution when the center drafted its own. "Unfortunately," he added, "this did not happen."
And the regions will gain as well from this arrangement, Shaimiev insisted. A single legal space will in fact improve the economic conditions of all, not by taking money from the wealthier regions -- his own included -- but by enlarging the marketplace.
Shaimiev's proposal thus represents a plan to overcome one of the most unfortunate features of both the totalitarian past and the efforts of the past decade to escape from it.
Under Soviet totalitarianism, no higher organization ever recognized the unique powers and responsibilities of lower organizations. Instead, each institution in the hierarchy had the power to overrule those below it.
That frequently meant that decisions were simply bucked up the line, often to the Politburo of the Communist Party Central Committee -- even when they concerned very specific local matters.
Then, when Soviet power collapsed, officials at all levels tried to assume the role of the topmost body in the new pyramids rather than dividing responsibilities between themselves and the regions.
Shaimiev has simultaneously identified the problem and pointed toward a solution. But the political experiences of both the recent and more distant past make it uncertain that Russians either in Moscow or in the regions will be able to follow his lead.