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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Is There A Quebec In Russia's Future?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A major Kazan newspaper has urged that Tatarstan's leaders work to transform that republic into a Russian version of Canada's Quebec province, a regional unit capable of bargaining with the center and "of advancing its just demands."

An article in "Zvezda Povolzhya" last week said that Tatarstan's ties with Moscow and the rest of the Russian Federation were moving toward one of open bargaining, in which Kazan is in a position to demand money or concessions for anything Moscow seeks to have it do.

"If each amendment Moscow wants in our constitution is paid for in this way," the paper continued, "that is not so bad. Indeed, it may become the basis for creating a prosperous Tatarstan capable of standing on its own, 'Quebec-like,' and thus able to defend itself within or even against the system."

Along with Chechnya, Tatarstan is the only subject of the Russian Federation whose relations are not governed by the federation treaty. Kazan did not sign that document and instead negotiated a power-sharing arrangement accord. In recent months, Russian officials have suggested that that accord may have to be reworked or even cancelled.

Quebec's relationship with the central Canadian government has certain parallels. Constitutionally, it has exactly the same status as the other provinces, but the francophone movement there has forced Ottawa to make special concessions to it, concessions that have often infuriated other provincial leaders.

According to the Kazan paper, Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiev is "much more of a democrat" than either Boris Nemtsov, the leader of Russia's Union of Rightist Forces or Anatolii Chubais, the head of the Unified Energy Systems of Russia. And his government is much more interested in defending democracy than are they.

But even that, the paper said, can be the basis for making demands on Moscow. It argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin can hardly afford to have the Communists gain in strength in more regions, just as they are now doing in Nizhnii Novgorod, the former stronghold of the Union of Rightist Forces.

Consequently, the paper concluded, Tatarstan can achieve quite a lot, making demands on the center, getting paid for what the center wants done, and always being in a position to demand even more, just as the francophone nationalists in Quebec have done over the last two decades.

What is most striking about this argument is the very different ways in which it is likely to be viewed by Moscow, by the Tatars, and other leaders in the Russian Federation.

Many in Moscow are likely to celebrate this statement as effectively marking the end of Tatarstan sovereignty. The history of Quebec secessionism in Canada has been a history of failure. By defining themselves in terms of Quebec, the Tatars are acknowledging their fate within Russia.

The Tatars, on the other hand, are likely to view this analysis quite differently. For them, Quebec has been a success: That province has continued to attract ever more resources from Ottawa precisely because Quebec has a credible but not yet successful independence movement.

The Tatars are thus likely to see the Quebec model as a means to extract ever more resources from Moscow, thus creating a situation in which, in the short term, Kazan rather than Moscow can set the agenda and over the longer haul Tatarstan can gain the independence many Tatar nationalists seek.

Consequently, the description of Tatarstan as a Russian Quebec is likely to lead at least some Tatars to increase their demands for special treatment, secure in the knowledge that Moscow almost certainly will be willing to continue to try to buy them off, as it appears to be doing with a special five-year investment program there.

But the most interesting and fateful reactions are likely to be among the other non-Russian groups now inside the Russian Federation. Putin has explicitly tried to rein in the regions and republics of his far-flung country, by reducing the ability of the federation subjects to act on their own.

The Russian president has repeatedly indicated that he will not tolerate secession and does not want the regions and republics to contradict the policies of the center. But in staking out those positions, Putin has perhaps unwittingly created the basis for a new ethnic politics in Russia itself.

Because that kind of politics points not to a drive for independence by Tatarstan but rather to its continuing participation within the Russian political system, many in both Russia and the West are likely to see this kind of ethnic politics as a victory for Moscow. But because Tatarstan's politics, like those of Quebec, are based on the mobilization of ethnic sentiments, Moscow, like Ottawa, may find this situation difficult to sustain.

If the Russian government continues to try to buy off one republic, Moscow is likely to find that other republics and regions will make new demands, seeing the use of populistic nationalism as the key to more resources.

But if Moscow does not provide sufficient funds to Tatarstan or the others, it may face, much as the central Canadian government still does, the risk that Tatarstan or another republic could become a Russian Quebec, the kind of continuing challenge that Moscow may find it difficult to meet.

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