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National Republics Resist Moscow's Demand To Amend Constitutions

  • Paul Goble

Is Tatarstan's Mintimer Shaimiyev (right) hoping Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be more maleable than his predecessor?

Is Tatarstan's Mintimer Shaimiyev (right) hoping Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will be more maleable than his predecessor?

Three of the four national republics the Russian Constitutional Court earlier this month ordered to drop references in their constitutions to republic sovereignty and citizenship are dragging their feet. That reluctance reflects both the importance of these terms to many non-Russians, and the calculation that resistance to the center could yield dividends.

While the Sakha (former Yakutia) parliament approved on June 17 a law making the changes Moscow wants, the governments of Tuva, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan have not taken this step and, in at least the cases of Kazan and Ufa, do not appear to be planning to do so in the immediate future.

Last week in Tuva, deputies in the Grand Khural, as the republic's parliament is known, voted down legislation that would have created a constitutional commission to consider the changes. But Tuvan officials implied that the deputies were acting "out of inertia" and would soon comply with the Constitutional Court order.

The situation in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan appears to be very different. There, in the words of a lead article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the Constitutional Court demand is viewed as the latest effort by Moscow to undermine the legitimate powers of the republics. While Bashkortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov said immediately after the court announced its decision that "once the leadership has given an order, we will change" what has to be changed, his own outspoken criticism of Moscow's policies and United Russia’s arrangements has been accompanied by no moves to do so.

Indeed, since then, one of Rakhimov's senior aides, Sergei Lavrentyev has issued an even more withering criticism of federal policies in spite of, or perhaps because of rumors, now much reduced in the wake of chief Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov's June 19 visit to Ufa, that Moscow was about to fire Rakhimov.

Thinking Long-Term

However that may be, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" points out that "eight years ago" Rakhimov and Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev were able "to find a compromise with the country's leadership" despite then-Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to perfect his "power vertical."

The two Middle Volga leaders agreed to bring "local laws into line with federal ones," but only if Moscow "left untouched" the declarations in the constitutions of those two large Turkic republics concerning their own sovereignty and national citizenship. The two did so apparently in the hope that after Putin left office, they could revisit this arrangement to their benefit.

But instead, Moscow has sought to pressure the two republics further in violation of the compromise they thought would remain a baseline in their relationships with the center. And consequently, the independent Moscow paper suggested, the two are now playing a different game, seeking other "political dividends" in return for ultimately agreeing to go along.

Earlier last week, Tatarstan asked Moscow for more than 15 billion rubles ($480 million) to cover the local budget deficit, a request that Shaimiyev accompanied with a statement that Moscow officials apparently do not know the Russian Constitution very well since there is a reference in that document to "sovereign republics within Russia."

Were Shaimiyev and Rakhimov to give way on this, the paper continued, that would represent "the bankruptcy of the political line" that Shaimiyev has pursued "for 20 years." Consequently, at the very least, he and Rakhimov are going to drag out the process, hopeful that Moscow will decide it is cheaper to pay them off in other ways.

Whether that calculation will work this time around is uncertain, but Surkov's statements after meeting Rakhimov suggest that Moscow doesn't want to provoke a fight over this, at least not during the current crisis. And consequently, the "better times" Shaimiyev and Rakhimov have been waiting for may be closer, but very different than, anyone else expected.

Meanwhile, the other federal subjects the court directed to make similar changes -- the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Komi, Chechnya, and Buryatia, and the autonomous districts of Nenets and Yamalo-Nenets -- are supposedly slated to go ahead, although it is entirely possible that leaders in some of them may take their lead from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan.

On June 18, Chechen Constitutional Court Chairman Sultan Abdulkhanov said a special commission will be created to draft unspecified "minor changes" that are required to bring the Chechen Republic's constitution into line with that of the Russian Federation.