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Russia: Tatarstan's Popular President Reaches 70

Shaimiyev at his 2005 inauguration (ITAR-TASS) January 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In 2005, as Mintimer Shaimiyev's third term as Tatarstan's president was entering its final year , he went on record as saying that after 15 years in office, he did not plan to run for reelection and wanted to retire from public life.

Then, Russian President Putin stepped in.

Russia had recently abolished regional elections for leaders of the country's federal subjects, and instituted a system whereby he appointed his own leaders, who were subject to approval by local legislatures.

Presidential Favorite

In one of his first such appointments, Putin asked the popular and politically astute Shaimiyev, whose presidency was to end in March 2006, to remain in office for another five-year term.

Two days after meeting with Putin in Moscow, Shaimiyev on March 11, 2005, announced that he had agreed to Putin's request. Once Tatarstan's State Council approved his appointment later that month, Shamiyev officially became one of the earliest and most influential regional leaders to hold office under the new system.

Speaking at the time, Shaimiyev said Putin had made a convincing case.

"I had said many times that I did not want to take part in the next election [originally scheduled for March 2006]," Shaimiyev said. "Now the rules have changed, and although [Putin] told me he knew that I didn't want to work anymore, and that I wanted to retire, he asked me to stay for one more term and gave his reasons for that. After thinking it over, I gave him my answer."

Putin's move underscored Shaimiyev's special standing within the Russian Federation, where he has been allowed to claim a degree of economic and political autonomy no other regional leader has been allowed to achieve.

Tatarstan -- a unique region whose population is predominantly Muslim and more than 50 percent ethnic Tatar -- functions according to the terms of a 1994 power-sharing treaty Shaimiyev successfully negotiated with former President Boris Yeltsin.

The treaty was signed after a period in which strong nationalist currents in the republic had raised the threat of secession.

Many observers saw Shaimiyev's decision to grant Putin's request in 2005 as a shrewd continuation of his longtime policy of keeping Moscow happy in return for ongoing negotiations to gain more powers for Tatarstan.

Observers say Putin and Shaimiyev's relationship is built on mutual respect. Putin knows at election time that he can count on the popular Shaimiyev, a senior official in Putin's Unified Russia Party, to deliver significant votes in parliamentary elections. Shaimiyev knows that Tatarstan's continued limited self-determination depends on Putin's acquiescence to the treaty agreement.

Today, the two men met in the Tatar capital, Kazan, as the power-sharing agreement awaits renewal by a skeptical State Duma.

Russia's lower house of parliament has been postponing ratification of the treaty that Putin submitted last month. On January 15, the website reported that debate had effectively been "suspended" and the treaty shifted to the bottom of agenda items.

Figure To Be Dealt With

But analysts say Shaimiyev, who will turn 70 on January 20, is not one to be toyed with.

His government career goes back to 1969. Before becoming the Tatar president in 1991, he held a variety of ministerial and other senior posts, and as president is credited with raising the region's status within the former Soviet Union from the Tatar Autonomous Republic to the Tatarstan Republic.

As president, Shaimiyev -- who has been called "a towering presence" and "a political fixture" -- has proved himself to be a consistently reliable leader who has kept the region stable and prosperous, with healthy tax revenues flowing into federation coffers.

Even so, under Putin's centralization of power, Tatarstan has lost many rights it once enjoyed. Putin's 2005 appointment of Shaimiyev led many people to begin to see him as a Moscow's man in Tatarstan.

While Shaimiyev mostly supports the federal government, he will stand firm on issues he doesn't agree with.

For example, he strongly opposed the idea of dissolving regional parliaments if they refuse to appoint Putin's candidate to lead the region. Shaimiyev made this clear during an October 2004 debate in Tatarstan's regional parliament.

"We should not in any form agree to the possibility of the State Council of Tatarstan being dissolved," Shaimiyev said. "Yes, there are presidents in other countries who ale elected by parliaments. This practice does exist in the world. But very parliament is elected by the people. It is the voice of the people, its deputies are elected, whether through the party lists or by some another way, but this is a parliament elected by our people."

Promoter Of Islam

As a leader of predominantly Muslim-populated region, Shaimiyev is also known for his devotion to Muslim causes. Just last week he was awarded the King Faisal International Prize for Service to Islam. In awarding him the prize, the committee praised Shaimiyev's "steadfast efforts to revive Islamic culture in the Republic of Tatarstan," including the promotion of Islamic teachings and values, and rebuilding mosques destroyed in previous eras. He is a promoter of moderate Islam, saying that Tatars have historically lived in a multicultural environment and have long history of tolerance.

Shaimiyev's support was instrumental in the establishment of the Russian Islamic University in Kazan, which has the goal of limiting radical influences from abroad.

Aleksei Titkov, an expert on Russian federalism at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told RFE/RL a few days after Shaimiyev agreed in 2005 to serve another term that the Tatar leader is a shrewd politician known for his ability to stay a few steps ahead of Moscow. His decision to remain in office, Titkov said, benefited him as much as it did Putin.

Shaimiyev realizes his own power, and the importance of Tatarstan's rich economic and political resources, Titkov said, and knew that staying in office another five years would only serve his, and the republic's, goals.

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