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Tatarstan: Status Under Scrutiny As Lawmakers Change Constitution

By Kathleen Knox/Rim Guilfanov

Lawmakers in the central Russian republic of Tatarstan have given preliminary approval to an overhaul of the republic's constitution. The debate goes to the heart of the "special status" Tatarstan enjoys within the Russian Federation -- a status that has made it one of the most independent of Russia's 21 autonomous republics.

Prague, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tatarstan's State Council, or parliament, last week gave strong backing, in a first reading, to a revision of the republic's constitution.

Critics say the new wording -- which describes Tatarstan as a subject of the Russian Federation -- further erodes what relative freedom the republic gained from the federal center during the 1990s.

But Mintimer Shaimiev, Tatarstan's president since 1991, told deputies Tatarstan will remain what he called a sovereign state. He said under the changes, Tatarstan will retain the right to own natural resources. He also said the revisions will further develop the Tatar language as it retains its equal status with Russian. And he noted the new version maintains the principle that Tatarstan "republic citizenship" can exist alongside Russian citizenship.

Shaimiev said the changes are necessary for the republic's 1992 constitution to keep up with the times. But he insisted a 1994 power-sharing treaty with the Russian Federation remains the key document underpinning Tatarstan's status within the federation.

That treaty secured Tatarstan powers beyond those enjoyed by Russia's other autonomous republics and reflected the republic's relative importance -- it has large oil, gas, and coal deposits and Russia's oil and gas pipelines run through it -- as well as political sensitivities. A high proportion -- roughly half -- of Tatarstan's 3.8 million citizens are Sunni Muslim Tatars, under Moscow's rule since Kazan fell to Tsar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Tatars are Russia's largest national minority, with many living outside Tatarstan.

The 20th century saw periodic attempts to create a Tatar republic, even before Russia's Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But the modern-day roots of Tatarstan's special status go back to the period immediately preceding the USSR's disintegration in the early 1990s. A key moment came in August 1990, when then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin -- in an apparent bid for support in his rivalry with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- made his famous remark that Russia's autonomous republics should take "all the autonomy you can handle."

Later that month the Tatar Supreme Soviet took Yeltsin at his word and declared Tatarstan a Soviet Socialist Republic, elevating it to the same status as Russia and the other union republics.

This was frowned on in Moscow, but the Kremlin was on the verge of accepting Kazan's demand for a treaty-based relationship when the 1991 coup in Moscow intervened to sound the Soviet Union's death knell.

While the union republics peeled off to become independent states, some nationalist Tatar politicians called for outright independence, and relations with Moscow became strained. But a republic-wide referendum in March 1992 was more modestly worded. It asked: "Do you agree that Tatarstan is a sovereign state and a subject of international law that builds relations with Russia and other republics and states on the basis of equal treaties?"

A majority said "yes."

Shaimiev said at the time that Tatarstan did not want to secede from Russia. Instead it wanted a compromise in the form of a bilateral treaty with Moscow.

It took another two years for those talks to produce a result: the February 1994 treaty "on the delimitation of authority and the mutual delegation of powers" between Tatarstan and the Russian Federation.

This set out 15 areas where power fell to Tatarstan, 17 that came under federal control, and 22 areas where there would be joint authority.

Foreign, defense, and monetary policies would all remain Moscow's responsibility. But Tatarstan gained the right to establish political and economic ties with foreign states so long as they did not run counter to the Russian Constitution. It was also given certain tax and budgetary powers and ownership of the republic's mineral wealth and other resources not designated as federal property.

The compromise ensured that Tatarstan enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy than any other Russian autonomous republic. For a while the "Tatarstan model" was even touted as a possible example for other Russian regions with strong nationalist tendencies, such as Chechnya.

The tricky wording of the 1994 treaty satisfied moderates on both sides but was inherently ambiguous.

The treaty, for example, states Tatarstan is united with the Russian Federation on the basis of the Russian and Tatar constitutions, and then on the basis of the treaty itself. But Tatarstan's 1992 constitution said plainly that Tatarstan is a sovereign state.

James Hughes, an expert on Russian federalism at London's School of Economics, said the phrasing was sufficiently vague to satisfy both sides: "That power-sharing treaty was a very ambiguous document, which reflected the desire on both sides to come up with some compromise solution which would, on the one hand, preserve Tatarstan as a member of the Russian Federation and, on the other, be sufficiently ambiguous to give the Tatars a sense that they did have some kind of sovereignty."

The changes given preliminary approval by Tatarstan's State Council last week bring the constitution more into line with the treaty.

Article 1, for example, now states clearly that Tatarstan is a "full subject of the Russian Federation" and united with Russia.

Hughes says the change in wording can be seen as part of attempts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in the regions and bring them under stricter central control. But Hughes says there's a difference between Putin's rhetoric and his more conciliatory approach in practice.

"You could say [the revisions] could incrementally lead to greater central control over time, but I suspect that in practice it'll not lead to any significant change in the power arrangements. What it will do is change the symbolic aspect of politics, of the political relations between Moscow and Tatarstan."

He continues: "The treaty and the Tatarstan Constitution embody very symbolic terms about the nature of its sovereign status: it's a subject of international law, its relations with Russia are regulated on an equal basis, and so on. These are very symbolic statements that hint at the desire of Tatarstan for the status of an independent nation-state. But of course it never quite goes that far because the reality is it's impossible for Tatarstan to assert that given its geographic location and given its dependencies on Russia economically. These terms are loaded with symbolic resonance and to change them will change the symbolism within Tatarstan politics, but it's not going to lead to any significant change in power relations as such."

Shaimiev touched on these symbolic aspects in his speech last week to parliament. He cited Tatarstan's status as a "subject of international law," which he said is a term usually used to describe independent states. It's the same with Tatarstan citizenship, he said -- the concept is out there because Tatarstan is considered a state, but it has no real bearing on day-to-day life.

Damir Iskhakov from Kazan's Institute of History says, however, the changes are more significant than the term "revision" suggests: "The political situation has changed and the position of Tatarstan within Russia has changed too. That's why Tatarstan had to create, for all intents and purposes, a new constitution. Although it's called a new version, in actual fact it's a new constitution."

Iskhakov says many of the freedoms Tatarstan gained in the 1990s have already been eroded, thanks to the reintegration of Tatarstan's tax service into the federal tax system. Tatarstan used to hand over some 30 percent of taxes to the federal center and kept 70 percent. Iskhakov says the situation is now reversed.

The changes to the tax system were part of Putin's efforts to redistribute tax revenue toward poorer regions and is tied in with his plan to bring the regions under stricter federal control. Tatarstan now comes under one of the seven administrative districts that Putin created to subsume all of the 89 federal subjects.

"Yes, [the constitutional amendments are] undoubtedly a significant change in Tatarstan's status. In fact even before this position is fixed in the constitution there were changes taking place in the real powers that Tatarstan enjoyed. First and foremost the economic mechanisms were taken away, there was a redistribution of financial flows and the formulation that's being proposed now practically fixed the real position of Tatarstan. I think that after the previous constitution, Tatarstan was not a full but a half-state. And now it's just become an autonomous [republic]."

Tatarstan's National Movement is against the changes and has launched a "Hands Off Our Constitution" campaign. Members argue the new constitution calls into question the results of the 1992 referendum that strengthened Kazan's hand in its bid for more freedom from Moscow.

The draft revision, kept under wraps till the eve of last week's session, is now in the public domain for wider discussion and will go for two further readings in the State Council starting in late March or early April.

(Rim Guilfanov is a broadcaster in RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.)