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Putin's Power Play? Tatarstan Activists Say Loss Of 'President' Title Would Be An Existential Blow


Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) walks with Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov (right) and other officials on a visit to Kazan in May 2019. Soon, only one will be president.

KAZAN, Russia -- One of the first bills to be submitted to Russia's newly elected State Duma, even before the lower house of parliament convened for its first session on October 12, is a measure that would unify the titles of the executive-branch heads of all Russia's regions.

Instead of presidents, governors, mayors, and the like, all of Russia's 83 regions -- plus the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Crimea and city of Sevastopol -- will be run by a "regional head" if the measure passes. And, although the bill was submitted jointly by Duma Deputy Pavel Krasheninnikov and Andrei Klishas of the Federation Council, the upper house, it is widely believed to have been authored inside President Vladimir Putin's administration -- meaning that its passage would be certain.

Many in the Tatarstan region view the bill as aimed directly at them, as Moscow strives to shore up the so-called "power vertical" in the interval between the September Duma elections -- in which official results gave the ruling United Russia party a constitutional majority -- and the end of Putin's fourth presidential term in 2024. Another key stage in that process came when a massive package of constitutional amendments was adopted in 2020, including a provision allowing Putin to seek two more presidential terms, potentially keeping him in the Kremlin until 2036.

"The order to change the 'president' to 'head' is coming from the Russian president's administration," Kazan State University political-science professor Midkhat Farukshin told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service. "There is nothing Tatarstan can do about it."

Neither the regional legislature nor Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov have commented on the draft legislation. In response to a query from RFE/RL, the regional parliament's press service wrote that "it isn't in the Tatarstan parliament's competence" to state whether abolishing the title "president" is legal or not.

Tatarstan
Tatarstan

With a population of some 3.8 million, the mid-Volga region of Tatarstan has long had a reputation as one of the Russian regions that takes federalism -- the distribution of power between the country's central government and its constituent parts -- most seriously. Tatars form the second-largest ethnic group in the country after Russians. In March 1992, three months after the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the region passed by nearly a two-thirds vote a referendum approving Tatarstan as "a sovereign state...building its relations with the Russian Federation and other republics on an equal basis."

Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, once urged the regions to "take as much sovereignty as you can stomach."

Under Putin, federalism has been seriously eroded, notably with the creation of the Kremlin-overseen federal districts in 2000, changes to the way the Federation Council is formed, and modifications to the ways regional heads are selected. In 2015, a law was passed prohibiting regions from using the term "president" for its executive leader, with the Kremlin arguing Russia can have only one president. However, pressure from Tatarstan prompted Putin to grant the republic an exception to the law.

In response to the latest bill, the nationalist World Tatar Youth Forum appealed to Moscow and Kazan to allow Tatarstan to retain the post of president, arguing that it symbolized "political status, the image of the republic, and Russian federalism."

"The post of president in Tatarstan is not only the post of the head of the republic, but also a symbol of leadership for the 7 million Tatars around the world, a symbol of unity of Tatars living in other Russian regions and more than 30 countries around the world," the group's October 4 appeal reads.

That could be exactly why the Kremlin wants to see the title abolished, argued Vadim Sidorov, a Prague-based expert on regional and ethnic relations, in an essay on October 4.

The Putin government, Sidorov wrote, fears "a synthesis of liberal institutional reforms and republic nationalism," which it views as the driving force behind Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's 2013-14 Euromaidan uprising.

In what may be a reflection of such fears, political blogger Valery Kaplenkov argued in an October 7 column that the bill before the Duma does not go far enough to "strengthen the state unity of the country." He argued that Russia also needs a single term for all regional legislatures to eliminate words like the Turkic "kurultai" -- meaning "assembly," a form of which is used in Bashkir, Tatar, Buryat, and other languages of Russia -- and what he called "other hard-to-pronounce popular assemblies."

"The authority of the federal center is restricted by the national [constitution] and by republican constitutions, according to which the titular nationalities have -- check it out! -- state sovereignty," Kaplenkov wrote. "In terms of its national-territorial structure, Russia is a real patchwork: at the constitutional level there are more than 20 quasi-states!"

"We are now reaping the consequences of the 1990s," he concluded, warning -- without providing evidence -- of "creeping separatist tendencies" and power-hungry "ethnocrats" in the regions.

For some advocates of Tatarstan's sovereignty, the bill before the Duma is an existential threat.

"Without the post of 'president,' the republic itself will cease to be a republic," Rafis Kashapov, a Tatar activist who emigrated to London after being released from prison in 2018, told RFE/RL. "There will be no need for a coat of arms or an anthem or a flag. People who support Tatarstan will have no choice other than to join us, activists in exile. But, frankly, I don't think most people care."

Kazan politics professor Farukshin agrees that it is likely too late for Tatarstan to resist the erosion of federalism, saying that the adoption of a new Tatarstan Constitution in 2002 -- which enshrined restrictions on the region's sovereignty and power-sharing -- made the current developments inevitable.

"Tatarstan will swallow this again," he predicted. "There might be small rallies, but activists have no ability to influence what is happening. 2002 was much more dangerous for Tatarstan -- that was the time to cry out. What is happening today is just follow-up. The [president] title will be lost, and it will only be possible to get it back if politics in Russia change."

On October 10, former State Duma Deputy from Tatarstan and pro-autonomy figure Fandas Safiullin died of COVID-19 in Kazan at the age of 85. On August 30, 1990, Safiullin read out a declaration of Tatarstan's sovereignty from the tribune of the republican Supreme Soviet. From 1999-2003, he represented Tatarstan in the State Duma and led the ultimately unsuccessful fight to keep the Latin-based alphabet for Tatar.

At his funeral in Kazan on October 11, eulogists quoted him as saying shortly before he died: "I am leaving, but the nation remains. What will become of it? Are there young people to replace us?"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Kazan by RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service
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