KAZAN, Russia -- The president of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, in his annual address to parliament on September 21 performed a balancing act between the Kremlin's drive toward abandoning mandatory Tatar-language classes in schools across the republic and growing concern about the move within Tatarstan.
Minnikhanov said in his address that Tatarstan's Education Ministry "should focus on Russian language studies," adding, however, that methods must be further developed to improve Tatar-language teaching, which along with Russian is Tatarstan's official language.
"These tasks have been given to the ministry many times in the past, but results are not satisfactory and cause justified concern among our people. The ministry, as the main authority responsible for this issue, should draw the necessary conclusions and take measures to tackle it," Minnikhanov said.
The sensitive language issue has sparked disputes not only in Tatarstan, but in several other so-called ethnic republics in the Volga-Ural area since Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to the Republic of Mari El in July, when he suggested that ethnic Russians were being forced to learn these languages in regions with sizable minority populations.
In August, Putin ordered federal prosecutors to check whether ethnic Russian students in the autonomous republics were being forced to learn the local languages.
In the oil-rich, Muslim-majority region of Tatarstan, the order sparked a series of rallies by non-Tatar parents who demanded that mandatory Tatar-language lessons in local schools be abolished.
In a September 7 statement, Tatarstan's Education Ministry said that such calls "contradict federal and regional laws and mislead some parents."
The ministry noted that the Russian Constitution gives all the republics within the Russian Federation the right to have their own official languages, and that Tatarstan's own constitution and language legislation make the study of Russian and Tatar mandatory in all schools.
Among Tatarstan's population of almost 4 million, around half are Tatar-speaking, the majority of whom are fluent in Russian as well. The other half is comprised of Russians and other ethnic groups, including Udmurts, Bashkirs, and Chuvashes.
In his speech in Mari El, Putin said it is "impermissible to force someone to learn a language that is not [his or her] mother tongue, and to cut the number of hours of Russian language [classes at schools] in Russia's ethnic republics."
Following Putin's comments, some ethnic regions dropped mandatory classes of local languages as the 2017-2018 school year started in Russia on September 1.
Prominent writers in Chuvashia and Bashkortostan warned Putin in open letters that his latest move on indigenous languages may lead to serious consequences and weaken Russia as a whole.
On September 14, the Council of Chuvash Elders in the Republic of Chuvashia called Putin's moves "another attack against the indigenous languages of the Russian Federation."
On September 16, at least 1,000 activists rallied in Bashkortostan's capital, Ufa, calling for the reintroduction of mandatory Bashkir classes in the republic.
In his address to the parliament, Minnikhanov also referred to a power-sharing treaty between Tatarstan and Moscow that expired several weeks ago, which the Kremlin has been hesitant to prolong.
He stressed the treaty's "historic importance," but did not say anything about its possible prolongation.
Minnikhanov's statement regarding the treaty was much milder than that of Tatarstan's parliament, which in July urged the Kremlin to extend the power-sharing treaty.
Tatar lawmakers insisted that, unless the agreement is prolonged, at least 14 articles of Tatarstan's Constitution, as well as several federal-level laws will have to be amended.
The first power-sharing treaty was signed in 1994 by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Tatarstan's president at the time, Mintimer Shaimiev.
The treaty offered Tatarstan broad autonomy, including its own laws, taxes, and even citizenship.
After Putin came to power in 2000, laws in the regions of the Russian Federation were brought into conformity with federal legislation. By 2005, all previous agreements and treaties between the regions and Moscow were annulled, and it was announced that pacts would be negotiated in conformity with strict new federal laws.
Only two regions, Tatarstan and Chechnya, were given special status.
Under a new treaty signed in 2007, Tatarstan was given the right to make decisions jointly with Moscow on the region's economic, cultural, and other policies.