By Paul Goble
Mintimir Shaimiyev, the longtime president of Tatarstan, has laid down a broad challenge to Moscow not only by announcing his decision to resign from the leadership of the United Russia Party which he helped to found but also by reaffirming his belief that Russia must remain a federation in which all its indigenous nations have a voice.
Not surprisingly, Shaimiyev’s resignation from the leadership of United Russia has attracted the greater attention from Moscow analysts who have speculated about the possible impact of that step on the upcoming elections, but in reality, Shaimiyev’s views on federalism and support for the nations within Russia may have a greater impact.
That is because Shaimiyev and the republic he long headed and whose current leadership he formed has often served as the bellwether of attitudes and policies in the other non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation and also and perhaps equally importantly on the position of the heads of predominantly ethnic Russian regions as well.
On Friday, Shaimiyev announced his resignation from the leadership of United Russia and laid out his ideas in a major interview with the Tatar-language newspaper “Tatar gazite” (www.tatargazeta.ru/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=70:-q-q&catid=4:2010-11-04-15-26-09&Itemid=11. A Russian translation has now appeared (etatar.ru/20/39572).
Asked to evaluate his time in politics, the Tatarstan leader said that “our greatest success was raising the authority of our nation” because “we were able to radically change relations toward the Tatars,” often during periods of extraordinary political and economic changes and challenges.
Shaimiyev said that he did not have any major regrets about his time in office, although he conceded it was sometimes difficult to work when other Tatars demanded “freedom” and “independence” and suggested that he was “a weakling” in comparison with Chechnya’s Dzhokhar Dudayev.
He explained his relationship with United Russia in the following way: “I am the co-president of the Supreme Council of United Russia because I was one of the organizers of the party” rather than because he joined something that others had created. But now, Shaimiyev suggested, circumstances have changed.
“Unfortunately,” he said, neither United Russia nor any other party in the country supports “a multi-national and federative state system in Russia.” And consequently, “I do not intend to remain a co-president.” Others, who are in the presidium of that party can continue to work, “but I am in retirement.”
But Shaimiyev said he was disappointed that the party he helped found “cannot exert sufficient influence on the economic and political situation in the country.” Despite its dominance, it has not acted as “the center-right” party he backed. Instead, it has played with certain “leftist” ideas.
But Shaimiyev rejected the idea that Russia was facing the kind of political challenges now shaking the Arab world. “The situation with us is not like their situation. It is not surprising that peoples who have nothing to lose have begun” to act in this way. “In Russia the situation is different … In our history, there have been a sufficient number of revolutions.”
The Tatar leader then turned his attention to nationality problems and policies. Arguing that “the roots of this problem are deep,” Shaimiyev noted that he has “always said that … Russia needs a nationality policy more than other countries,” something that many in Moscow do not appear to understand.
Moscow must focus on these issues because “under conditions of democratic development,” it and the rest of Russia have no choice. “And one should not compare us with the United States,” “an entirely different world” whose residents called themselves Americans whatever their ethnic background.
“In our situation,” he said, it is “an absurdity” to declare that Tatars are “[non-ethnic] Russians of Tatar origin.” “If we want to live in a democracy, there must be a federation in the true sense … There cannot be democracy in a unitary Russia. My native language and my nationality are my right, given from birth, and no one can take them away from me.”
And Shaimiyev concluded with two further observations that challenge Moscow. On the one hand, he said that the law directing heads of republics to be called presidents is not indisputable. And on the other, he said that Moscow leaders have failed to consult with regional leaders the way Boris Yeltsin did in the early 1990s. The issue is not just “elections.”
This interview has sparked numerous commentaries in Moscow. Writing for Polit.ru yesterday, forexample, Mikhail Zakharov suggested that Shaimiyev’s declaration was an unwelcome “signal” to the leadership in the Russian capital, one that represents a threat of “sabotage” of the upcoming elections (www.polit.ru/event/2011/03/21/6aimiev.html).
Zakharov noted that the way in which Shaimiyev delivered his message is instructive of the Tatar leader’s political skills: in a Tatar language newspaper rather than in a Russian one in Kazan or in a central news agency. Nonetheless, he said, “in the center such signals are noted” if with a certain delay.
And Andrey Polunin of “Svobodnaya pressa” today offered a survey of reaction. Yevgeny Minchenko, the director of the International Instituteof Political Expertise, said that Shaimiyev’s remarks showed that “there is a chance that Shaimiyev will try again to play a role in [Russian Federation] politics” (svpressa.ru/politic/article/40766/).
“It is obvious,” Minchenko noted, “that today there is dissatisfaction on the part of regional elites with the politicies of the federal center,” given Moscow’s ongoing centralization drive and its discounting of the role of national minorities, other than those in the North Caucasus.
Members of the Tatar diaspora in Moscow have told him, Minchenko continued, that “we do not understand, given that there are far more of us than representatives of other nationalities and that we made an enormous constribution to the establishment of Russian statehood why the Chechens have such a disproportionate influence.”
Aleksey Mukhin, the director general of the Center of Political Information, focused on another aspect of Shaimiyev’s critique. He noted that Shaimiyev’s “accusationthat the party has noface is a seirous thing which can be interpreted as an attack on the leader of the party and its senior functionaries.”
Vladimir Pribalovsky, the president of the Panorama Research Center, in turn said that Shaimiyev’s remarks only reinforced the Tatar leader’s reputation for political sophistication and care. Shaimiyev isn’t going into opposition; instead, he is seeking to preserve his power in the Kazan “tandem” of which he is a part together with Rustam Minnikhanov.
But Dmitry Orlov, the director generalof the Agency of Political and Economic Communications, suggested that no one should make too much of Shaimiyev’s remarks because his decision to leave the leadership of United Russia had obviously been agreed upon in advance with Moscow and reflected his lower status as a former republic head.