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Prospects of Federalism in Russia: A View from Tatarstan.

  • Raphael Khakimov
Security Dialogue. 1996, Vol. 27(1): 67-80.

Prospects of Federalism in Russia: A View from Tatarstan.

1. Introduction

THE PECULIARITY of Russia is that democratic laws have rarely been adopted there, and even when they have been adopted they have never been observed. Two points are important for understanding the political situation in Russia: (1) Russian society has traditionally been undemocratic, and (2) the existing constitution and laws have usually been ignored. Each new leader considered creating a brand-new constitution to be of primary importance, while that same leader rarely cared about observing that constitution. There are quite a few cases in the history of Russia which demonstrate that its leaders have often preferred the use of force to political methods for dealing with the people and with different ethnic groups. The war in Chechnya conforms with those traditions. The treaty with Tatarstan contradicts them.

One should not be so naive as to think that in Russia the age of democracy has now arrived. Russia's Constitution may look pretty good as seen from Europe, but one should not forget its dubious legitimacy. Only one third of the electors voted for it; it did not get approval in 32 regions subjects of the Federation, while in Tatarstan no plebescite whatsoever was held. Moreover, the legitimacy of the Federal Sobraniye (the Parliament) is also very doubtful, for the subjects of the Federation did not take part in elaborating the Statute of the representative bodies of Russia.

Moscow has exhausted its reformative potential. It has brought Russia to a dead end. The army of officials, which has grown threefold since Soviet times, does not need federalization or democratization of the country. What it needs is tax increases. The interests of Russia and the interests of Moscow are not the same. Today it is the republic and some administrative territories that are really interested in the federalization and democratization of Russia.

2. An Approach to Federalism in Russia

'Democracy' and 'federalism' arc synonyms for poly-ethnic Russia; the one is impossible without the other. National-state arrangements remain the key problem. Unless it is solved, there can be no political stability, and the continuation of the political and economic reforms is impossible.

Russia seems to be the only territory where its numerous peoples are able to maintain their cultures. These peoples are indigenous, having lived there long before the Russians came. That is why it is natural that they should demand to participate in forming the state on an equal basis with the Russians. Russian federalism should be based on the interests of all nations living in Russia. Any other approach would lay the foundation of inter-ethnic tension. At the same time, however, there is a purely Russian problem involving the development of Russian territories. On the all-country scale the variety of the geographic, economic and cultural factors is too great for Russia: therefore it cannot be ruled from one single place.

Federalism in Russia should be based on two principles: (1) the ethno-territorial principle, which takes into account the interests of non-Russian peoples; and (2) the territorial principle, which defines the status of predominantly Russian subjects.

There are two basic approaches to the federalization of Russia: one is constitutional-treaty, the other is treaty-constitutional. The first approach was traditional for the official structures of Russia; the second one has been asserted by Tatarstan and several other republics. 'Constitutionalists' affirm that sovereignization of the republics can lead to the breakup of the Russian Federation as was the case of the Soviet Union, therefore the central government should pursue a policy of strict control over the republics and allow them only minimal powers. Supporters of treaty-based federation do not consider Russia a real federation; they keep to the principle of establishing relations with the central government 'from below upwards', i.e. through the voluntary transfer of their authority by means of bilateral treaties. In this case, sovereignty becomes a necessary legal basis for the self-determination of the subjects of the Federation.

While supporters of the first approach assert that the constitutions of the , republics should conform to the Constitution of Russia, advocates of 'concordant federation' - Tatarstan among them - maintain that it is the Constitution of Russia that should be brought into conformity with the constitutions of the republics, and the central government should be under the control of the subjects of the Federation. The functions of the federal governing bodies should consist of the authority voluntary transmitted to them by the subjects of the Federation, each subject being entitled to determine the list of these powers and to withdraw them at any time.

The source of power in any democratic federation is the people. Thus the foundation of the state, the functions of the central governing bodies, etc. should all be determined by the subjects of the federation. In post-imperial Russia, reformation of the state 'from above' is impossible, because the 'center' is interested in preserving the unitary state and not in decentralizing the system of government.

Tatarstan has always viewed decentralization and federalization of Russia as a means of dismantling the state structures of the empire, enabling a change towards truly democratic foundations of life.

3. Tatarstan's Sovereignty

Tatarstan consists of two main ethnic groups roughly equal in number: Tatars (48.5%) and Russians (43.3%).1 Tatars all over the world regard the territory of Tatarstan as their historical birthplace and the center of their cultural development.2 The Tatars enjoyed statehood in the form of the Bulgar Khanate, the Golden Horde and Kazan Khanate. They were later annexed by Russia under Ivan the Terrible, but the Tatars have always played a special role in the history of Russia. Certain traits of state structure and social life of Russia were influenced by the Golden Horde, while Russian culture experienced some influence on the part of Tatar culture.

The Tatars accepted Islam in 922. Orthodox Christianity has been historically perceived by the Tatars as the religion and culture of the Russian conquerors. Christianization is associated with the most tragic pages in the annals of Kazan Khanate. Only since late 18th century, after Catherine the Great's decree on religious tolerance, were Muslims no longer persecuted in Russia. In the 19th century Islam was reformed. This new version of Islam which combined Muslim canons with the ideas of liberalism (the so-called jadidism) could be called 'Euro-Islam'.

The Muslim movement in Russia has, both in the past and nowadays, been headed by die Tatars. At the moment there are no religious frictions in Tatarstan. Indeed, the republic can serve as an example of peaceful coexistence of the two world religions, and its positive experience could be of use for other countries.

The Tatars have a level of culture and education high enough to claim their. own statehood. The Russians understand that, but in their turn want to play the same role in the republic as the Tatars.

The essence of Tatarstan's sovereignty lies not in its striving for complete independence (although this option has been discussed in the parliament)3 but in getting guarantees for the republic's autonomy and establishing new relations with Russia, relations in the interests of the people. Tatarstan does have reason to distrust the central government even if it is headed by democratic forces. In 1920 the republic got its autonomy from Moscow, but then, in 1937 (after adopting 'Stalin's Constitution'), was completely deprived of it. There arc no guarantees that if someone like Zhirinovsky comes to power in Russia he will not try to follow Stalin's example, not least since the new Russian Constitution makes the establishment of an authoritarian regime plausible. For this very reason Tatarstan has become active on the international scene, signing bilateral treaties with foreign countries and opening permanent representations.

Life in Tatarstan is largely determined by the decisions made by the local legislative and executive bodies as well as by the activities of the local parties. All-Russia parties are not very influential and do not have their structures in Tatarstan. Nevertheless, the political and economic situation in Russia has considerable influence on Tatarstan, especially its economy. That is why the republic has to coordinate its activities with the policy of Moscow.

Article 61 of Tatarstan Constitution says: 'The Republic of Tatarstan is a sovereign state and a subject of international law associated with the Russian Federation on the basis of the Treaty on mutual transmission of authorities.' Tatarstan did not sign the Federative Treaty, being determined to have a bilateral treaty with Russia. Relations of association are more in the interests of Tatarstan, as they give the republic more independence than the Constitution or the Federative Treaty.

Although the initiative came from Tatar community, the state sovereignty of Tatarstan was declared on behalf of all its people. The Constitution of Tatarstan declares Tatar and Russian as two offical languages. In areas where people of other nationalities live - the Chuvashes, the Udmurtis, the Marts and the Mordvas - the languages of these people are also used as official languages. (For example, in Tatarstan ballot papers are published in six languages.) The policy of the Tatarstan government is directed at keeping a balance between all ethnic groups and religious communities.

Nationalistic parties are not influential in Tatarstan. The recent elections and plebescites have shown that ethnic belonging is not decisive in determining people's opinion.4 Thus, the poly-ethnic and multi-cultural society which is taking shape in Tatarstan is based on the principle of territorial, not ethnic, sovereignty.

4. 'Tatarstan Model'

In August 1991; Moscow and Kazan started negotiations which on 15 February 1994 resulted in signing the Treaty on Delimiting the Jurisdictions and Mutual Transmission of Authorities Between the Organs of State Power of The Russian Federation and The Republic of Tatarstan. Along with this Treaty the two governments adopted a package of agreements regulating relations between the two countries in the spheres of trade, property, budget, finances, banking, defence, the military-industrial complex, customs regulations, higher education, ecology, and the coordination of law-enforcement activities.5

After the Treaty had been signed on the background of the Chechen events, the international press began to speak about Tatarstan model'.6 Indeed, in the former Soviet Union this is the only positive experience of conducting negotiations between the central government and a region. Several factors determined the success of these negotiations.7

The political stability of Tatarstan helped it to stand up for its interests. Moscow, in rum, had probably hoped for inter-ethnic dissent in the republic, and demanded that a referendum be conducted on Tatarstan's status. Russia put forward this demand as a precondition for the continuation of the negotiations. The referendum, scheduled for 21 March 1992, had the following question: 'Do you agree that the Republic of Tatarstan is a sovereign state and a subject of international law which develops its relations with the Russian Federation and other republics on the basis of bilateral treaties?'

Before the referendum (which was held according to procedures laid down by Russian law) Tatarstan experienced some pressure on the part of Russia's General Office of Public Prosecution, the Supreme Soviet and the President of Russia.8 Leaflets exhorting the people to say 'no' streamed into Tatarstan from Russia. Army exercises were held around me borders of the republic. Still, 61.1% of those who took part in the referendum said 'yes'. Moscow had to continue the dialogue.

Negotiations were held simultaneously on three levels: (1) the top level, where the 'political' treaty was being worked out; (2) the government level, which was concerned with working out the package of agreements determining the mechanisms for realization of the 'big' treaty; and (3) the ministry level, where specific issues of finances, the budget, the army, etc. were discussed. These tactics were to determine the basic principles of the bilateral relations as well as the mechanisms of delimiting of powers.

The shortcoming of the Federative Treaty was not only its controversial character but the lack of a mechanism for implementation. Despite tremendous efforts on the part of the republics to bring it into force, it remained a mere declaration.9 The Tatarstan-Russian Treaty, on the other hand, also involved a package of intergovernmental agreements on the most important aspects of Tatarstan life, which made it a practical document.

One factor that assisted the success of the negotiations was the fact that year by year the position of Tatarstan was reinforced by its newly developed domestic legislation. Espedally important was the adoption of the Constitution, which Tatarstan carried out before Russia.

Moscow was also put under pressure by the abstention of Tatarstan citizens from several Russian plebescites. The changes in the numbers of Tatarstan voters participating (and this is a reliable indication of the population's attitude to the policy of Russia) were as follows:

(1) 36.5% of the voters took part in Russia's presidential elections of 1991. Only 16.4% voted for Boris Yeltsin;

(2) 22.6% of the voters took part in the all-Russia referendum of April 1993, where 14.9% expressed their trust to President Yeltsin;

(3) 13.8% of the voters took part in the elections to the Federal Sobranie and the referendum on the Constitution of Russia of 12 December 1993, with 10% of Tatarstan voters voting for the Russian Constitution.

The tendency was the same in Kazan and the towns and rural districts of Tatarstan with a predominantly Russian population. The interest of Tatarstan citizens in all-Russia political events was steadily going down, threatening to isolate Tatarstan political processes from the political life of Russia. That worried the Federal government and helped to make it more compliant.

Tatarstan made a certain use of the solidarity of the republics, especially its neighbors in the Volga-Ural region, who have always been influenced by Tatarstan because of its geographic closeness, ethnic similarity, economic cooperation, etc. The Volga-Ural republics and Tatarstan had signed treaties on friendship and cooperation, and the political leaders of those republics often issued joint declarations and demands.

Conducting negotiations on three levels simultaneously made it possible to broaden the circle of the participants of the negotiation process. In Russia there was considerable opposition to the 'separatist deal' with Tatarstan. From 1991 Moscow newspapers published articles denouncing the very fact of conducting such negotiations. That is why it was so important to have allies on all levels: in the circle of President Yeltsin's co-workers, in the government, in the parliament. Otherwise the great effort made by both sides on the summit level could be brought to naught on the lower level: in the government and especially in the ministries.

Finally, the success of the negotiations was assisted by the fact that Tatarstan delegation acted as one team, always composed of the same members. By contrast, in the course of three years, Russia changed all the members of its delegation.10

The Tatarstan-Russian Treaty is a means of settling the political conflict between Kazan and Moscow which developed on the basis of two deeply rooted ' tendendes: the demand for the decentralization of power and change to true federalization of Russia on the one hand, and striving to keep the maximum power in the hands of the central government, on the other hand. The latter tendency was the heritage of the old Soviet empire. Moscow was here guided not by strategic, but by tactical considerations, hoping after some time to force Tatarstan and other republics to obey the commands of the 'center'. Although the Constitution of Russia stipulates the right to conclude treaties (Article 11, paragraph 3), it does not set out the principles or the scope of concordant relations. By contrast, for Tatarstan the concordant character of relations with Moscow is a policy of principle reflected in many official documents.

The Treaty has historical significance, as it confirms Moscow's renunciation of the use of force. In legal terms, the Treaty is to serve as a sort of buffer between the Russian and the Tatarstan Constitutions. Essentially, the Treaty means that Moscow does not demand that Tatarstan bring its Constitution into line with the Constitution of Russia. This in turn implies recognition of the pre-eminence of Tatarstan laws over the laws of the Russian Federation - between which there are considerable differences. For instance, Tatarstan has adopted legislation on private property and land ownership. Its laws give privileges to foreign investors which Russian laws do not.

The Treaty recognizes Tatarstan's right to introduce its citizenship along with Russian citizenship, and also Tatarstan's right to participate (although not fully) in international and foreign economic relations. The fact that many Tatars live in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan influences the republic's foreign policy. The religious factor is also salient in foreign policy: for instance, the stand of Tatarstan's leadership and general public on the Bosnian problem differs from the official position of Russia's Foreign Ministry.

The Treaty does not stipulate the creation of joint legislative or executive bodies. Russian laws practiced on the territory of Tatarstan are limited to the powers that remain with the Federal bodies (currency, finances, Russian citizenship and some others), for which reason relations between Tatarstan and Russia are best described as association.

The political status of Tatarstan still needs to be elaborated in terms of a broader interpretation of federative relations and their correspondence to international law. The closest analogy would seem to be the status of Puerto Rico, whose relations with me USA are set out in the 'Bill to approve the compact of permanent union between the United States and Puerto Rico (1975)'. Tatarstan, however, has certain pecularities that make it different from Puerto Rico. These pecularities are the result of Russia's post-empire traditions and Tatarstan's enclave situation.

After the Tatarstan-Russian Treaty had been signed, there were attempts to stop the concordant process between the two governments. Certain politicians began to speak of establishing the Russian Federation solely on the territorial principle, as opposed to the national (ethnic)-territorial principle.11 In spring and summer of 1995, two drafts of the bill 'On the principles of distribution of the 'jurisdiction and authorities between the organs of state power of Russian Federation and the subjects of the Federation' were brought before the Duma. The bill was aimed at interrupting the concordant process between Tatarstan and Russia. The tougher draft (originating in the Duma itself) directly banned any treaties between the Federal government and the subjects of the Federation. Both drafts met with resistance from the republics and some oblast. In September, Boris Yeltsin declared that treaties would be signed not only with the republics but with oblast as well. Such treaties have been demanded by Kaliningradskaya oblast, Yekaterinburg and some other oblast.

Thus the process of concluding treaties, initially considered an exception for Tatarstan and Chechnya (the republics that did not sign the Federative Treaty), is now viewed as normal and necessary for all subjects of the Federation. By the summer of 1995, supporters of the treaty-constitutional foundation of the Russian Federation had reinforced their positions and induced the head of Russia to speak in favour of the concordant process.

5. The Asymmetry of Federative Relations

The Russian mentality, always inclined to egalitarianism, does not easily accept the existence of some special relations between Kazan and Moscow, or differences in the status of subjects of the Federation. The oblast are irritated by the 'privileges' that Tatarstan enjoys, particularly by the lower share it has to contribute to the Federal budget. At the same time, however, they fail to consider the greater responsibility that these 'privileged' republics take upon themselves. The issue of symmetrical vs. asymmetrical federation is in (he focus of political debates.

The asymmetry of relations between the Federal government and the subjects of the Federation is a fact that cannot be ignored or eliminated. Differences in the status of the republics, oblast, krai and autonomous okrug are obvious. The extent of the powers devolved to Tatarstan and other republics are also different.

There are certain differences in the status of the subjects of the Federation that are patently unfair. Although Russian Constitution considers all subjects of the Federation equal, the krai and the oblast still do not have their Charters (Fundamental Laws) and their heads are appointed, not elected. Thus, they can scarcely be considered as subjects of full value. In the next few years the powers of the republics and administrative territories are going to become more equal. The heads of several oblast and krai are now speaking of making their powers equal to those of the authorities of Tatarstan. These tendencies are becoming widespread. The case of Edward Rossel, head of the self-proclaimed Ural Republic, is significant here. Although dismissed by President Yeltsin, he was elected Governor by the population of Yekaterinburg. At his first press conference, Rossel said he wanted a treaty with Moscow similar to the treaty Tatarstan had. This indicates another tendency: when elections take place among other subjects of Russia, it will be very difficult for Moscow to control them.

At the same time, a certain asymmetry will survive. There are major disparities in the levels of. economic development of the various regions. Border regions have their own peculiarities. Subjects of the Federation have their historical and regional traditions. Some cannot and will not accept greater responsibility for their regions. Finally, certain republics have claims rooted in their ethnic interests.

Tatarstan has come out in favor of a flexible policy of the Federal government, one not based on abstract egalitarian principles but oriented towards the ethnic and historical peculiarities of the regions. In early 1995, the Presidents of Tatarstan, Bashkiria and Yakutia sent President Boris Yeltsin a message entitled 'For Consistent Democratization and Federalization of Russia' in which they state:

The policy of the central government with respect to its subjects should be flexible, taking into consideration the political realities. There are and there will be differences between the subjects of the Federation. This only reflects the natural variety of life. Unity and stability of the state are achieved not by making everyone fit some artificial standard, but by taking into account the peculiarities and requirements of each subject.12

It is not the symmetry of relations that makes a federation firm but the possibility for the subjects to find support for their interests in the face of the federal government - of course, without prejudice to the interests of other subjects.

6. The Hague Initiative

The Tatarstan model' kindled interest on the part of those former Soviet republics that had conflicts between the central power and the local governments. With some of these republics Tatarstan had bilateral treaties and partnership relations.

In January 1995, within the framework of the international project 'Management of Ethnic Conflicts in the Post-Soviet States' supported by the Administration of the President of Tatarstan, the political leaders of Georgia, Abkhazia, the Ukraine, the Crimea, Moldova, the Transdnestr Republic, Russia and Tatarstan had a round-table discussion in the Peace Palace in The Hague, with the participation of international experts. The main discussion topic was the conflicts in the former Soviet regions and the possible use of the Tatarstan experience in settling them.13 The informal exchange of views showed that Tatarstan had managed to find the solution for numerous complicated problems and, although the 'Tatarstan model' could not be applied in situations where armed clashes had taken place, the republic's experience was nevertheless useful in other aspects.Tatarstan is interested in continuing The Hague initiative and in broadening die circle of its participants. The next meeting is scheduled for early 1996.

7. Association as a Form of Self-determination

History can show no examples of direct transition of empires to federations. Nevertheless, Tatarstan is trying to induce Russia to develop federalization. The prerequisite for creating a true federation is the independence of its subjects: otherwise it is impossible to provide them equal rights and reform the central power. But striving for independence is fraught with conflicts. The 'Czechoslovak divorce' is an exeption in this regard.

Relations of association can become the key factor that will allow the transition from empire to federation without infringing upon the territorial integrity of the states, because in this case the question of borders is not raised. Relations of association are flexible: they do not require the creation of joint organs of government, nor do they place any limitations on transferring powers to the central organs. This could be a possible form of relations between Georgia and Abkhazia, the Ukraine and the Crimea, Moldova and the Transdnestr Republic. The international community must, of course, be involved as the guarantor of security in establishing such new relations.

8. Global Federalism

The international community cherishes the illusion that the world is made up of states. In fact, it is made up of peoples. The leaders of the great powers believe that they determine the world order and the development of political processes, but their conceit comes into collision with the determination of peoples to gain their freedom and independence.

Not infrequently, tension in international relations is caused by the confrontation between people striving for self-determination and the state insisting on its territorial integrity. International law does not provide any ready-made solutions to this problem. Pleading the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, the international community prefers to leave the solution of such problems to the discretion of the states involved. But as the conflict worsens, it becomes difficult for the international community to remain aloof, and finally it decides it has to interfere. But by this point the conflict has already reached the stage when it is difficult to change anything. Bosnia and Chechnya are convincing examples; the latter conflict had been brewing for three years before the eyes of the whole world and the outcome had been predicted by many experts long before it started.

International relations are regulated by organizations like the UN. But, as life shows, the development of political events is influenced not only by states, but by peoples who do not have their own statehood and who are striving to gain it. The exclusion of these peoples from world politics is one of the main reasons for the international instability today.

Global federalism can become an effective instrument of preventing inter-ethnic and political conflicts. Its essence lies in recognizing peoples, represented as such in democratic institutions, as subjects of international relations on a par with states. The most radical step towards a renewal of international relations would be to establish a second chamber of the United Nations, one which would represent peoples and not states. This would change the structure of many international organizations, including the International Court of Justice. An approach like this changes priorities. It views the world as a community of peoples and not of states. It puts forward values above and beyond the interests of the national states, values of a global character.

For many peoples, the struggle for a state of their own is only a manifestation of struggle for worthy living. The very fact of including them in international life will be enough for many of them to dismiss the idea of creating their own independent state. Global federalism makes the idea of statehood less attractive, and divests the border issue of its conflict character. This is a real way of strengthening security on our planet.

Notes and references
1 Due to recent migration into Tatarstan, the Tatar population now numbers more than 50% of the total.
2 The total number of Volga Tatars in the world is now about 7 million.
3 See the Decree of the Supreme Soviet of Tatar Soviet Republic 'On the act of the state independence of the Republic of Tatarstan' in: The White Paper on Tatarslan. The way to sovereignty (collection of official documents) 1990-1995. Kazan, 1995, p. 12. (in Russian)
4 For example, at the elections to the Stale Soviet of Tatarstan in March 1995 in the predominantly Russian-speaking district of Spasskii, a Tatar candidate was elected, while in the Tatar-speaking Agryz district the majority voted for a Russian.
5 See the text of the Treaty and the 12 agreements in: The White Paper on Tatarstan... and in journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, Fall 1994.
6 Bruce Allyn, 'One Enclave's Solution to Ties with Mother Russia', Christian Science Monitor, 12 October 1994; Trudy Rubin, 'Yeltsin Must Ease Ethnic Leaders to Negotiate Peace in Chechnya', The Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 January 1995; John Lloyd, 'A Delicate Balance', Financial Times, Weekend 25/26 February 1995.
7 Here let me add that I myself took part in the negotiations as a member of Tatarstan delegation.
8 See President's Shaimiev's lecture at Harvard University. The text was published in Izvesia Tatarstana, 14 October 1994 (in Russian).
9 Until October 1993 there was a group of experts of the Council of the Heads of the Republics (of which I was a member) that paid special attention to working out the mechanism of the realization of the Federative Treaty.
10 Negotiations started on 12 August 1991 under the supervision of Gennady Burbulis; he was later replaced by Valery Tishkov, Sergei Shakhrai and, finally, Yury Yarov.
11 In early 1995, Sergei Shakhrai, Russian Vice Prime-Minister, in a memorandum to President Yeltsin wrote that 'the practice of conducting internal treaties will complicate the administrative-territorial reform which is so important for Russia and which it would be important to carry out before the 1996 elections'. See Molodezh Tatarstana, 12-18 May 1995 (in Russian).
12 For the text of the message see Panorama-Forum, Kazan, 1995, no. 1, p. 7 (in Russian).
13 See details in Raphael Khakimov, 'Russia and Tatarstan: at the Crossroad of History. The Hague initiative' in Molodezh Tatarstana, 1995, no. 12 (in Russian); Bruce Allyn, The Hague Initiative', Ethnic Conflict Management in the Former Soviet Union: Bulletin (Cambridge, MA: Conflict Management Group, June 1995).

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