No Longer the Russian Federation: A Look at Tartarstan


On July 24, Russia effectively ceased to be the Russian Federation when the last power-sharing agreement which had existed between Moscow and Tatarstan was not renewed. This may have big repercussions for the entire country as Tatarstan is an important region with a large economy and some level of nationalism. At the same time, it shows the level of centralization inside Russia and the preparation for challenges which lie ahead for Putin’s long rule.

Russia had been gearing up for this scenario for quite some time. For example, on July 11, the members of Tatarstan's State Council adopted the text of a statement asking Russian President Vladimir Putin to prolong the agreement signed between Tatarstan and Moscow in 2007. By July 24, it was clear the Russian government would not be prolonging the treaty.

Tatarstan always looked for some sort of autonomy within Russia. During the Soviet period, the region numbered among the existing 16 Soviet socialist republics. When the Soviet Union broke up, 46 regions across Russia demanded separate agreements with Moscow to highlight some sort of autonomy. Tatarstan was one of them, with several years of negotiations between Moscow and the Tatarstan capital, Kazan, bringing about the 1994 agreement which transformed Tatarstan into a constitutional republic with its own president. Kazan also got autonomous control over its taxes, judicial system, police force, citizenship and even foreign relations. In 2007, another agreement was signed between Moscow and Kazan for the next 10 years.

However, this trend of having power-sharing agreements between Moscow and the regions began to shift when Putin came to power. Slowly, one by one, the regions with power-sharing agreements began to lose their autonomy. In 2010, Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov famously conceded its presidential position, leaving Tatarstan as the only presidential autonomous region in the Russian Federation.

The case of Tatarstan is not only important for it being the last example where a power-sharing agreement is not prolonged, but also because Tatarstan is in fact the most prosperous region of the autonomous 46. Located in the heart of Russia's strategic Volga region, almost half the republic's population consists of various ethnic groups, among them the Tatars. The region has always been prone to gaining some sort of independence from the central government and there were historical examples, including the famous well-known rebellion led by Kazak Pugachev who had a power base in the Volga region, Tatars featured prominently in his enterprise.

More importantly, Tatarstan also has Russia's sixth-biggest gross regional production per capita. The oil company Tatneft, Russia’s fifth-largest energy firm, also belongs to Tatarstan. The capital Kazan boasts being the second-most industrialized city in Russia with massive production of trucks, planes and helicopters, and running petrochemical and chemical production facilities.

So far, the Russian government has made it clear that no continuation of the power-sharing agreement will take place. And this shows the level of power centralization in Russia under Putin. But it could set in motion a dangerous set of events in Russia which it has always worked hard to avoid: ethnic groups wishing to gain more autonomous power. While the North Caucasus has been traditionally regarded as a region most prone to fighting the Russian government, Tatarstan could a be the next battleground. As said above, the region is among the most prosperous in Russia. It has an economic powerbase it might be unwilling to concede in the longer term. In the light of Russia’s standoff with the West and difficult economic conditions within the country, exacerbating central government-regional relations is the last thing the Kremlin wants now.

At the same time, from Moscow’s perspective, the prolongation of the power-sharing agreement with Tatarstan could encourage other regions to ask for similar arrangements – a scenario the Kremlin also wants to avoid.

However, the case of Tatarstan overall fits into the wider processes unfolding in Russia under Putin. Centralization of power in Moscow has already been at full steam in the last several years. As Putin gears up for his next presidential term, the central government wants near total control over all the regions. Any opposition must be stamped out and the control over regional economic assets must be in Moscow’s hands. The case of Tatarstan, although some think it only symbolically important, is nevertheless an example of modern Russia further tightening control as the Kremlin feels more pressure from abroad and within about Putin’s rule.

Emil Avdaliani

14 August 2017 20:58