The long conflict between the principle of federal sovereignty, which President Vladimir Putin seeks to restore, and broad regional autonomy, for which the Tatarstan Republic has been the model, is coming to a head.
The battle between Moscow and Tatarstan even took to the international stage last week. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow visited Tatarstan's capital Kazan and told the republic's President Mintimer Shaimiev that the United States is very interested in Putin's federative reforms and Tatarstan's reaction to them.
Tatarstan champions regional autonomy
Tatarstan was instrumental in creating Russia's "asymmetrical" federalism, under which regions enjoy various levels of political and economic autonomy. "Official" asymmetry in Russia was codified in law by special bilateral treaties signed between the federal government and 46 regions. Tatarstan signed the first one on Feb. 15, 1994.
Until Putin rose to power, the extraordinary rights enjoyed by Tatarstan and several other republics constituted loose confederation-like relations with Moscow. However, in 1997-98, Putin, as the head of the presidential administration's State Control Directorate, monitored the implementation of federal laws in the regions. He became intimately familiar with a more insidious "unofficial asymmetry," involving thousands of violations of the federal constitution and various laws in the regions.
Putin pushes reintegration
Upon becoming president, Putin moved immediately to "reintegrate Russia's legal space." A new mechanism, "federal intervention," allowed the president to remove regional presidents or governors from office and disband with Duma's approval regional legislatures, hence forcing new elections. This can be enacted if regional chief executives or legislatures twice fail to amend their laws in accordance with court decisions finding those laws in violation of the federal Constitution. The president also has the power to remove regional presidents and governors if prosecutors provide him with evidence that the official in question has committed a "grave crime."
After prosecutors' protests and court decisions, thousands of laws across the country were repealed or amended to comply with the federal Constitution and law. As a consequence of prosecutors' challenges in Tatarstan, 31 laws were amended and 17 abolished. Another 34 additional laws were struck down by the Russian Constitutional and Supreme Courts and had to be amended or be repealed.
The heady days of extended sovereignty for Tatarstan and other republics may be ending, but not without a fight. The most contentious clause in any regional law or constitution was Article 61 of Tatarstan's constitution. It not only declared the republic a "sovereign state" and "subject of international law" but also one merely "associated with" Russia. This implied Tatarstan was not so much a "subject" of the federation, but an independent state tenuously confederated with Russia and having the right to secede. When Moscow's prosecutors and federal courts invalidated this clause, Tatarstan appealed in court, but lost.
Kazan 1, Moscow 1
Kazan is nevertheless declaring victory over Moscow with the new draft Tatar constitution, passed in the first of three "readings" by the republic's parliament in February and set for a second reading on March 29. Kazan says Moscow agreed to preserve the clause on sovereignty, which is still derived from the people of Tatarstan, contradicting a previous court finding. Also retained is the provision that the republic's laws supercede federal ones in Tatarstan, even though the Constitutional Court has struck the clause down.
However, in the new draft constitution, the word "associated" has been replaced by "united." The new constitution also denies Tatarstan the right to have its own judicial system and to conclude international treaties. Also, Tatarstan's deputies in the federal State Duma failed to effectively overturn the new draft's subversion of the concept of Tatar citizenship consolidated in the republic's present constitution. They put forward an amendment to the federal law on citizenship that would have made Russian citizens simultaneously citizens of Tatarstan. If passed, it would have surreptitiously recognized the republic's right to establish citizenship, but it mustered only 21 of the 225 votes needed.
It is still unclear whether Moscow will push Kazan into a corner by challenging the amended constitution, if it is approved in late April. Putin still has not endorsed the draft, and there are reports that prosecutors are preparing to protest the present draft. However, during Vershbow's visit to Kazan, Shaimiev declared there would be no more serious changes to the draft, warning that Russia must not regress to a unitary system.
Running out of room for compromise
Even if Kazan is no longer pressured "from above," it will be "from below" by the nationalist opposition. Nationalist Tatar opposition groups vehemently refute the republican leadership's rosy interpretation of the battle's outcome, and are gearing up for federal and regional parliamentary elections in 2003. Last week, 15 opposition groups formed Popular Front, a union of political groups that are eager to defend Tatarstan's "sovereignty" against Kazan's concessions to Moscow. Popular Front ominously invokes the national-independence movements that helped dissolve the U.S.S.R.
Moscow's own compromises have come at a high price. The Kremlin had to rob other regions to pay Tatarstan for its compromises on the constitution. Moscow included $420 million in the federal 2002 socioeconomic-development program for Tatarstan. The southern regions of Russia together will receive only $20 million. The regions of the Siberian and Urals districts were similarly shortchanged. Favoritism toward Kazan is fomenting pressure from Russia regions on the Kremlin to cease placating national autonomies, such as Shaimiev's Tatarstan.
Moscow could better accommodate all the regions if it would forego recentralizing tax revenues as it reintegrates Russia's "legal space" and administration. Recentralizing simultaneously fiscal relations, laws and administration forces Moscow to buy off sovereignty-minded Tatarstan somehow. With the democratizing effect of the legal harmonization policy in the republics, many of which including Tatarstan have outright anti-democratic legislation, a backlash from national minorities could bring less-accommodating nationalists to power.
By July, Tatarstan's constitution should be approved and its treaty with Moscow abrogated, but Kazan's moderates have held power because they established Tatarstan's sovereignty. In short, it could be a very hot summer in Kazan.
( Dr. Gordon M. Hahn is The Russia Journal's political analyst and a visiting research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.)