Prospects of Federalism in Russia: A View from Tatarstan.
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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).