Tatarstan's Model For Developing Russian Federalism.
Russia is going through a constitutional crisis, and the main reason for this is
the fact that the question of the organisation of the state has not been solved. Today the
struggle for democracy takes place mainly within the field of federalism. In Russia,
democracy can only exist if it is based on federalism, and it has to be supported by
distinct federal principles. The attempts to combine a rigid centralism with democracy,
particularly at the time of the war in Chechnya, led to a weakening of state power and to
the commencement of the constitutional crisis. Russia will either fall apart or become a
The historical context: The struggle between the unitary and the federal tendencies
Historically, Russia has been a conglomerate of different khanats, territories and
peoples. Today, the peoples who were once conquered by the Russians, or who (according to
the official version) 'voluntarily' joined the Russian state, are living compactly in
their historical homelands, and they have kept the memories of their former statehood.
Their behaviour is in many ways determined by ethnic interests, and this is expressed
through demands for federalisation and the adoption of a distinct national policy.
After the 1917 revolution it was precisely the non-Russian peoples who initiated a
restructuring of the Russian state on federalist principles. Formally federalism was
proclaimed, but to all intents and purposes both the Soviet Union and the RSFSR remained
unitary states where all structures were rigidly centralised. With this inheritance
'perestroika' commenced. Mikhail Gorbachev was forced to exert enormous efforts to
preserve the integrity of the country, but he was to late in starting the process of
federalisation, and consequently the Soviet Union fell apart and the old imperial
inheritance was left to the RSFSR. As a result of this Mikhail Gorbachev lost both the
power and the state.
The dramatic prehistory of the conflicts between the centre and the regions explains
many of today's problems in Russia. In 1990 RSFSR declared state sovereignty. In doing
this it provoked analogous declarations in the former autonomous republics. In August 1990
Tatarstan proclaimed the 'declaration of state sovereignty of the republic of
Tatarstan'. The motive for this was that Tatarstan was in a hurry to sign the Union
Treaty as an independent subject, in 'alphabetical order', so to say, i.e. not as a
part of the RSFSR delegation but as a union republic.1 Tatarstan raised the
question of status as union republic on several occasions, starting in the 1930's at the
time when the Constitution of 19362 was adopted, then in 1951,3 in
1954,4 in 1964,5 and in 1977.6
Following Tatarstan's example all the other republics of the RSFSR declared state
sovereignty. This phenomenon was named the 'parade of sovereignities' and was based
upon the non-Russian population's resentment with their lack of legal recognition within
the state, and with the lack of mechanisms for the fulfilment of their ethnic interests.
The 'parade of sovereignties' caused a situation characterised by a lack of legal
regulations of the new relations between the centre and the subjects. In April 1992 the
central authorities and the subjects signed the Federation Treaty (FT), or rather - three
'federation treaties' regarding three types of subjects. Only Tatarstan and
Checheno-Ingushetiya refrained from signing the treaties, and Bashkortostan signed on the
condition that the FT would be complemented with bilateral treaties. The reasons why
Tatarstan refrained form signing the treaty were as follows:
1) It granted the republics lesser rights than they actually enjoyed at this moment;
2) In reality it was only an agreement between the federal government and the subjects
of the delimitation of power, the federal nature of Russia was not defined in the treaty.
Consequently there was no guaranty as to the preservation of the sovereignty of the
With time it became evident that the interpretation of this document would fluctuate
with the political situation. In reality Moscow did not intend to surrender its power to
the regions. Moscow needed a political breathing space in order to be able to re-establish
its rigid control over the republics. The central authorities did not offer, and indeed
they did not even intend to offer, a mechanism for the realisation of the FT.7
At the time of the preparation of the new Constitution of the Russian Federation they
actually excluded the FT from the constitutional process.
The Federation Treaty could not become a founding document, as it was based, not upon
the will of the peoples, but upon the will of the centre, which was not interested in the
decentralisation of power. Consequently, Russia for all purposes remained a unitary state.
The Constitutional Assembly of 1993 could have been a real opportunity for the founding of
a federation. Several politicians suggested to change the assembly into a 'founding
meeting'. However, the initiators of the assembly were not interested in this, and they
exerted great efforts in order to exclude from the draft constitution many of the
suggestions which potentially could have become a basis for federalisation. Distinctively,
the word 'sovereignity', which the republics insisted to include, disappeared from the
final text of the Constitution.
At the assembly the suggestions of Tatarstan which were put forward as legislative
initiatives in the name of the Supreme Soviet and the President, were not considered.
Tatarstan's suggestions were based on the result of the referendum which was held on the
31st of March 1992 and on the Constitution of Tatarstan, which was adopted on
the 5th of November 1992. To demonstrate its protest Tatarstan's delegation
left the Constitutional Assembly.8
The referendum on the Constitution of the Russian Federation on the 12th of
December 1993, showed the discontent of many of the subjects with the suggested draft. If
we include Tatarstan, where the vast majority of the electorate boycotted the referendum,
and Chechnya, where no referendum was held, 32 subjects voted against the Constitution.
Thus, already from the moment it was officially adopted, the Constitution of the Russian
Federation lacked full legitimacy.
The ensuing political moves of the centre were directed at strengthening the unitary
tendency. The treaty with Tatarstan was considered a purely opportunistic and temporary
document, even as a kind of misunderstanding. A number of ideologists who were close to
Boris Yeltsin9 put forward a thesis concerning the necessity of
'gubernisation' of Russia, i.e. the elimination of national state formations and the
transition to a purely territorial principle for organising the state. This provoked a
distinctively negative reaction from the republics.10 This opposition peaked
with the beginning of the war in Chechnya. The republics condemned11 the war,
as they considered it an attempt at the restoration of the empire.
In 1996 the republics, and then a number of the oblasts and krais, being dissatisfied
with their status, demanded that bilateral treaties be concluded. Before the presidential
elections of 1996, in order to strengthen his staggering position in the regions, Boris
Yeltsin was forced to start a process of concluding treaties not only with the republics,
but also with oblasts, krais and cities. Thus the struggle between the unitary and federal
tendencies came to its conclusion by the end of 1996 with the victory of the federalist
forces. But federalism was not consolidated within the legislation.
The political consequences of the war in Chechnya
The war in Chechnya provoked a political crisis in Russia. The population on the whole
resented the consequences of the war, because of the deaths of many young soldiers. The
economy could not sustain the enormous expenditures to maintain the army and the dubious
infusions to 'restore' the economy. In the army demoralisation set in. The
international community condemned Russia and demanded the termination of military
The war in Chechnya, lost by Moscow, further complicated the relations between the
centre and the regions. Firstly, the war caused distrust in the leadership of Russia, not
only among the Chechens but among practically all of the non-Russian peoples. It became
difficult to appeal to the democratic attitudes of the Russian leadership - this was no
longer an argument. The historical distrust in Moscow, which had existed for centuries,
once again became a political factor. Secondly, a solution of the Chechen problem demands
that the republics be granted special status. Obviously, 'Tatarstan's model' will
not work in this case, and consequently any Treaty on the status of Chechnya will lead to
harsh contradictions with the Constitution of the Russian Federation. Thirdly, Chechnya is
activating its international efforts in order to receive security guaranties and financing
of the reconstruction. This may become another destabilising factor in Russia and the
Symptoms of a constitutional crisis in Russia
The commencement of the withdrawal of the military forces from Chechnya and the
activation of the treaty process created a new political and legal situation. Russia
approached a constitutional crisis, because the Constitution could no longer meet the
requirements of the new political reality.
One has to admit that the 'Parade of the Treaties', which included one third of the
federal subjects, destroyed the old constitutional order. What happened was actually a
deviation, not only from the nominally existing Federal Treaty, but also from the
Constitution of the Russian Federation. Today it is difficult for Moscow to demand that
the constitutions of a series of republics be brought in accordance with the Constitution
of the Russian Federation. As a matter of fact it might be a more appropriate question
whether the Constitution of the Russian Federation should not be brought in accordance
with the new political situation.
The constitutional crisis was provoked by the contradictions within the Constitution
itself. In particular, in article 5, paragraph 1, the equality of the subjects is
proclaimed, but the same article consolidates the distinction between republics (states)
which have their own constitution and other subjects which only have charters (ustavy).12
The Constitution of the Russian Federation defines three types of subjects with
different status: Nation-states (republics), administrative-territorial units (krais,
oblasts, Moscow and St Petersburg),and national-territorial units (the autonomous oblast
and autonomous okrug). Thus, the Constitution by way of its nature stipulates asymmetrical
relations. In addition to the legal asymmetries one has to consider the natural
asymmetries resulting from the ethnic, geographic and economic diversity of the subjects.
The Constitution of the Russian Federation proclaims the supremacy of the basic law,
and simultaneously allows for relations to be regulated in separate agreements, without
specifying the nature of such agreements.
We notice one more significant contradiction which continually creates internal tension
in the country. The Constitution of the Russian Federation starts with the words: 'We,
the multinational people of the Russian Federation,...' Still it does not suggest any
mechanisms for the implementation of the rights of the non-Russian peoples. The Parliament
has no procedure for considering the interests of the minorities. The legitimacy of the
Federal Assembly is also very dubious in the eyes of the non-Russian peoples, because the
subjects did not participate in the elaboration of the regulations concerning the
representative bodies of Russia.
For many of its peoples Russia is the only territory where they can develop their
culture. They are the indigenous population, as they lived on their territories long
before the Russians appeared. Thus, naturally they have claims to the role of state
building ethnoses on a level with the Russians. Russian federalism must be based upon the
interests of all the country's peoples. Any other approach would integrate inter-ethnic
tensions into the foundation of the state.
The specific character of Russia is reflected in the fact that democratic laws have
seldom been adopted. And in the instances when they have been adopted, they have not been
implemented. Two factors are significant in order to understand the political situation in
Russia: 1) the traditional anti-democratic nature of the Russian society, and 2) the
tendency to ignore the Constitution and the adopted laws. Every new head of state in
Russia considers it a necessity to adopt his own constitution, but does not consider it
necessary to follow it. The whole history of Russia testifies to how her leaders have
preferred the power of arms to political methods as their means of communication with the
people and ethnic groups. The war in Chechnya is in line with Russia's traditions, while
the treaty with Tatarstan contradicts them. If in Europe a problem is solved by the
adoption of a constitution and legislation, then in Russia such a practice is nothing more
than a good prerequisite for political struggle for one's rights - human rights and the
rights of peoples.
Approaches to the federalisation of Russia
There are two main approaches to the federalisation of Russia: 1) the
constitution-agreement variety, where the centre defines all the processes and delegates
powers to the regions, and 2) the agreement-constitution variety, where the relations are
built 'from below and upwards' by a voluntary delegation of power to the centre.
Advocates of 'the constitution-agreement' approach maintain that the
sovereignisation of the republics, which was initiated by Tatarstan, may lead to Russia
falling apart, like the Soviet Union did; thus, it is necessary to apply a policy of rigid
control over the subjects, and to grant them minimal powers. Therefore, they consider
bilateral agreements to be temporary and anomalous ('to reassure Tatarstan'); as a
matter of fact they strive for the preservation of the unitary state. Specifically this
attitude has been expressed through the attempts in the State Duma to adopt the law
concerning the delimitation of power between the federal bodies of state power and the
subjects' bodies of power. The war in Chechnya was an integral part of this policy.
Advocates of the 'agreement-constitution' approach do not consider Russia to be a
genuine federation, and they adhere to the principle whereby relations with the centre are
formed 'from below and upwards', i.e. by a voluntary transfer of power with the aid of
bilateral agreements. In this context sovereignty becomes a necessary legal basis for the
self-determination of the federal subjects.
The source of power in a democratic federation is the people. Thus, the foundations of
the state, the functions of the central bodies etc. must be defined by the federal
subjects. In post-imperial Russia reformation of the state 'from the top' was
impossible, as it was in the interest of the centre to preserve the unitary state and not
to decentralise the system of government.
Where the advocates of the first approach continue to insist that the constitutions of
the republics must be in accordance with the Constitution of Russia, their opponents, and
Tatarstan in particular, maintain that, quite to the contrary, the Constitution of Russia
must be in accordance with the constitutions of the republics, and the centre must be
controlled by the subjects. Furthermore, the functions of the federal bodies should be
defined by the powers which the subjects have voluntarily transferred to them, while each
subject independently decides upon the enumeration of these powers and has the right to
withdraw them whenever they like.
Tatarstan has always regarded the decentralisation and federalisation of Russia as a
way to eliminate the imperial structures and progress to a genuinely democratic society.
Additionally, federalism will allow for a strengthening of the control with the keeping
and illegal sale of weapons, and the struggle against crime will become more effective
within each separate territory. This is extremely important, as the sheer spaciousness of
a Russia without borders or customs makes it easy to transport weapons, drugs and other
illegal goods from the Far East all the way to the Baltic. A strengthening of local
authorities resulting from a redistribution of power between the centre and the subjects
would increase the general security of Europe.
The federalisation of Russia can and should be based upon two principles: the
ethno-territorial and the territorial. Deviations from the ethno-territorial principle in
the organisation of the Russian state can result in great political turmoil, as the war in
Chechnya has already demonstrated.
The multiethnic nature of Russia has an influence on all political processes in the
country. Politicians and scientists usually operate with summarised figures of the ethnic
composition of Russia. When this approach is used, Russia looks like a monoethnic state,
with Russians constituting 82% of the population. However, it would be a great mistake to
draw political conclusions from this picture. Without a consideration of the quantity of
non-Russian ethnoses in compactly populated areas, it is impossible to imagine the actual
weight of their influence on society. Apart from this, one has to take into consideration
the dynamics of the demographic growth of non-Russian ethnic groups. For instance, the
number of Moslems in Russia is approximately 20 million, but 'within three decades -
says Jurij Kobishanov - the Moslem population must be expected to reach 30 to 40
million.'13 In many regions of Russia the numbers of the Moslem and the
orthodox Christian populations will gradually converge over the next few years. This is
happening precisely in those regions where they have been living from time immemorial -
they are indigenous peoples. In a vast country like Russia, with an extremely varied
landscape, a significant part of the non-Russian ethnoses living in separate territories
is becoming an important political factor.
At the same time, it is also important to define the status of the Russian subjects.
The dimensions of the country are so large that government from a single centre is
rendered ineffective - the geographic, economic and cultural diversity of the country is
The asymmetry of the relations between the subjects and the centre in Russia is a fact
which it is impossible to ignore and extremely difficult to eliminate. The differences in
status between the republics, oblasts, krais and autonomous okrugs is evident. There are
also differences between Tatarstan and the other republics regarding the extent of their
These differences of status between the subjects are obviously unjust. It seems that
over the next few yeas there will be a process of equalisation in regard to the extent of
the powers of the republics versus the administrative territories. Many Heads of oblasts
and krais directly pose the question of expanding the rights of their territories to the
level of Tatarstan's powers. Such sentiments are becoming increasingly popular.
Tatarstan speaks in favour of a flexible policy on the part of the centre. In its
relations with the subjects, the centre should not pay too much attention to abstract
principles of equalisation; instead it should concentrate on the specific ethnic and
historical features of each particular region. In a statement from the three presidents of
Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Sakha-Yakutiya it is said that 'The policy of the centre
concerning its relations with the subjects should be flexible, and it should take into
consideration the political reality. There are, and there will continue to be, differences
between the federal subjects. This is due to the natural diversity of life itself.
Integrity and stability within a state is not reached by unification and the mechanical
adjustment of all to a single standard, but, on the contrary, by the consideration of the
particular features and requirements of each subject.'14 The strength of a
federation is not defined by whether relations are symmetrical, but by whether each
subject will receive support for its particular interests from the federal centre,
provided, naturally, that such support is not granted at the expense of other subjects.
In august 1991 negotiations were opened between Moscow and Kazan, and on the 15th
of February 1994 they were concluded with the signing of a Treaty between the Russian
Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan 'On the delimitation of authority and the
reciprocal delegation of powers between the bodies of state power of the Russian
Federation and the bodies of state power of the Republic of Tatarstan.' Simultaneously,
the governments of Russia and Tatarstan signed a package of agreements regulating their
relations in the spheres of trade, property, budgets, finance, banking, military
installations, the military-industrial complex, customs, matters of foreign economy and
the preservation of law and order.15 This package of 12 inter-governmental
agreements, signed at the same time as the Treaty, became a mechanism for the
implementation of the articles of the Treaty.
This method for political regulation of the relations between the centre and the
regions was named ' Tatarstan's model'. Naturally, the model can not be applied to
all such cases - the situation in Russia is too complex, but the fact remains that to this
day no other sensible model has come into existence.
The Treaty is, above all, a mechanism for solving the conflict between Kazan and
Moscow, which has developed as a result of two profound tendencies: on the one hand the
demands for the decentralisation of power and a transition to a genuine federalisation of
Russia; on the other hand the striving on the part of the centre to preserve for itself as
many as possible of the functions of power which have remained from the time of the Soviet
Empire. When Moscow made this move, her actions were based not on strategic but on
tactical considerations, and in the hope that she would, in due course, be able to force
Tatarstan and the other republics to follow the orders issued by the centre. For
Tatarstan, on the contrary, its relations with Moscow should as a matter of principle be
based on agreements. This policy is reflected in several documents. The historical
significance of the treaty consists in the fact that it reflects Moscow's renunciation
of the application of force against Tatarstan.
As to the legal implications of the Treaty, it is intended to act as a kind of
'buffer' between the Constitution of Russia and that of Tatarstan. As a matter of fact
the Treaty signifies that Moscow does not demand of Tatarstan that its Constitution be
brought in accordance with the Constitution of Russia. Thus, the supremacy of Tatarstani
laws over Russian laws is also acknowledged - and significant distinctions do exist
between the two units in the field of legislation. For instance, Tatarstan is declared a
zone free of weapons of mass destruction, and the republic is oriented towards a
demilitarisation of the economy. This contradicts the general military doctrine of Russia.
In Tatarstan laws concerning the right to private ownership of land have been adopted, and
certain privileges are granted to foreign investors, while this is not the case in Russia.
In compliance with the Treaty, Tatarstan's right to introduce it's own citizenship
on a level with the common Russian one has been recognised, and the same applies to
Tatarstan's right to participate (albeit not to full extent) in international and
foreign economy relations.
The nature of the political situation makes it impossible for Tatarstan to voluntarily
adjust its Constitution to accord with the Constitution of Russia. In this matter the
leadership of the Republic enjoys the full support of the population. There might be a
question of bringing the two constitutions in accordance with each other, but in any case
the centre would have to initiate this.
What is to be expected?
The conclusions of bilateral Treaties and the elections of oblast governors will result
in an expansion of the sovereignty of the federal subjects, and the subjects will demand
further rights, above all in the field of the economy. Budget federalism will be one of
the most dramatic topics of the next political season.
The fact that the national problem remains unsolved will make the non-Russian peoples
strive for an increase of the status of the republics and for the introduction of changes
in the composition and functions of the central bodies of power (legislative as well as
In Russia there is also the problem of ethnic groups which have been cut loose from the
main massive, but which actively demand the fulfilment of their claims. As an example,
only 25% of all Tatars live in Tatarstan; while the rest are settled compactly or
dispersed in almost all parts of Russia. They demand that a Peoples' Assembly of Russia
be created as a special chamber of the Federal Assembly. The proposition of the creation
of a Peoples' Assembly of Russia entered into the Conception of the national policy of
Russia. Naturally, the central authorities are not concerning themselves with the
implementation of the national policy, nor have they any intentions of doing so.
Consequently, these matters will be dealt with by the public organisations and the
republics. Next year an enlivening of political activity in connection with these
questions must be expected.
Conclusion: without constitutional reforms political stability can not be expected to
prevail in Russia.
1 In the Declaration it is stated that it is the basis for republic's
participation in "preparation for their inclusion in the Union Treaty, treaties with
the RSFSR and other republics...".
2 As an answer to the republic's demands Stalin told Vyshinskiy to elaborate
the criteria for becoming a union republic so as to prevent Tatarstan from gaining such a
3 Officials from the republic raised the question of an expansion of the
republic's economic rights.
4 A group consisting of members of the creative intelligentsia raised the
question of the republic's status.
5 A group consisting of members of the creative intelligentsia in agreement
with the leaders of the republic raised the question of the republic's status, and a draft
constitution for Tatarstan as a union republic was also prepared.
6 A proposal was included in the draft for a new constitution for the USSR.
7 At this time the author was an expert at the Council of Heads of Republics,
and witnessed how in the course of one and a half years the representatives of the
republics tried to suggest a mechanism for the realisation of the FT, but its
contradictions did not allow for the elaboration of realistic approaches. In addition the
executive power openly ignored the existence of the Federation Treaty.
8 In the "Declaration of the President and the Chairman of the Supreme
Soviet of the Republic of Tatarstan" it is stated: "In the draft which was
prepared during the initial phase by the Constitutional Assembly there was an urge to
belittle and discredit the very idea of the establishment of a qualitatively new type of
federal relations. The legislative initiative from the Republic of Tatarstan of a new
vision of federalism in Russia, and of the possibility of integrating into the country's
Constitution the propositions of treaty-constitutional relations between the republic of
Tatarstan and the Russian Federation - Russia has been ignored." See "Belaya
kniga" pp. 26-27.
9 See S. Shakhraj "Poslanie prezidentu RF", Panorama-Forum, nr. 1
1995, pp. 7-9.
10 See "Poslanie M. Shaymieva, M. Rakhimova, M. Nikolaeva Prezidenty
Rossiskoy Federatsii B. Yeltsinu: Za posledovatelnuju demokratizatsiju i federalizatsiju
Rosii", Panorama-Forum, nr. 1 1995, pp. 3-6.
11 See "Zayavlenie semi respublik ot 5 yanvarya 1995 goda",
Respublika Tatarstan 6 yanvarya 1995.
12 On the constitutional meeting a conflict (in many ways artificial) was
provoked between the republics and the oblasts. The oblasts demanded that they be granted
the same rights as the republics. The republics agreed to the introduction of equal rights
- not by a reduction of the rights of the republics, but by an expansion of the rights of
the oblasts and other subjects. Ten republics elaborated an official position in this
regard. The author addressed the meeting, suggesting that the oblasts and krays be granted
the right to have constitutions instead of charters. The presidium refused to let the
meeting vote over this question. In the final text the inequality was increased, which was
considered a purely political move on the part of the centre, which feared the development
of a united "front" of federal subjects against the centre.
13 Ju. Kobishchanov "Izlamskaya tsivilizatsiya i severnaya Evraziya",
Nezavisimaya gazeta 9 aprelya 1996, p. 5.
14 Panorama-Forum, nr 1. 1995, p. 7.
15 The text of the Treaty and the twelve agreements were published in the book
"Belaya kniga Tatarstana...; Collected documents of Tatarstan. The Path to
Sovereignty. (Official collection of documents). 1990-93. Kazan 1996; Journal of South
Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Vol XVIII, nr. 1, fall 1994.