Hail to the Chiefs Moscow and Tatarstan still can’t agree how many presidents Russia should have

Tatarstan Republic State Council

Deputies in the Tatarstan State Council have voted against proposed federal legislation that would force all regional heads across the country to adopt the same title, abolishing Tatarstan’s own “presidency.” Tatarstan is Russia’s last holdout that still calls its regional head of state “president” — a fiercely guarded totem of local independence. The federal government in Moscow has spent more than a decade pursuing greater centralization and trying to pressure and persuade officials in the republic to drop the title so that the Kremlin alone can claim it. In contemporary Russian politics, it’s only mild hyperbole to compare the vote in the State Council to separatism. Meduza explains why the local presidency is so important to Tatarstan and how the federal authorities will likely respond to this affront.

The draft legislation that would make Vladimir Putin the only “president” in Russia arrived in the State Duma on September 27, coauthored by two lawmakers who were instrumental to revising the Constitution last year to enable Putin to run for another two terms: Pavel Krasheninnikov and Andrey Klishas. Sources told Meduza that the initiative is considered a “must-have” by the Kremlin. Once adopted, regional leaders across the land will be known as “glavy” (heads). The legislation also lifts term limits on these officials, who currently cannot serve more than two consecutive terms in office.

In 82 votes cast, deputies in Tatarstan’s State Council rejected the federal legislation unanimously, arguing that the bill’s provisions “contradict the foundations of Russia’s constitutional system as a democratic federal state that observes the rule of law.” The rejection marks a rare public protest by a regional parliament against an initiative from Moscow (all the more remarkable because United Russia members hold 82 of the State Council’s 100 seats), but it will likely have no effect on the legislation’s ultimate adoption: at least 29 regions would need to oppose the bill, and Tatarstan stands alone.

It’s a Perestroika thing

Tatarstan’s presidency is a product of how the Soviet Union collapsed. In late 1989, the Communist Party in the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic appointed Mintimer Shaimiev as first secretary. Within a year, he was also the head of the republic’s Supreme Council. On June 12, 1991, held simultaneously with Russia’s presidential contest, Tatarstan staged its own presidential election. Whereas Boris Yeltsin failed to win a majority in the region, Mintimer Shaimiev claimed a commanding victory with 70.6 percent of all votes. (Admittedly, the fact that Shaimiev ran unopposed somewhat undermines his triumph.)

Tatarstan’s flirtation with independence escalated the following year when the republic held a referendum that established it as a “sovereign state,” making it a subject of international law that could technically sign treaties with other nations. Local officials also refused to sign the Treaty of Federation with Moscow and adopted their own constitution (a whole year before Russia instituted its own post-Soviet constitution).

The pursuit of independence and sovereignty never reached the boiling point that led to war in Chechnya, however. In 1994, Tatarstan signed an agreement delineating powers between the republic and the federal government, preserving broad local autonomy, including in the economic sphere. To this day, Tatarstan owns 36 percent of the oil and gas company Tatneft, and the republic’s president still heads its board of directors.

Fighting for president

Over the past 20 years, in Russia’s Putin era, Tatarstan’s independence has eroded with multiple rewritings of its Constitution. In 2007, the republic signed a new agreement delineating powers with the federal government that stripped away many of the last vestiges of Tatarstan’s special standing in the country, including the region’s right to levy its own taxes (first enshrined in 1994).

In 2010, Mintimer Shaimiev decided to retire, and the presidency went to his prime minister, Rustam Minnikhanov. That same year, the federal government passed legislation prohibiting “president” as a title for regional leaders, and Russia’s republics had until early 2015 to adopt the necessary reforms. Tatarstan alone defied the new law.

In late 2015, with Tatarstan still in noncompliance, Vladimir Putin reluctantly but essentially consented to the republic’s position, telling journalists that the regional leader’s title was “for Tatarstan itself to decide.”

In 2017, however, the republic’s power-delineation agreement expired, and Moscow refused to extend it. At the same time, federal officials working through the Attorney General’s Office started pushing Tatarstan’s schools to drop the mandatory study of the Tatar language. The republic’s State Council resisted the effort but ultimately conceded to the Kremlin’s wishes.

A symbolic relic

After more than 20 years of creeping government centralization, Tatarstan’s presidency is nearly the last surviving sign that the republic enjoys any special status in Russia. Tatarstan State Council deputy Rkail Zaidullin, a United Russia member who voted against the new bill banning regional presidents, says it threatens the foundations of the Russian Federation. Tatarstan’s only legislator who opposed last year’s constitutional amendments (arguing that they unfairly designate ethnic Russians as the nation’s “constituent people”), Zaidullin also warned that the new legislation would allow Moscow to meddle in the formation of executive agencies in regions across the country.

But Tatarstan’s State Council has not publicly discussed what it plans to do if and when the federal government adopts this latest prohibition on regional presidents. Speaker Farid Mukhametshin has vowed to draft amendments to change the bill in its second reading (though the State Duma has still yet to vote on a first reading). President Rustam Minnikhanov, meanwhile, has declined to comment on the matter entirely. His press secretary recently told journalists that he hasn’t even read the draft text. 

Minnikhanov will be forced to leave office in 2025, unless the proposed federal legislation is adopted, lifting gubernatorial term limits. 

To be continued

Sergey Sergeev, a political analyst based in Kazan, told Meduza that the State Council’s opposition to the proposed ban on regional presidents is based primarily on protecting the interests of Tatarstan’s elites, not abstract concerns about Russia’s federal state. Yet Sergeev also argues that Tatarstan (more so even than Chechnya) puts a premium on symbols of independence. There are bureaucratic concerns, as well. For example, some politicians apparently fear that abolishing the republic’s presidency might precipitate the unification of the prime minister’s cabinet with what was the presidency, shrinking the local elite’s political apparatus.

Additionally, Tatarstan’s presidency has commercial benefits, says Sergeev, explaining that the office enables the republic’s international relations with Islamic states and potential foreign investors. 

Sergeev told Meduza that he thinks officials in Tatarstan will bide their time until Russia’s central government commits to forcing an end to the region’s presidency. Ultimately, he believes the local elites’ resistance won’t risk anything bolder than delaying tactics. 

But other sources close to Tatarstan’s State Council say this week’s vote against federal lawmakers’ new proposal is more than just a public gesture. “This was a real attempt to preserve the status quo and signal to the center that it ‘shouldn’t mess with [Tatarstan] like this,’” one person told Meduza.

Both sides find themselves in a holding pattern for now. A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the Kremlin is “displeased” with the vote by Tatarstan’s deputies, but that same individual acknowledged that the federal government is too busy with the coronavirus pandemic to deal with the troublemakers in Kazan. Another source said that Putin might very well allow Rustam Minnikhanov to complete the rest of his term as president, dangling the Kremlin’s approval for another term with the condition that Tatarstan finally parts with its precious presidency. 

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Text by Andrey Pertsev and Anton Kharisov

Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock


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