Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[BRIEF NOTE] Tatarstan in the 21st Century

Just last week, Tatarstan's capital city of Kazan celebrated its thousandth anniversary.

Telgat Bariev, the chairman of Tatar Public Center, an independent Tatar national organization, says the anniversary reveals the history of the Islamic presence in Europe. "[The anniversary indicates] that Muslim civilization in Europe has ancient roots," he said. "It is supported by the fact that Muslims live near the Volga River and the Urals. The predecessors of the Tatar nation [were also Muslims]. It is a very important aspect looking at current relations between civilizations. Islam has been present in Europe for at least 1,000 years."

Tatars tend to be moderate Muslims, and the region has had little of the ethnic or religious strife that has plagued other Muslim regions in Russia. Valiulla Yakupov, assistant to Tatarstan's chief mufti, was quoted by AFP as saying, "an equilibrium of civilizations and cultures exists in Kazan."

In June, Kazan's Qol Sharif Mosque, the largest in Europe, was rededicated, 500 years after it was destroyed by Tsar Ivan the Terrible. An Islamic university was opened in the city five years ago. In July, the city remounted a Christian icon known as Our Lady of Kazan. The icon had been acquired by the Vatican and was handed back to the Russian Orthodox Church by the late Pope John Paul II.

Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev says the Kazan anniversary will help Tatars take a closer look at their history. "For several decades, [the Russian Federation] did not look closely at Asia and the East, but now we urgently need to take a closer look," Shaimiev said. "I think the importance attached to the 1,000th anniversary of Kazan is explained by this Euro-Asian factor."

That Kazan's thousandth anniversary celebrations coincided with the meeting in the Tatarstani capital of leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and with President Putin's delivery of a speech in the Tatar language at the World Congress of Tatars, was a happy coincidence. The Tatars and Tatarstan seem to be doing fairly well in the world.

"Tatars" has always been a sprawling category or perhaps metacategory, clumping together different ethnies united by their common use of Turkic dialects, or by their Islam, or by the two factors. Wikipedia's sprawling detailed article provides a good overview of the different divisions among the Tatars. The Tatars, more than any of the other large ethnic groups in the former Soviet Union with a distinctive national tradition, are a nation divided. Of the five and a half million Tatars living in Russia--the largest non-Russian ethnic group inside the Russian Federation--only two million live within the frontiers of Tatarstan, the remainder scattered throughout the Volga-Urals area and beyond. Even though there are more Tatars within Tatarstan's frontiers than there are ethnic Latvians in Latvia or ethnic Estonians in Estonia, and even though the government of the autonomous republic of Tatarstan pushed vigourously for independence in the decade after Gorbachev began his reforms, Tatarstan failed to become an independent state because it is entirely surrounded by Russia and by Russian-populated territory. An independent Tatarstan would be akin to a sovereign enclave within Russian territory unless Tatarstan somehow managed to become the nucleus of an Idel-Ural State comprising the different Turkic and Finnic populations along the Volga. The odds of Idel-Ural working seem to be fairly low.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet state and the failure of Tatar separatism, the Republic of Tatarstan seems to have fared reasonably well despite its continued non-sovereign status. Tatarstan, it seems, is coming into its own as a viable subnational polity within the Russian Federation. Tatarstan's long-standing president Mintiner Shaimiev has successfully managed to balance Tatar nationalism and the Russian Centre, quietly acquiring more prerogatives and powers for Tatarstan while avoiding a breakdown of Moscow-Kazan and Russian-Tatar relations on the ground. Slowly, Tatarstan appears to be evolving into a viable subnational entity in the Russian context. This isn't enough for many Tatars, however, as Kommersant reported on the 30th of last month in its coverage of the World Congress of Tatars. Tatarstan's prerogatives remain at risk from a centralizing Russian Federation, while radicals have claimed that both the Tatar language and Tatars' traditional Islam have been receding:

Chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia Ravil Gainutdin pointed out to the signs of the moral decay of the nation. “Tatars marry Russians and baptize their children then. They start drinking vodka and eating pork. 80 percent of the people at mosques are refugees who do not speak Tatar and ask to preach in Russian. It is high time to raise the alarm!”

The speech of writer Fauziya Bairamova, former leader of Ittifak party, which adhered to nationalistic views in early 90s and urged for the republic’s separation from Russia, became the sharpest. Ms. Bairamova called the occasion of the gathering “a holiday in the cage”. She made it clear that she meant Russia as the cage. “We are squeezed by the Chinese Empire from the Urals. Christians invade from the West, these are crusaders who want to suppress us,” she said and called on Tatars to restore their nationhood by separating from everyone. Unlike Shaimiev, who underlined the achievements of Tatars, the writer claimed that her people were “lying in dirt and dust”.

It remains true that, in many areas, Tatar language and culture remain weak. Davis, Hammond, and Nizamova note in their paper "Media, Language Policy and Cultural Change in Tatarstan: Historic vs. Pragmatic Claims to Nationhood" that the Tatar nationalist narrative, of a Muslim people dominated by Russians for almost five centuries now coming to its own statehood, is not universally accepted among Tatars. But then, Tatarstan is hardly as homogeneous a territory--ethnically, linguistically, politically--as Québec or Catalonia, and Russia isn't as stable a polity as Canada or Spain; Tatarstan simply can't be expected to follow Québécois or Catalan precedents immediately. That time may yet come, if Russia continues its economic growth and political modernization while Tatar and Tatarstani identities become sharper. The question of what Tatar nationalists in Tatarstan will make of the Tatar diaspora elsewhere in Russia is interesting: Will they echo Québécois nationalists in proclaiming their coethnics doomed to assimilation or will they try to reach out to them? Events in neighbouring Bashkortostan, where the republican authorities have been trying to assimilate the million-odd Tatars into the Bashkir population suggest the latter. In the meantime, there's nothing else to do but watch and hope for the best.

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