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Vladimir Putin and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov. August 2020

‘We don’t want to leave Russia, but…’ How Tatarstan lost the last major vestige of its sovereignty: its presidency

Source: Meduza
Vladimir Putin and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov. August 2020
Vladimir Putin and Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov. August 2020
Mikhail Klimentyev / Russian Presidential Press Service / TASS

Story by Andrey Pertsev. Translation by Sam Breazeale.

In October 2021, the Russian State Duma passed legislation requiring all regional leaders to go by the official title “glava“ (“head”), with some minor exceptions. A year later, Tatarstan, the last of Russia’s republics to call its leader “president,” had still yet to bring its legislation into compliance with this federal law. In December 2022, after months of negotiations with Kremlin representatives, the region’s parliament finally voted to amend its constitution and jettison the last major symbol of its once-meaningful “special status.” Why was Moscow so intent on ensuring that Putin is Russia’s only president? Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev explores this question and whether the change might have unintended consequences.

We’re in the middle of a “special [military] operation.” You see how the global community wants to dismember Russia. While we’re discussing our own issue, here’s how people are going to perceive it: “Look — Tatarstan has rebelled. Things aren’t going well for Putin. Russia’s going to break into pieces.” We can’t let that happen.

This is how Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov explained in a speech on December 23 why the region’s parliamentary deputies should vote to scrap the title of “president” for the republic’s next leader.

A little more than a year earlier, Russia’s State Duma voted to implement new naming conventions for the country’s chief regional administrators. Before the change, though most regional leaders were called “governors,” the law allowed them to use other titles, including “administration head,” “mayor,” and even “president.” But in October 2021, federal parliament decided that “head” should become the standard in official documents, and that Russia should only have one president. Lawmakers made minor exceptions for Moscow, which is led by a mayor, and St. Petersburg and Sevastopol, which are led by governors.

The rest of the country’s regions have been allowed to keep the title of “governor” only as an unofficial, “secondary” title. As another alternative, republics can use the word “head” translated into the local language. But federal law now reserves the word “president” for Russia’s commander-in-chief.

For Tatarstan, the presidential status of its leader has always been a matter of principle. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the predominately Muslim republic held a referendum in which most residents voted in favor of becoming a “sovereign state.” As a result, it became a subject of international law, gained the ability to enter into agreements with other foreign states, and refused to sign Moscow’s Federation Treaty, which regulated the Kremlin’s relationships with other Russian regions. Instead, in 1994, the two governments signed a power-sharing treaty. It gave regional authorities broad authority to make their own decisions, including economic ones: for example, Tatarstan maintained the right to impose its own taxes and manage natural resources as it saw fit.

In the early 2000s, however, the republic’s autonomy started to decline. As its constitution was rewritten multiple times, the regional government saw its powers diminish, while the federal authorities’ reach expanded.

Eventually, the regional head’s “presidential” title was virtually the only remaining sign of the republic’s special status, and regional elites found themselves in a constant battle with the federal authorities to preserve it.

Federalism in modern Russia

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For years, they were successful. But in late December 2022, thirty-seven local deputies (out of the regional parliament’s 100), including every committee head and both vice speakers, introduced a bill that would amend the republic’s constitution to eliminate the regional leader’s presidential status.

The new bill would bring Tatarstan’s regional legislation in line with federal law and do away with the last major vestige of the independence the republic once enjoyed. Furthermore, it would remove from the constitution the language that codifies Tatarstan’s state sovereignty.

Despite the bill’s impressive group of sponsors, however, the regional parliament’s State Building and Legislation Committee recommended that their fellow deputies reject the amendments.

The following day, a new and slightly less drastic bill was introduced. This one didn’t require the republic to relinquish its nominal sovereignty, though it did abolish the region’s presidency, replacing the title with “rais,” an Arabic word meaning “leader.”

In a speech urging parliamentarians to approve the amendments, Minnikhanov acknowledged that Tatarstan had long managed to resist the federal authorities’ pressure: “Unfortunately, probably, neither my efforts nor our deputies’ efforts were enough. We were unable to defend it as our right, of course, to name [the position], but we do have the chance to make an additional title.”

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The president’s predecessor, Mintimer Shaimiev, also supported the changes: “Tatarstan will not become weaker!” The bill ultimately won support from a majority of regional deputies, even though Tatarstan’s State Council voted in October 2021 against the federal bill outlawing regional presidencies, becoming the only regional parliament to oppose the Kremlin’s initiative.

Two sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that Kremlin officials viewed the regional parliament’s dissent “negatively” but always believed they would ultimately change enough deputies’ minds. “Communications and consultations went on for practically the entire year, and there was never a chance it was going to end any other way. Especially in these [wartime] conditions,” said one source. He also noted that deputies in Tatarstan were “allowed to speak out freely” and even express opposition through State Council committees: “It was clear that the legislation would go through anyway.”

The version of the bill that finally passed officially does eliminate Tatarstan’s presidency but not until 2025 — after the next election. Multiple sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that Tatarstan could still lose its “sovereign” status in the next few years: “There definitely can’t be a state within a state in Russia right now.”

Historian Damir Iskhakov, one of the leading thinkers behind the Tatar National Movement, stressed to Meduza that “people in Tatarstan are reacting negatively” to the loss of their leader’s presidential status. “Officials in Moscow might think that people [in Tatarstan] don’t care, and that they don’t understand anything. On the contrary, they understand everything. They understand that this could be the start of the republic’s unraveling,” he said, adding that local elites are also “far from the people,” and that they don’t understand what it means to have independence from the country’s federal center, even if that independence is only symbolic.

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Iskhakov noted that Tatarstan’s lawmakers also considered doing away with the requirement that the republic’s leader knows the Tatar language. “[That would be] much worse than the renaming of the republic’s leader. People can see that there’s a clampdown [from the federal center], but they don’t understand why,” he said.

On the other hand, political scientist and former regional deputy Vladimir Belyayev believes that most Tatarstan residents are “indifferent” to the changes: “People are worried about something else: social problems.” In his view, what residents of the republic need isn’t a “presidency” but “decent federalism” — for example, more equitable tax distribution between Moscow and Kazan.

Konstantin Kalachev, another political scientist, told Meduza that Tatarstan’s local elites held onto the political gains they made in the 1990s for as long as possible: “They care about identity and the privileges they still have left. Everyone in the [Russian] Federation is equal — but Tatarstan is better than the others.”

As an example of this dynamic, a source from United Russia’s federal office who spoke to Meduza described politicians in Tatarstan who try not to use political strategists with ties to the Kremlin — politicians who demand total loyalty from the PR specialists they do use. A source close to the Putin administration confirmed this characterization.

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“[The politicians] make [the job] ‘all inclusive’ — they assist with housing and medicine, and they pay them decent wages. But the main condition the local elites [insist on] is that the people who work for them move to Tatarstan. You’re required to stop going to the offices in Moscow; you effectively take an oath and move,” he explained.

According to political scientist Alexander Kynev, Moscow’s insistence that Tatarstan change its leader’s title is primarily an attempt to curtail this kind of behavior and to dampen the republic’s regional identity. Kynev called the Tatarstan parliament’s recent concessions a “cunning Eastern move” that kicks the problem down the road to 2025, when Minnikhanov’s current term will end. “Tatarstan is [Russia’s] largest national republic, and Tatars are one of the most numerous ethnic groups in the country. The region is well-represented among the country’s elites. What could the federal center do with Tatarstan if they committed to digging in their heels? It couldn’t do much of anything! And nobody knows what will happen between now and 2025,” said Kynev.

“The republic’s leadership managed to save face. It’s not very clear at all what the federal center got out of the renaming; for all these years [that they’ve been advocating the change], it hasn’t been clear. It’s also unclear what the authorities of picture-perfect Tatarstan, which votes [‘correctly’] and has a successful economy and good infrastructure, did to deserve this kind of attack,” political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov told Meduza.

Damir Iskhakov, for his part, said the changes amount to the “destruction of the modern order of the post-Soviet state”:

Where are we going? Are we returning to the 19th century? [...] If Tatars are made to be imperial subjects, there will be mass discontent. Some temporary success is probably possible, but the experiment will fail. People understand perfectly well [what’s going on]; they’ll hold grudges, which will [eventually] come to the surface. We don’t want to break off from Russia, but we want to live in a normal, modern democratic country.

Rustam Minnikhanov and the deputies of Tatarstan’s State Council did not respond to Meduza’s questions.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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