Tatar Nation Building since 1991: Ethnic Mobilisation in Historical Perspective

By Williams, Christopher | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Tatar Nation Building since 1991: Ethnic Mobilisation in Historical Perspective


Williams, Christopher, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


This study analyses the process of ethnic mobilization in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras and assesses the way in which history, memory and the treatment of the Volga Tatars by the Soviet state, especially under Lenin and Stalin, affected their long term desire for greater independence from Moscow. The central argument of this study is that Volga Tatar's nation building was influenced by changes introduced under Gorbachev and by the weaknesses of the post-Soviet state particularly during the Yeltsin era of the 1990s. The article assesses the strategies the President of Tatarstan and his advisors utilized during this period, especially after 1985, to successfully negotiate a bilateral treaty with Moscow in February 1994 granting Tatarstan greater autonomy and independence. Within this framework, the article then provides a detailed analysis of the approach taken in Tatarstan to achieve this goal and to renew the treaty in October 2005, despite Putin's recentralization policies from 2000-2008.

Keywords: Russia, Tatarstan, federalism, sovereignty, separatism.

This article analyses the process of ethnic mobilization in one of the republics of the Russian Federation-Tatarstan. It is one of the four Turkish republics of Russia, the home of the Volga Tatars, and a well developed industrial part of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) with significant natural resources, especially oil. This republic has a population of around 4 million. By 2002, Tatars made up the majority with 52.9%, followed by Russians at 39.9%, Chuvash at 3.3% and other nationalities at 3.9% (Itogi, 2002; Natsional'nyi sostav, 2004: 156-157). Tatars are dispersed throughout the Russian Federation and this article only refers to Volga Tatars.

The following analysis takes a historical approach, and critically assesses the Volga Tatars' attempts at national revival in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. It draws upon Tatar, Russian and Western historiography and corresponding literature. The overall goal is to critically assess, first, the process of ethnic mobilization in Tatarstan over the last two decades in a broader long-term perspective; second, the changing strategy used by the Tatar leadership and elite to achieve greater 'sovereignty' from Moscow in the period from Mikhail Gorbachev to Vladimir Putin; third, the influence of various factors and strategies on the Tatar drive for autonomy; and fourth, the impact which all this has had on Tatar regional identity on the one hand, and centre- periphery relations on the other, since 1991.

The article uses some of the results of a project funded by the International Association formed by the European Union to promote East-West Scientific Cooperation (INTAS) on "Linguistic and Ethnic Revival in Russia: From Policy to Cultural Diversity", implemented between 2006 and 2008, to argue that there are a number of reasons for the relative success of the Volga Tatars with regard to ethnic mobilization and nation building in Tatarstan. The first of these was their ability to overcome the 'Soviet legacy'. The second was the key stabilizing factor of Mintimer Shaimiev, who offered the Tatars continuity and stability during a time of crisis (1991-1999) and also possessed other essential skills-notably the ability to balance different competing interests and to use the appropriate rhetoric and discourse for both his Tatar and Russian supporters and opponents. The third reason was identified as the shift in Russian presidential power from weakness (under Boris Yeltsin) to strength (under Putin), as well as the related issue of decentralization versus recentralization during the same period (1991-2008) and its potential impact on ethnic mobilization and nation building, especially in relation to the 1994 peace-sharing treaty and its subsequent renewal in 2005. Fourth was the vital issue of gains and losses: what did the different sides get out of the process and who can be said to have won or lost-the Tatars or the Russians? …

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