United Russia, dividing Russians

Maxim Edwards

PutinMedvedevKazan United Russia, dividing RussiansPutin’s United Russia cannot have become more divisive since December’s Parliamentary elections, which reminded the Kremlin in the rudest possible terms that Russia is indeed a Federation. Uniting Russia, whether Russia wants it or not, heavy-handed centralisation was the name of the game until the extent of the party’s dependence on country’s Republics – its autonomous, non-Russian regions – was revealed.

The cancellation of elections for regional governors in 2004 and the Chechen President’s controversial call that Republics’ Presidents be renamed ‘Heads’ were just two examples of true Federalism fading away, as fleeting as the invisible ink on a ballot from Chuvashia (perhaps the most bizarre antic from December’s elections). Derided by populist, far right groups such as Zhirinovsky’s paradoxically named Liberal Democratic Party- Russia’s Republics have often been run through regional strongmen, using loyalty to Moscow to preserve their generous levels of autonomy.

In Chechnya, more votes than the number of registered voters were cast for the ruling party, so popular was it in the region. The Republics of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Mordovia polled 78%, 71% and 91% respectively whilst Russian regions such as Yaroslavl and Kostroma, just 29% and 30% each. This is a party which finds itself in the unenviable position of having to cater both to ethnically non-Russian Republics on whose support it is now much more dependent, and ethnic Russian nationalism. Putin’s open letter to Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta on Russia’s inter-ethnic relations was a nod to everybody yet a promise to nobody- declaring a near complete U-turn on many of the earlier centralist policies towards the Republics, whilst declaring the ethnic Russian people the glue which holds the Federation together.

In Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan- arguably Russia’s gutsiest Republic (during the 1990s even declaring its laws superior to the Russian Constitution), the excitement is palpable. Medvedev’s declaration that 2012 would be the Year of Russian History was reacted to by Tatar radical activist Fauzia Bayramova declaring a Year of Tatar History. Tatar nationalists picketed the Turkish consulate in Kazan on numerous occasions demanding support for their cause from Ankara. Tatarstan’s repeated attempts to have the Tatar language written in a Latin script peculiarly similar to Turkish led Moscow to sign a law demanding all languages in Russia to be written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Within the Kazan Kremlin stands the enormous Kul Sharif mosque, named in homage to the Imam who died fighting Ivan the Terrible’s forces in 1552. It overshadows the cathedral built by the Tsar to commemorate his seizure of the city, a key moment in Russia’s early expansion.

The Russian language discerns between the adjectives Rossiysky (from the territory of Russia) and Russky (ethnically Russian)- and Tatarstan testifies to the fact that, to the irritation of Russia’s right, the two are not yet synonymous. Russia’s economic and foreign policy relies heavily on energy reserves, and it is surprising that oil-rich Tatarstan, playing with fire, has not yet got its fingers burnt. Tatar President Rustam Minnikhanov, who has refused to change his title to ‘Head’ as is demanded of him, has over the past month made statements urging support for Putin. It would just be ‘insulting’ if Tatarstan did not ‘adequately appreciate’ everything ‘[Putin] has done for this Republic’, he told a press conference earlier this month. Often in Russian politics, lines are there to be read between.

Minnikhanov himself is a protégé of former Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev, a powerful figure in Tatarstan and across Russia whose leadership of the region throughout the turbulent years of the 1990s ensured the oil-based stability Tatarstan enjoys today. He too is opposed to centralism which would rob the Republics (and their ruling elites) of many of their powers. Shaimiev, who recently declared Putin the ‘only choice’ in elections, has almost universal acclaim amongst Tatars- Russia’s third largest ethnic group.

Ask many Kazan Tatars their opinion of the bureaucrats in Moscow and the venom flies. They are unpardonable swindlers, corrupt biznesmeny rather than real politicians. However, Shaimiev, or Mintimer-abi (Daddy Mintimer) as he is sometimes known, often cannot be worthy of enough praise. Putin, a Russian, will always be ‘one of them’, an unpopular Russian bureaucrat. Shaimiev, a Tatar, is ‘one of us’, a distinction which simply doesn’t exist in ethnically Russian provinces where the leading party has lost credibility. This is the driving legitimacy behind the leadership of Russia’s autonomous regions and the Kremlin knows it.  The question now is whether the leaders of Russia’s Republics will try and extract concessions in exchange for their continued support. If they do, and if United Russia falls, would the opposition- who count nationalists among their number- make regions such as Tatarstan pay more than oil profits?

Putin speaks atrocious Tatar, and if he wants a repeat performance of December’s election from Tatarstan, he should improve his accent. December’s elections were just the dress rehearsal. Leaders like Minnikhanov do not completely control their Mini-khanates but their say will influence how loyal their Republics remain to Moscow. Could 2012 see United Russia become a divided party relying on non-Russian voters? Ivan the Terrible’s work, 460 years on, is evidently not quite finished.

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  • Emanuel Stoakes

    Great article, fine insights. 

  • vsevolod shilkin

    Boy you hit the spot there!! Of all these years of reading news on Russia, this is the first time things made some sense! Great Article! 

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