Crimea crisis: The Tatarstan factor

Why did politicians from Kazan pay frequent visits to Crimea recently?

Tatarstan's regional president Rustam Minnikhanov has visited Crimea a couple of times in recent weeks [AP]

Mustafa Djemilev, former leader of the Crimean Tatar Majlis and veteran activist for the community, has just declared to Ekho Moskvy that he is satisfied with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reassurances to him on the safety of the Crimean Tatar community. Djemilev, who initially refused to meet the Russian president, still insists on the removal of Russian forces (should they officially exist or not) from the peninsula.

Putin stated that Russia’s final decision on the crisis in Crimea will be presented after the referendum on its legal status. The role of mediator in these negotiations was played by Mintimer Shaimiev, former President of Tatarstan.

As the referendum draws ever nearer, apprehensions over the future of the region’s Crimean Tatar community have grown.  Most Western media coverage on the community has assumed little knowledge of and much sympathy for the Crimean Tatars and their cause. Ignoring the Crimean Tatar-language ballot papers (using the Cyrillic, rather than the Latin alphabet), the community shall have its say on the March 16 by boycotting the referendum.

The Crimean Tatars’ anti-Russian (hence in this context, pro-European) stance was forged by their 1944 deportation to Central Asia and problematic resettlement in their ancestral homeland. They are suspicious of Russian intentions and politically mobilised under the leadership of the Crimean Tatar Majlis. The official justification for Russia’s actions in Ukraine was supposedly their concern for minority groups – specifically, though not limited to, Crimean Russians. Given their mistrust and fears of repeated persecution, the Kremlin is approaching the Crimean Tatar community cautiously, with a little help from its friends, such as Shaimiev.

Brotherly love

The related but ethnically distinct Volga Tatars, numbering some six million across the Russian Federation, are one of the country’s largest ethnic minorities. They are chiefly concentrated in the gas-rich and economically successful Republic of Tatarstan. It is one of the top four regions of Russia by contributions to the federal budget.

Both Volga and Crimean Tatars traditionally trace their ancestry back to the Turkic peoples of the Golden Horde. Tatar patriots perceive them as brotherly nations, though there are significant differences:  the Volga Tatar and Crimean Tatar languages are quite different.

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Throughout the 1990s Tatarstan’s regional leadership asserted the Republic’s “sovereignty” to varying degrees (and much to Moscow’s irritation) until the erosion of provincial autonomy under Vladimir Putin. Parading its supposed regional sovereignty in the 1990s, Tatarstan was one of the most flamboyant about it and went as far as opening a small number of its own delegations abroad. Yet for over twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tatarstan maintained no official ties with Crimea. This was probably because of pressure from Moscow not to do so, as journalist Rim Gilfanov has explained.

It can be no coincidence that Crimean officials have welcomed a number of high-profile guests from Tatarstan as of late. On March 5, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov signed an agreement on co-operation between Tatarstan and the new Crimean authorities, the actual contents of which were to be established over the coming month. The agreement implies significant collaboration between ten government institutions as well as significant financial aid to Crimea from Tatarstan businesses.

Whatever Kazan’s motivations, Moscow’s are further-reaching. Crimean Tatar leaders may lose a little sleep over the motivations of their new friends from Tatarstan. “It is clearly part of a larger plan” remarked current leader of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, in a March 3 interview.

The Tatarstan’s Mufti  Kamil Samigullin invited Crimean Tatars to study in madrasas in Kazan, stressing that his visit was an apolitical one, made merely to highlight Kazan Tatar support for their “brothers in faith and blood”. Rinat Zakirov (of the World Tatar Congress) and Razil Valeev, both deputies of the Tatarstan Parliament, elaborated upon their visit to Crimea at a press conference in Kazan on March 2. “Tatars have a saying,” began Valeev, “until a Tatar has seen something with his own eyes, he won’t sense it, he won’t believe it […] We spoke [with Crimean Tatar leaders] without emotion, were cold-blooded, and had an analytical conversation.”

According to Valeev, the Tatarstani and Crimean Tatar politicians agreed that Crimean Tatars should enjoy exactly the same rights as Ukrainians and Russians in Crimea – a statement which, if broadly interpreted, could have varied implications for Crimean Tatar autonomy. For now, these guests from Tatarstan are content to limit their statements to broad platitudes, for stability and harmony, and for closer ties with their ethnic kin. They will, in short, give moral support to Crimean Tatars, though not necessarily for their political preferences.

As former President of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev concluded his address to the Tatarstan parliament on February 27: “It is a sovereign state. The Russians and Ukrainians are civilised people. Whatever our attitude is, it is their internal conflict.” Minnikhanov’s presence at the Crimean parliament’s declaration of sovereignty on his second visit on March 11,  was not covered by Russian media.

In Kazan itself, local authorities organised, on March 5,  a solidarity rally with Crimea and in support for the official line on Crimea. Popular cliches from Russian state media (as well as speaker of the Tatarstan parliament Farit Mukhametshin) were in attendance, decrying fascism and banderovtsy in Ukraine and criticising the Yatsenyuk government in Kiev.

Journalists later revealed that state employers had been instructed to ensure the presence of at least ten of their workers. Following the first signs of a Russian military presence in Crimea in late February, army movements including around three hundred tanks were observed around Kazan. Described in official reports as being “military training”, these movements were suspected by Journalist Rashit Akhmetov of Kazan’s Zvezda Povolzhya as Moscow demonstrating its expectations of loyalty and conformity to the Tatarstan government.

Honoured guests

It has been noted that the small number of pro-Russians in the Crimean Tatar community were known derisively as “Kazany”, given their claims that life was better for the Volga Tatars. In his meeting with Djemilev, Putin mentioned Tatarstan as a region where Tatars live comfortably.

Tatarstan’s state television channel TNV-Planeta has begun broadcasting in the Crimea, showing a documentary on the historic links between the Crimean and Volga Tatars. Yet majority of the Crimean Tatar community appears to remain unimpressed.

Two journalists in Simferopol attempted to coax President Minnikhanov into explaining his visits to Crimea, but like other Tatarstan officials, he remained inscrutable, saying solely that the Volga and Crimean Tatars were brotherly nations. Vice-President of the Crimean Parliament Rustam Temirgaliev (of Volga Tatar descent) congratulated Minnikhanov on his enormously helpful role in negotiations with Crimean Tatar leaders, guaranteeing to the Crimean Tatar community that their cultural and linguistic rights would be respected.

So what will be the result of the Kremlins’ charm offensive? Minnikhanov has been put in a difficult situation. Volga Tatars are first and foremost Russian citizens, exposed to the same views on the Crimean crisis as other Russian citizens. Yet some are not without a keen sense of ethnic and linguistic solidarity with other members of the wider Tatar world. Moscow would certainly risks angering other Muslim and Turkic peoples (not to mention Turkey itself), were it to repress what is a troublesome ethnic minority in order to achieve its goals in the Crimea.

Tatarstan’s role has been interpreted as an attempt to expand the Republic’s influence at a time when its real autonomy has been significantly curtailed in recent years (Minnikhanov will no longer be permitted to refer to himself as a “president” after 2015). Gleb Postov of Nezavisimaya Gazeta supposes that these moves were an attempt by Tatarstan to strengthen its image in the Russian political arena, while positioning itself as the centre of the Turkic and Islamic world within Russia.

Whatever Kazan’s motivations, Moscow’s are further-reaching. Crimean Tatar leaders may lose a little sleep over the motivations of their new friends from Tatarstan. “It is clearly part of a larger plan” remarked current leader of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, in a March 3 interview with Fontanka:

“As a national custom, we always accept guests; we met with them at their request. But we asked why their arrival coincided with that of Russian troops. They say that they’ve always wanted to come, but they could not have predicted such a situation. We asked them, next time they visit, to please let us know in advance.”

Ildar Gabidullin is a journalist from Tatarstan, currently fulfilling Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship in Radio Free Europe’s Tatar-Bashkir service.
Maxim Edwards is a journalist and student from the UK. He has worked in Tatarstan and Armenia, and writes on inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in the post-Soviet space.