Remembering referendums: Tatarstan and Crimea

Russia supports self-determination only when it is in its interest.

Tatarstan politicians repeatedly made visits at Moscow's bidding to win over Crimean Tatars, write the authors [AFP/Getty]

On March 21, Putin ratified documents formally annexing Crimea to the Russian Federation, legitimised by a dubious referendum. Some in Russia’s Republic of Tatarstan may have been unnerved by the spectacle, for on that same day in 1992, Tatarstan held its own referendum on whether it should become a “sovereign state and subject of international law”. Of the 81.6 percent who voted, 61.4 percent (both ethnic Tatars and Russians) voted in its favour.

Tatarstan politicians repeatedly made visits at Moscow’s bidding to win over Crimean Tatars, who remain bitterly opposed to Russian rule and have planned their own referendum. Although separatism in Tatarstan is a fringe movement, Tatarstanis have begun to remember their 1992 referendum, with bitter irony. A commemorative website has been created, highlighting quotes by Russian officials on the importance of self-determination.

On August 30, Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan celebrates Republic Day – the festival’s former name, Sovereignty Day, is no longer mentioned. The Director of RFE’s Tatar-Bashkir service, Rim Gilfan, suggested that Putin aims to use economic incentives to subdue the disgruntled Crimean Tatar population. That Tatarstan’s economic success coincided with declining interest in separatism may give him some comfort – officials in Tatarstan were encouraged to donate a day’s pay to aid Crimea.

Yet the will of the people, real or supposed, has not only been invoked in Crimea. A referendum may soon be afoot in the self-declared, pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine. Transnistria, too, has declared an interest in joining Russia. A faux referendum in St Petersburg called for the city’s secession; a reminder by political activists that once referendums and elections are held within Russia, they become equally farcical.

Last year, Russian authorities introduced an even stricter punishment for calling for separatism – between three and five years in prison. While much has been made of Russian hypocrisy towards secessionist movements at home and those abroad, that it supports the latter should they suit Russian interests (such as Crimea) is simply a regrettable truism. In response, Western commentators have begun to overstate secessionist trends in regions outside the restive North Caucasus. 

A parade of sovereignties 

Tatarstan’s controversial 1992 referendum is more complex than it appears. Then President Boris Yeltsin’s statement to Russia’s regions in August 1990 to “take as much sovereignty as you can swallow” was taken earnestly by Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, who engineered a Tatarstan declaration of sovereignty later that same month.

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In the turbulent 1990s, a majority of Tatarstan’s citizens then voted for state sovereignty in the referendum, much to the chagrin of Yeltsin, who publicly denounced it in a broadcast on the eve of the referendum as an act which “presupposes that Tatarstan is not part of Russia”.

The Tatarstan Supreme Soviet explained to its citizens that the referendum should not be seen as “freeing” the region from Russia, but a change of status to a “sovereign state […] which builds its relations with Russia on the basis of bilateral agreements”. Tatarstan refused to sign the 1992 Treaty which shaped the modern Russian Federation, asserting in a bilateral 1994 Treaty with Moscow that it was instead a “state united with the Russian Federation”.

By making no explicit claims to it, inside or outside the Russian Federation, Tatarstan’s “sovereignty” remained ambiguous; implying much but giving away little, shaping federal politics to its advantage. With its 1992 referendum legitimising its sovereignty-building project, Tatarstan, as Katherine Graney described it, “acted like a state without becoming one”. 

With the rise of Vladimir Putin, who wished to end the “parade of sovereignties” of Russia’s regions, Tatarstan was pressured to fall in line. In 2000, Russia’s constitutional court demanded all regional constitutions be amended to comply with Russia’s Federal Law. In April 2001, Tatarstan’s referendum was retrospectively declared unconstitutional, and by 2002, Tatarstan’s regional constitution stated that it was a “subject of the Russian Federation”.

“What has changed in 22 years?” exclaimed Tatar journalist Irek Murtazin, comparing Russia’s attitude towards the two referendums, “Has international law become that different?”

United Russia Deputy Robert Shlegel, meanwhile, said that the referendum on Crimean secession was different from similar movements within Russia, as Ukraine was “in a state of anarchy”.

The goals of the two referendums – Tatarstan’s in 1992 and Crimea’s in 2014 – differed, though the former was perceived as threatening Russia’s territorial integrity. There is little evidence that Shaimiev intended an outright declaration of independence, and the ambiguity in the 1992 referendum’s question may have attempted to satisfy both Moscow and Tatar independence activists.

Both referendums, noted Tatarstan journalist Rashit Akhmetov, saw some form of Russian military presence (in 1992, Russian forces allegedly stood on Tatarstan’s border, in the forests of nearby Mari El).

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In Crimea’s case, this was to support the referendum, whereas in Tatarstan’s – to potentially punish the organisers for its consequences. Propaganda featured in both – billboards across the Crimea in 2014 presented the referendum as a choice between the swastika and Russian flag.

Fandas Safiullin, a deputy of Tatarstan’s parliament during the 1992 referendum, recollected in his memoirs that Tatarstan was littered with flyers, one depicting a distraught woman crying “Your mothers, wives, sisters and brides urge you to stop this calamity; only one thing can save us – vote NO on your ballots!” The total weight of such flyers, confiscated by traffic police on roads into Tatarstan, reached 34 tonnes. 

More Russians, less federalism

Centre-periphery relations in Russia have been troublesome, and some worry that modern Russia (in contrast to the disarray of the 1990s) is a federation in all but name. A strong Tatarstan, reflected ethnic sociologist Ildar Gabdrafikov, also benefited ethnic Tatars living outside the region. One interesting trend from Russia’s 2012 parliamentary elections was that non-Russian Republics showed high levels of support for governing party United Russia – perhaps as autonomous regions in a centralised state, they have more to lose by angering Moscow.

Crimea has been admitted to the Russian Federation as an autonomous republic. What this notional autonomy means – and who it is for in an ethnic Russian region – is curious. Russian double standards towards these referendums make sense in the context of an irredentist, Russian nationalist project. Tatarstan and Crimea are potent symbols for a revanchist Russia, having played historic roles in the expansion of the Russian state. The fall of the Tatar Kazan Khanate in 1552 opened the way for Russian expansion into Siberia and Central Asia. 

“Crimea has become a symbol of a return to our values, worldview and sovereignty,” wrote ethnic Volga Tatar Crimean politician Rustam Temirgaliev. “The end of the Great Patriotic War in 1945 was nothing like this, and was even a complete contrast – we gradually lost, leaving Afghanistan, Cuba, Angola, the GDR… our great state from the Carpathians to Alaska had many different names – the Russian Empire, the USSR, the Russian Federation, and in the near future, possibly, will become the Eurasian Union, including the Russian Federation, Kazakhstan, Central Asian republics, Belarus and the Ukrainian Federation. And Crimea will occupy a special place in this vast space – the place, where it all started.”

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.

Ildar Gabidullin is a journalist from Tatarstan, currently fulfilling Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellowship in Radio Free Europe’s Tatar-Bashkir service.