Friday, September 22, 2017

Has the Tatarstan President Finally Become ‘Putin’s Foot Soldier’?



Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – Moscow has challenged Tatarstan in two serious ways in the past quarter: it has not extended the power-sharing agreement that Kazan saw as the basis of relations between Tatarstan and Russia, and it has insisted that the study of Russian be compulsory but that the study of non-Russian languages like Tatar completely voluntary.

            There have been numerous commentaries on both sides of these two controversies. But a speech on the state of the republic yesterday by President Rustam Minnikhanov provides the clearest indication yet of how Kazan plans to behave in the future, deferential to Moscow but perhaps not as subservient as the Kremlin would like.

            In a discussion of the speech, Natalya Goloburdova and Elena Chernobrovkina of Kazan’s Business-Gazeta suggest that the speech shows the Tatarstan president has become “Putin’s foot soldier.” But if that is so, it does not appear that he will be one who doesn’t question and challenge his commander (business-gazeta.ru/article/358312).

            Unlike in his earlier addresses where he spoke almost exclusively about economics, Minnikhanov this time focused on politics.  He reminded his audience that there are growing risks in the world and that these “dictate the need for the all-possible strengthening of the Russian Federation as the common home of the many peoples of our country.”

            “We are integrated in Russian statehood over many centuries. There is a complete understanding that only a strong Russian can serve as a guarantor of the successful development of our republic and of all Tatars wherever they live.” But then he added “life itself constantly shows that strong regions made for a strong Russia.”

            Minnikhanov then focused on the two issues most riling Tatarstan now: the non-extension of the power-sharing agreement and preference for Russian language instruction at the possible expense of the requirement for study or at a minimum the reduction in the amount of non-Russian language instruction.

            As for the former, the Tatarstan president said: “For about a quarter of a century, the content of our relations with the federal center was defined by agreements on the delimitation of authority …. But in present-day conditions, the leading factor is not so much the form of relations of the republic and the federal center than their content.”

            In short, there is not going to be an extension of the power-sharing accord, and Kazan is not going to press Moscow on that issue, the two journalists say. But there are going to be fights about Kazan’s powers that may address many of the things that earlier power-sharing accords had defined. 

            And as for the latter, Minnikhanov again straddled the issue. On the one hand, he said that “it is necessary to place the accent on security the level of knowledge and mastery of the Russian language,” but on the other, “there is a need to improve the methods of teaching Tatar as the state language of the Republic of Tatarstan.”

            Among the steps he mentioned with regard to Tatar was a call for the restoration of a national pedagogical institute, apparently an indication that Minnikhanov plans to have a Tatar language teacher training institute soon.

            Summing up, the two journalists say, “Minnikhanov really spoke as a politician” rather than as an economic functionary,” thus recapitulating the course that his predecessor Mintimir Shaymiyev did 30 years ago and becoming “a real politician” who can deal with other politicians including those in Moscow.

Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian Nostalgia for USSR Based on Values Different than Their Leaders Might Prefer, Mirovich Says



Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – Many Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians express nostalgia for Soviet times, but their reasons for doing so may not be exactly the same as the ones Vladimir Putin might wish for. Indeed, Belarusian blogger Maksim Mirovich says, some of them are very much at odds with what their leaders would like them to focus on.

            In a post yesterday, he lists what he calls five “basic arguments why people so much like the USSR and don’t like their present-day countries,” all based on the believe that they in fact “really live worse” now than in the Soviet past (maxim-nm.livejournal.com/357466.html; reposted at charter97.org/ru/news/2017/9/22/263673/).

            These are:

1.      “The poor quality of today’s products,” especially foodstuffs.

2.      “The sad situation with work in company towns.”

3.      “Bad roads.”

4.      “The loss of status of [formerly] ‘honored professions’” like teaching.

5.      And “hatred for the rich.”

The last is especially important. In Soviet times, the communist authorities encouraged people to have a negative view of anyone with money; and many Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians have not adapted to the shift in values their leaders promote to the notion that gaining wealth is a positive thing. 
But what is striking about Mirovich’s list is less what is on it than what is not.  Based on the comments of people to his blog posts, he finds little of the nostalgia for the past based on the idea that the Soviet Union was a great power, feared if not always respected by others, while Russia and even more her two Slavic neighbors are far less so.
While the Belarusian blogger’s list is hardly conclusion, it is a useful reminder that not all nostalgia is for what Vladimir Putin or other leaders might like to see brought back and that some of what powers that positive view of the past involves values that may even threaten those in power now. 

A Peril for Putin: Bomb Scares in Russia Show No Sign of Letting Up, Officials Say



Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – Over the last 12 days, 400,000 Russians have been evacuated from approximately 1,000 facilities in 80 cities after anonymous callers had warned that bombs were set to go off in them.  Officials, who so far haven’t identified let alone arrested those responsible, say there are no signs the bomb scares are letting up (tass.ru/proisshestviya/4583551).

            The central government media have devoted relatively little attention to this wave, although a Duma committee is considering tougher penalties for what has now come to be known as “telephone terrorism” and the Kremlin has been forced today to say that it is too early to say anything about what is going on (fedpress.ru/news/77/policy/1861027).

            What makes this such a big and serious problem as the emergency services minister said (themoscowtimes.com/news/the-mass-evacuations-in-numbers-59017) is that the authorities have little choice but to evacuate buildings if they receive warnings and that whoever started the calls, others may join in a kind of copycat crime. 

            Consequently, even if the authorities do identify one or another of the callers or those behind that individual or group, others are likely to make use of the same tactic, against which at least for the time being the Russian authorities appear powerless to stop, however much economic damage these evacuations may cause.

            But far more significant than any economic costs, of course, are the political ones. Vladimir Putin has sold himself to the Russian people as a guarantor of order, as someone who ended the “lawless 1990s.” If Russians conclude that he is no longer able to do that, they may conclude that their version of “the mandate of heaven” has passed from him. 

            And that in turn suggests that some opponents of Putin and his regime may continue to make such calls, even if the risks of engaging in “telephone terrorism” are increased, as Russia edges closer to the presidential elections early next year and enters a new and more complicated political season.