Fear and Loathing in Russia’s Catalonia: Moscow’s Fight Against Federalism


“It is unacceptable to force a man to learn a language that is not his own,” said Vladimir Putin on July 20, 2017. With these words, Putin began the toughest crackdown on Russia’s ethnic republics since the founding of the Soviet Union. He apparently aims to destroy the very raison d’etre of the republics, effectively reducing them to ordinary Russian provinces. In particular, Putin’s crackdown on the autonomous republic of Tatarstan, which has had a historically contentious relationship with the federal government, shows a greater desire on Moscow’s part to impose a nationalist Russian identity on ethnic minorities and reduce the potential threat of separatism. But the show of force could backfire on Putin, who may find that his heavy-handed tactics push Tatars into the arms of religious leaders more inclined to resist the center.

Russia’s Ethnic Republics

The Russian Communist government that came to power in 1917 proclaimed the principle of self-determination, establishing a two-level system of ethnic autonomies. The new USSR – literally the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – consisted of major “soyuznyje” (allied) republics such as Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia. Some of these “allied” republics included smaller “autonomous” republics within them. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic had the largest number, of which Chechnya, Tatarstan and Yakutiya (Saha) are probably the best-known in the West. Every republic, whether “allied” or “autonomous,” was regarded as a cradle for native culture and self-consciousness. Native languages were actively promoted in all of them and courses of these languages were compulsory in most.

After the downfall of the USSR, the “allied” republics became independent states. The problem, however, was that many formerly “autonomous” republics also tried to secede. Moscow’s position on this issue has been inconsistent. On the one hand, the Kremlin actively encouraged separatism in Georgia, Moldavia, and lately Ukraine, proclaiming independence of two Georgian autonomies (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) in 2008, and promoting separatism in previously nonexistent autonomies such as Transnistria in Moldavia and so-called Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics in Ukraine. Overall, Moscow welcomes post-Soviet separatism and especially irredentism of ethnic Russians in other countries. On the other hand, Moscow has always insisted on Russia’s territorial integrity, suppressing local regional identities and even waging two bloody wars in Chechnya to crush separatists.

Currently, Russia has 21 ethnic republics. Some of the republics located in the North Caucasus, such as Muslim Ingushetia, Dagestan, and especially Chechnya, have a history of armed resistance to the central power. Another cluster in the Volga basin consists of two Muslim Turkic republics, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan; one Christian Turkic, Chuvashia; and three mostly Christian (but preserving a strong Pagan heritage) Finno-Ugric: Mari-El, Udmurtia, and Mordovia. The rest of the republics are located in the Russian North and Siberia.

After 2014, which saw the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of an undeclared war in Ukraine, the Russian government took a much tougher stance against ethnic autonomies. There are a number of possible explanations for this. First, after severely damaging its relations with the West, Moscow may see autonomies as a potential fifth column vulnerable to influence from abroad and prone to separatism. The success of ethnic Russian irredentism in Ukraine could make the Kremlin more afraid of similar processes taking place in Russia. Secondly, Russia’s economic decline leaves the ruling clan with no choice but to expropriate local elites in the republics, who privatized the local industries, especially the oil industry, in the 1990s and thus appear to be the last big prey for Putin’s friends. In 2016 Bashneft, the main oil company of the republic of Bashkortostan, was acquired by Rosneft, the biggest oil company in Russia whose director, Igor Sechin, is a personal friend of Putin. Finally, the appointment of Sergey Kirienko as a new deputy chief of the president’s administration in October 2016 might contribute to declining relations with autonomies. From 2000 to 2005, Kirienko served as the president’s deputy in Privolzhsky Federal District and got into conflict with Tatarstan.

And yet, the latest blow came unexpectedly.

A Crackdown Begins in Tatarstan

In September 2017, Russia’s central government started to enforce Putin’s instructions and push local governments into abolishing local language courses in the ethnic republics. Such measures, introduced at the beginning of an academic year, led to protests and demonstrations in Komi (a Finnish-speaking region in Northern European Russia) and in Bashkortostan.

While most local governments did not put up much of a fight, Tatarstan’s leaders pushed back hard against the new policy. This Muslim-majority republic is the closest Russian analog to Catalonia, a region with a strong local identity, tradition of resistance to central authorities and, most importantly, wealth – Tatarstan is a net donor to Russia’s budget.

Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital, has a long history of confrontation with the federal center. When the central government was weak in the 1990s, it mostly won its battles with Moscow. In 1992, only two of the 21 Russian republics (Tatarstan and Chechnya) refused to sign the federation treaty, the constitutional document that regulated the relationship between regional governments and Moscow, and which Moscow badly needed at that time. Tatarstan’s government organized a referendum on sovereignty in which 61.4 percent of voters agreed that Tatarstan was a “sovereign state.” However, instead of declaring independence like Chechnya did (which would have certainly led to war), the local government used these results to bargain for another, more favorable treaty with Moscow. This deal, signed in 1994, gave Tatarstan significant autonomy and tax benefits.

However, since Putin came to power in 2000, the trend has reversed and the region’s independence has been slowly slipping away. In 2002, the Constitutional Court of Russia declared that the “sovereignty” of the region contradicts the Russian constitution, so local legislators had to remove this word from Tatarstan’s constitution.

Language has always been one of the most politically divisive issues between Moscow and Kazan. In 1999, the Tatar parliament passed a law switching the republic’s language from Cyrillic to Latin script, the latter being better suited for Turkic phonetics. But in 2002 the Russian parliament intervened and forbade non-Russian peoples from using scripts other than Cyrillic. The Constitutional Court of Russia supported the right of the federal center to choose the scripts for all the peoples of Russia, including Tatars, effectively making Cyrillic the only alphabet allowed (and forbidding Latin), despite widespread protests in the region. Russian federal legislators and judges likely perceived the introduction of Latin script as an attempt to de-Russify local Tatar culture and bring it closer to Turkey.

The latest crackdown on Tatarstan and other ethnic republics started in 2017. First, the central government refused to renew the federation treaty with Tatarstan, the last republic that still had such an agreement with Moscow. The “Russian state is not based on treaties,” Kirienko said. The standoff over the treaty created legal confusion because according to the Tatar constitution, Tatarstan is linked to the Russian Federation through the Constitution of the Russian Federation, the Constitution of Tatarstan, and the Federation Treaty. Now the treaty is gone, which creates a legal vacuum and a potential pretext for separatism.

The 2017 campaign to abolish compulsory courses in local languages faced resistance from Tatarstan’s government. Since Kazan could not oppose Putin openly, local leadership preferred to ignore his instructions. The president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, and his minister of education, Engel Fattakhov, declared that Putin’s words were being misinterpeted and did not apply to Tatarstan and that Tatar classes would remain compulsory.

To break this resistance, in October, government prosecutors started to investigate local schools to determine whether they had retained compulsory courses on Tatar and to pressure school directors to abolish them. This ignited a huge public outcry, and nearly all of the 1,500 mosques in Tatarstan held prayers in support of the local language: “In times of attack on the Tatar language we should use it everywhere,” said Kamil Samigullin, chief muftii of the Tatar republic.

Sixteen thousand Tatars signed a petition to the local government, saying:

This is our last defense line. Depending on your decision, you will get either our support or alienation. Our ways will part and when ‘interested’ people will come to expropriate “Tatneft,” “TAIF” [major oil and petrochemical companies belonging to the Tatarstan government] or for certain people in the local government, there will be no one to support you.

Minnikhanov publicly wondered whether the federal government’s investigations were part of a plot to undermine Putin’s reputation: “We cannot treat school directors like that. Tomorrow we will organize the elections with them. Or is it done intentionally in order to worsen the attitude toward our President Vladimir Putin in Tatarstan?” This could be interpreted as a veiled threat: Paradoxically, Tatarstan has been one of the staunchest supporters of Putin and his party in recent elections. This was part of an implicit horse trade: Kazan supports Moscow in Russian elections in return for a certain degree of autonomy.

One can only guess what other pressures Russia exerted over the next few days. At any rate, three days later, the speaker of Tatarstan’s parliament introduced the Tatarstan state prosecutor (appointed by Moscow) Ildus Nafikov, imploring the audience “to listen to the prosecutor’s information and accept the bill without opening discussion and without asking questions — in order not to agitate our society even more.” The prosecutor told the legislators about investigations he had conducted in Tatar schools and cases of compulsory language courses he had discovered. He noted that most directors cooperated with investigators and agreed to abolish these “breaches of law” (except for only one – surprisingly, an ethnic Russian named Pavel Shmakov). Then, the prosecutor presented the new education bill to which the speaker had alluded, which would make local curricula align with the new instructions from the Moscow Ministry for Education, created specifically to bring Tatarstan into compliance with Putin’s declaration (which had not even been presented to the members of parliament). The bill, of course, passed unanimously. It was quite symbolic that this purely educational initiative came from a prosecutor — representative of the central government’s punitive machine.

It is interesting that members of parliament openly admit that they passed the bill under pressure. When a journalist asked the head of the parliament’s committee for education, Rasil Valeev, whether he was content with the bill he voted for, Valeev replied that of course he was not, adding that he intends “to raise this issue again.”


The struggle between Moscow and Kazan reveals a lot about the current balance of power in Russia. The Kremlin is strong enough to impose its will over the republics, even when facing strong protests from both their leadership and population. However, to do so Putin has to rely on force and threats. In the future, Moscow may only increase its attacks on the ethnic republics and may even attempt to abolish them completely. It has already gone part of the way, having greatly reduced the power of the autonomies, which means going further would just be a logical continuation of Putin’s policy since the 2000s.

And yet, such radical measures and open interference in local affairs will inevitably trigger a rise of local identities and nationalisms. Moreover, whereas nationalist movements in Tatarstan in the 1990s had been mostly secular, in the future they may be likely to clericalize. As in the case of many once stateless nations, such as Ireland or Poland, religion in Tatarstan appears to be the last bastion of national identity. Indeed, while many tend to think of Poland as a vehemently Catholic country, in the early modern period it was arguably the most tolerant and pluralistic nation of the European continent, with its Jews, Muslims, Orthodox, Protestants, Aryans, and all kinds of non-Trinitarians living side by side. In fact, by the mid-sixteenth century Protestants even held the majority in the Polish Sejm. However, after the Partitions of Poland in the 18th century, when the country came under Russian-Prussian-Austrian control, “the Church was often the only institution that had a Polish character. Thus Polish national consciousness came to be strongly tied to a Catholic religious identity.”

In Tatarstan we may witness a similar shift. While the republic’s secular institutions have totally capitulated before the will of Moscow, religious authorities have tried to compensate for their failure, insisting on the wider use of national language, opening free courses of Tatar language and culture in mosques and switching all the preaching in Tatarstan mosques from Russian to the Tatar language. Samigullin, the Mutfi, published a declaration saying that “Islam as it had been in the hardest times for Tatar people again has to defend the Tatar language…even though the religion is separate from the state it lives in the soul of our people.” He added, “Words pronounced from the mosques’ minbars have more power than those said from political tribunes.” The muftii’s stubborn persistence reflects one of the main myths of Tatar national history — according to legend, the defense of Kazan during its siege by the Russians in 1552 was organized by imam Kul-Sharif (and not the political leader, the khan, who surrendered to the enemy). The republic’s main mosque in Kazan Kremlin is named after the imam. Now, as in the past, religious leaders may take initiative when the political ones fail to do so.

As Polishness in the 19th century became closely tied with being a Catholic, so Tatar identity may become more and more tied with being a Muslim. We can hardly expect the emergence of a guerilla movement comparable to the North Caucasian ones (such as in Chechnya or Dagestan). In the Caucasus, anti-Russian guerilla movements never really stopped except for a few decades starting around 1950, and then immediately resumed when the hand of the Kremlin weakened during Perestroika. Tatarstan, by contrast, is much more integrated into Russia and has had little tradition of armed resistance since the Pugachev Rebellion in the 18th century. On the other hand, it is impossible to predict whether Moscow will move to abolish ethnic autonomies. Few had predicted the annexation of Crimea or the Syrian campaign, and moreover, Russian authorities vehemently denied them until they started.

However, whatever Moscow chooses to do with Tatarstan’s autonomy, it is fair to assume that any diminishing of central power in Russia (similar to perestroika) will immediately boost the national movement in the republic. This time, however, the movement might be led not by the nationalist intelligentsia, as in the 1990s, but by Tatarstan’s mullahs.


Kamil Galeev is pursuing an MA in China Studies at Yenching Academy, Peking University. Previously, he worked in Russia as a journalist for Novaya Gazeta and Forbes.ru, and as a civil servant in the Agency for Strategic Initiatives. He participated in Stephen Broadberry’s project to reconstruct Russia’s 19th-century national accounts. 

Image: Alexey/Flickr