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Last Updated: Monday, 29 December, 2003, 09:51 GMT
Inside Putin's Russia: State within a state
Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

Inside Putin's Russia is a series looking at life outside Moscow. In the fourth part of the series, Bridget Kendall travels to Tatarstan - a republic inside the Russian Federation whose distance from Moscow means it is the local leaders who hold the most sway.

Map showing Tatarstan
It was our first day in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. And we had come, of all places, to an Acqua Park, an indoor water amusement centre.

In front of us delirious children shrieked and splashed as they feverishly tumbled down the water slides, dodging the heaving artificial waves in the biggest pool, ducking to swim through tunnels into smaller grottos.

A slightly distorted loudspeaker voice informed us this was the biggest amusement park of its type in Russia.

"The Pearl of Tatarstan," declared the voice before being drowned out, rather incongruously, by a shaky recording of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake music.

Suddenly, round the corner, we sensed the approach of the Tatar leader, President Mintimer Shaimiev. He moved forward with the quiet, regal manner of a leader who has no need to raise his voice to command attention.

And behind him came the inevitable retinue of grey-suited official courtiers. We were told the entire presidential apparatus and most important ministers of his government were here for this grand opening.

All looked slightly uncomfortable in the clammy swimming pool heat, and all were dutifully shod, as required by hygiene rules, in bright blue plastic shoe covers.

Perennial paradoxes

Tatarstan is a state within a state, a republic inside the Russian Federation. But it is also a signatory to a unique treaty which in 1994 gave the Tatars equal sovereignty alongside Russia and considerable control over their own laws and - crucially - tax income from their oil fields.

Bridget Kendall, President Shaimiev and series producer Teresa Cherfas (image courtesy of president's press office)
President Shaimiev knows the wisdom of keeping the broad mass of the population happy
Bridget Kendall

But then President Putin took office and changed the rules, once again putting Tatarstan's status under the spotlight.

So is Tatarstan an integral part of Russia or not? It is a key question in the sometimes tense negotiations going on at the moment between Moscow and Kazan as they endeavour to clarify what Russia's federal system should mean in practice.

This, after all, is one of the perennial paradoxes about Russia. It is true that everything ultimately depends on the federal authorities in Moscow. But on the ground, it often seems that it is the local mayor or governor - or in Tatarstan's case, president - who is the feudal overlord, holding court and dispensing favours, too far away ever to be really under Moscow's thumb, however tightly the Kremlin tries to keep a grip on what is happening.

According to President Shaimiev's political adviser, Dr Rafael Khakimov, Tatarstan's independence has already been curtailed.

"Take the police," he said. "These days they take their orders from Moscow, so do all the security services. There used to be parallel ministries, so we could also have a say. Now they want to run everything from the centre."

'We live in paradise'

But ask the women who invited us to break the Muslim fast of Ramadan with them in a Tatar village and they will say it is President Shaimiev who rules them.

Breaking the fast
Women break the fast of Ramadan
As the former local Communist party chief and an experienced political survivor, he knows the wisdom of keeping the broad mass of the population happy.

Hence the Acqua parks, and the newly asphalted roads and the gas pipes being run out to villages to give them instant hot water. Not a bad perk for Tatarstan's citizens. In many other parts of Russia, villagers still traipse through the snow to the well to get water.

"We remember times just after the war when we were eating nettles and green potatoes," said our hostess, as she finished prayers and invited us to a table laden with steaming bowls of soup, newly baked pies and piles of fruit. "Now we live in paradise."

But the economic relationship with Moscow is only one part of Tatarstan's story. The other is the revival of a language and culture which 15 years ago Tatar intellectuals were afraid was in danger of extinction.

Language laws

Across Russia as a whole, the Muslim Tatars are the largest ethnic minority - at least five million strong. But in Tatarstan, they account for just 50% of the population and mixed marriages are frequent.

I well remember visiting Kazan in early 1991 and being impressed by the sense of urgency among Tatar writers who were driving the nationalist movement. In those days their immediate goal was to harness the new power of computers to their cause and launch a concerted programme of Tatar desktop publishing.

Muslim women break the fast
Muslim Tatars account for just 50% of the population in Tatarstan
"If we don't do something soon to save the language and literature, it will be gone. Everyone will speak Russian," they told me.

A decade later, new Tatar grammar schools have been opened in Kazan, Tatar language has an equal status with Russian in the republic, and Muslim Tatar women have sued and won a court battle with Moscow to be allowed to wear headscarves on their passport photos.

At the parliament in Kazan, we were told of plans for a new law to require local businesses to pay 15% bonuses to workers who could speak both languages; or, in other words, to pay less to those Russians who do not speak Tatar.

Not a move that Moscow is likely to tolerate.

Already, the Russian parliament has overruled one Tatar law aimed at switching the written language from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin script. The Tatar Government has quietly postponed the move, concerned not to jeopardise negotiations with Moscow.

Of course we have freedom of speech here. The press criticise me all the time. They just have to show responsibility
President Shaimiev
But outraged Tatar nationalists say the Russian ban infringes their constitutional rights, and warn they will go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to fight their corner if necessary.

Meanwhile, sitting in his lavishly restored Presidential Palace in the Kazan Kremlin, President Shaimiev smiles his benign grandfatherly smile and tells us there is no conflict with Moscow.

"When Putin said he wanted more vertical control, I was one of the first to support him," he said. "Had I been president of Russia, I'd have done exactly the same."

But surely what this wily former Communist chief means is that firm control over his own people is something he also needs, in order to pursue his delicate negotiations with Moscow. So he keeps the lid on dangerous dissent - whether from Islamic radicals, or Tatars nationalists, or disgruntled Russians.

"Of course we have freedom of speech here. The press criticise me all the time." But he adds: "They just have to show responsibility."

Another paradox: of all the places in Russia we have visited so far, this seemed the least open. Little Tatarstan, positioning itself as a beacon of democracy in Russia, a test case for Moscow's tolerance. Yet, on our journey at least, where local political control seemed most in evidence.

Unless stated, all images by Teresa Cherfas, who also produced the series.

The fourth programme from Inside Putin's Russia is broadcast on BBC World Service radio starting on 29 December, 2003 at 0005 GMT. The series will also be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 5 January, 2004.

Click here to listen to
Part 4 of Inside Putin's Russia

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