Wanting Out Of Russia

For Lithuanians, Georgians and others trying to break away from the Soviet Union, it may seem hard to believe. But there's actually one place that's trying to become a Soviet republic. The former "autonomous" republic of Tataria, 460 miles due east of Moscow, was part of the Russian Republic until Aug. 30. Then, at the goading of Tatar nationalists, the local parliament unanimously changed the region's name to Tatarstan, declared its laws supreme over those of Russia and claimed its natural resources on behalf of its 3.7 million people. "We want to be on that list of members of the Soviet Union. And in alphabetical order--ahead of the Ukraine," says Vladimir Yermakov, an aide to Tatarstan's Supreme Soviet chairman, Mintimir Shaimeyev.

Somewhere Mikhail Gorbachev must be smiling at the problem now facing his rival Russian Supreme Soviet Chairman Boris Yeltsin. No sooner did the Russian Republic assert its own sovereignty than it started to face its own challenges. The rush to redraw the borders is turning the republic--like the country--into a map maker's nightmare (map). Not so long ago the U.S.S.R. was a solid union of 15 republics. Russia, by far the largest of them, contained a number of smaller regions labeled "autonomous"--in name only--to appease one minority or another. But now that Moscow's authority has broken down, the desire for real autonomy is catching on fast. Ethnic assertiveness is one reason; a desire to control resources plays an even greater role. Nowhere are those forces more apparent than in Tatarstan.

The battle between Russians and Tatars is an ancient one. The khanate of Kazan was established in the 15th century after the westward sweep of Genghis Khan and his Mongol army. According to an old Russian saying, "In every Russian runs some Tatar blood," reflecting centuries of warfare. The khanate fell to Ivan the Terrible in 1552. On Oct. 14 this year, Tatars marked that grievous day with a rally of thousands in Kazan their capital. Mullahs read from the Koran and young people shouted, "Allah is great!" "Our rallies had never taken on a religious character before," said Imam Galiullin Gabdulla. "The city was stunned." An onion-domed Russian Orthodox church has long dominated Kazan's little walled kremlin, reflecting the fact that 45 percent of Tatarstan's population is Russian. But after the declaration of sovereignty, a crescent moon and star was raised atop a neighboring 14th-century tower. Said mullah Gusman Minlebayev, "Their church may be bigger, but our symbol is higher."

The local Communist Party leadership may have hoped to dampen nationalist fervor by proclaiming sovereignty. The effect appears to have been just the opposite. Tatar groups are now pressing for more Tatar-speaking schools, Islamic education and days off on the Muslim holy Friday instead of Sunday. They hope to activate the millions of Tatars living outside the republic to make the Tatar nation great again. "We're ready to be victims on the way to sovereignty," says Fauzia Bairanova of the independence party Ittifak. "There may be blood."

Few predict it will come to that. But near]y all Tatars are expecting more money and power to come their way. According to local government officials, enterprises on Tatar territory last year made a combined profit of 3.7 billion rubles ($6.7 billion at the official exchange rate), almost all of which was taken by Moscow. Kazan got some 2.5 billion rubles ($4.5 billion) of it back to finance the republic's budget. "About a billion rubles just got lost," says Farit Gazizullin, deputy chairman of the local planning committee. "We want to strengthen our government with greater means at our disposal." Those means are considerable: Tatarstan is the second largest oil producer in the Soviet Union and is home to industrial behemoths such as the Kamaz automotive plant, which produces 25 percent of Soviet vehicles, according to Gazizullin. Tatar authorities are hoping to persuade Moscow to hand over ownership of the factories in return for a share of the profits.

Such grandiose plans are only dreams for now. Many people, Tatars and Russians alike, fear that local authorities may not have the where-withal to manage a complex economy. "Everyone's beating their breasts about economic sovereignty, but no one knows how to achieve it," says Andrei Gavrilov, editor of the daily paper Vechernyaya Kazan. "No one's worked it out. They have no program." Local officials say they have to cut a deal with Moscow before they can start planning the economy. But others think that's exactly the problem: sovereignty will bring bigger tax revenues and greater economic clout, so the bureaucrats will never shift to a free-market system.

Not ready: How much authority the Tatars will actually gain from Moscow is still an open question. Kazan is eager to sign a new Federative Treaty with Yeltsin (as well as a Union Treaty with Gorbachev), and get down to business. But neither agreement shows any sign of being ready. "It's a very difficult question," says Boris Zolotukhin, a deputy in the Russian legislature. "It's so difficult that no one wants to get up on the podium and talk about it." Russian government officials warn that sovereignty wouldn't be all positive. "They want their income," says Vitaly Syrovatko, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's Chamber of Nationalities, "but they'll have to pay their expenses now, too." Officials are also concerned that ethnic Russians among the newly autonomous minorities could face discrimination. Tatarstan's Russians bitterly fought a new law making Tatar a second official language in the republic. "What use will Tatar be to my children anywhere else in the world?" asks Yuri Voronin, a Russian legislator from Kazan. "There's no sense in building a fence around ourselves."

Much of Tatarstan's fate now depends on Boris Yeltsin. Local bureaucrats seem to believe he will hand over the keys to the economy. When he visited Kazan in August, said Yermakov, "He told us to take as much as we were able." Nationalists dismiss that faith as naive. "Yeltsin is just a gambler," says Fauzia Bairanova. "We'll show him what sovereignty is all about. " As long as Yeltsin is fighting Gorbachev for more sovereignty for Russia, it will be hard for him to oppose increased independence for his own subjects. But that strategy could be a temporary ploy. "For decades, Yeltsin was a bureaucrat whose word was law," says the vice rector of Kazan University, Mirkasym Usmanov. "The ambition to command is habitual. The question is, how much can a man change?" And how much will the future redraw the Russian map.

A number of regions are thinking of declaring autonomy from the Russian Republic, each for its own reasons.

Karelia: Angry over insufficient food shipment, authorities recently refused to deliver timber and paper to Russia. Many residents want to join neighboring Finland. Bashkiria: Anti-Tatar feelings run high in this oil-producing region. Local officials recently declared sovereignty to quell separatist pressures. Tuva: Russians have been murdered and their homes set ablaze by locals. Yakutia: Authorities want more control over the region's gold, diamonds and minerals. Yakutia could become Russia's richest republic. Chukchi District: Long the butt of Soviet jokes, this region near Alaska has declared itself autonomous and demands control over its reindeer and fish.

Wanting Out Of Russia | News