Recent Events in the Caucasus and Russia's Mini-Republics

 September 12, 2008
The other day in the New York Times Ellen Barry had an article on the separatist movement in Tatarstan. According to Barry, the Russian government's abandonment of a policy of steadfast support for the principle of territorial integrity in the face of separatist movements has already attracted the attention of separatists within Russia.
“In the long term, they could have signed their own death warrant,” said Lawrence Scott Sheets, the Caucasus program director for the International Crisis Group, an independent organization that tries to prevent and resolve global conflicts. “It’s an abstraction now, but 20 years down the road, it won’t be such an abstraction.”
Well, maybe. Indeed, I pointed out in a post last month the risk Russia was taking by joining the United States in supporting foreign separatist movements in 'mini-Republics,' of which many exist within the Russian Federation. On the other hand, the independence movements in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan (the other republic mentioned in Barry's article) are moribund. In Tatarstan today, 'sovereignty'--the compromise which was hammered out after Tatarstan 'suspended' (in 1998) its earlier declarations of independence--is on the defensive, and even the republic's post-Soviet efforts to elevate the status of the Tatar language have come under recent attack. In both Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the political leadership is far more concerned with reinstating their status as elected officials (scroll down to 'Debates for returning to elected governors'), which was unilaterally stripped by Vladimir Putin in response to the Beslan massacre of 2004. Today, the presidents of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan (as well as other republic presidents and regional governors) are appointed by Moscow, rather than elected.
It's not for nothing that Kazan has been part of Russia since 1552. The Volga Tatars have always been the Muslim community that Moscow has trusted the most. While there were small separatist movements after the revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Tatars from all walks of life have always worked closely with Moscow. I think it would require a major breakdown in authority in Moscow for such a movement to gain hold in Kazan in the forseeable future.
In the Russian Caucasus, on the other hand, the story might be different. Barry also interviews Charles King, who comments on the implications for Russia's recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence upon the Circassians.
“They’re ecstatic,” said Professor King, author of “The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus.” “Their cousins have gotten independence. They see this as something quite big, that could have real implications for Russia.”
Indeed, in the Caucasus--where there has been a much shorter, less consistent, and less direct tradition of Russian rule than in the Volga region--the possibility of the South Ossetian example creating difficulties for Moscow in the future seems less far-fetched.