Why you should care
Because the future of a culturally rich ethnic minority is at stake.
Pavel Shmakov knew his decision to keep his school’s Tatar-language curriculum intact might spark phone calls from angry parents. What the head teacher of the Solntse school in Kazan did not expect was a visit from state prosecutors, who interrogated several students and demanded Shmakov fire his Tatar teachers immediately.
Shmakov’s school has been a casualty of President Vladimir Putin’s squeeze on Tatarstan, one of the Russian ethnic “republics” that have been targets of his desire to restore centralized control since he came to power in 1999. Under Kremlin pressure, local Tatar lawmakers voted last year to end compulsory Tatar lessons: something Putin says will help students prepare for exams but that Shmakov says is disrupting attempts to preserve Tatarstan’s indigenous culture.
“Russian culture is too strong. There has to be a law,” Shmakov says. “Russia has to defend Tatar culture or it will die.”
Tatarstan is set to be the last domino to fall to the centralizing drive of Putin, who in January visited a Kazan aircraft factory during a campaign stop. The oil-rich province was once the center of medieval czars’ Muslim adversaries along the Volga river. In 1994 it was granted autonomy through treaties with Moscow that allowed it to retain privileges, including promotion of its Turkic language and control over its natural resources, particularly oil company Tatneft.
Under Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, a far weaker Kremlin feared that tensions with “republics” — particularly Muslim ones like Tatarstan — could spill into separatist wars, as in Chechnya. Longtime leader Mintimer Shaimiev was allowed to build a state within a state, and Rustam Minnikhanov, his successor, retains the title of president — the only province where this is allowed.
Over the past 25 years, though, the tables have turned and the Kremlin’s approach has changed. Putin’s high approval ratings throughout that time owe much to his brutal crackdown on the Islamist insurgency in Chechnya and efforts to exercise more power over other regions. The Kremlin is furthering this central control ahead of Putin’s expected election to a fourth term in March. Governors were changed in a dozen provinces last year in a move aimed at boosting turnout in places where local appointees are unpopular.
While Minnikhanov is directly elected under a separate constitution, the Kremlin allowed its treaty with Tatarstan to lapse last year. It seems unwilling to negotiate a new one, prompting speculation that it will bring Tatarstan in line with other regions once Minnikhanov’s term expires. The failure of Russia’s central bank — whose chair, Elvira Nabiullina, is an ethnic Tatar — to rescue Tatfondbank, a lender part owned by the Tatarstan government, from a $2 billion hole last year was a “sign,” says Ruslan Aisin, a local political scientist.
As Tatarstan’s political fortunes go, so goes the Tatar language — which, with 4.3 million speakers, is Russia’s second-most spoken and one of the most widespread given the large diaspora outside Tatarstan.
In the Soviet era, the study of the language was limited to ethnic Tatars, who make up about half of Tatarstan’s population. “When I was at school in the 1980s, we Tatars would sit inside studying Russian and watch out the window while the Russian kids played football,” says Ruslan Nagiev, a lawyer who represents several Tatar teachers. Under Shaimiev, who secured the treaties with Moscow, Russian-language teachers saw their work hours reduced as Tatar became a compulsory part of the curriculum. Now, many of Tatarstan’s several thousand Tatar teachers are facing downsizing or layoffs as a result of the new move, which limits Tatar to two hours of voluntary lessons a week.
Some activists are pushing for Tatar to be given equal time with English, which is taught for four compulsory hours a week. “If you live in the city you need school lessons. It’s not enough to talk to your grandmothers [in Tatar],” says Airat Faizrakhmanov, a pro-Tatar activist and intellectual. “Tatars won’t want to learn it.”
After Tatarstan’s government initially resisted the changes demanded by Putin, thousands of parents wrote complaints to central authorities in Moscow, prompting a crackdown that forced the vote in the local parliament. Tatarstan’s leaders are in the uncomfortable position of enforcing Putin’s orders in public while still attempting to tacitly promote the Tatar language. “Everything in Tatarstan happens like this — they say one thing while secretly doing something else,” says Ekaterina Belyaeva, a pro-Russian-language activist.
Putin did not address the language issue during his anodyne campaign stop in Kazan, when he also visited the ailing Shaimiev, 81, in the hospital. Putin’s visit — and the appointment of Shaimiev to a symbolic position on his presidential campaign — are intended as a sign that Minnikhanov has reached a compromise with Moscow and shown his loyalty, says Pavel Chikov, who runs Agora, a human rights legal practice.
Aisin says it is too late. With Russia stretching for thousands of miles from each side of it, Tatarstan has little leverage, he says. “Where can Tatarstan go, except into the sky?”
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