Will Putin Make Crimea a Second Chechnya or a Second Tatarstan?

April 4, 2014
Tatars Travelling on the Steppes. By Carlo Bossoli

Staunton, April 4 – Vladimir Putin’s exact plans for Crimea now that Russia has annexed it are as yet uncertain, but the Kremlin leader’s willingness to talk about restoring a Crimean Tatar Republic within the Russian Federation is already sparking discussion — precisely because of the far-reaching consequences of such a step.

One Russian commentator has already asked “Will the Crimea Become a Second Chechnya?” and a Kazan editor has also considered what a “second Tatar republic” in Russia might mean (Zvezda Povolzhya, no. 12 (692), April 3-9, 2014, p. 1).

In the first article, Ivan Preobrazhensky says that “it has been decided to convert Crimea into a region which will be run according to the same scheme as is the case in many North Caucasus subjects of the Russian Federation” at least in part because Moscow “doesn’t trust” the local ethnic Russian population and thinks it can exploit the Crimean Tatars for its own purposes.

Indeed, he argues, Moscow’s distrust of the local ethnic Russian leadership is so deep that Crimea’s ethnic Russians may eventually view the period of Ukrainian rule “as a golden age” in which they were in a position to run things more or less without outside interference, a situation that Moscow is not going to allow to continue.

Instead, the central Russian government having annexed Crimea has created a new Crimean Federal District and named Sergey Belaventsev, its own man rather than Crimea’s, to run it. And more important, Preobrazhensky argues, the Kremlin has assigned Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak to oversee the integration of the peninsula into Russia.

Kozak, who has been Moscow’s pro-consul for the North Caucasus, has his own distinctive “method,” as those who have watched him perform there say. Under his direction, “Moscow began ever more often to rely on long established local clans” in the region rather than try to shake things up.

This approach, Preobrazhensky suggests, was driven by Moscow’s desire to find “an ally in the struggle against the Islamists.” But now “the negative results of this policy are obvious: a growth of corruption, nationalism, and, what is the main thing, the marginalization of local ethnic Russians,” who have had to ally with one of the ethnic “clans” to retain any influence.

One might have thought, the Slon commentator says, that “the North Caucasus scheme [would] not have any relationship to Crimea,” given the ethnic Russian majority, the large number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and the small size – about 14 percent of the total population – of the Crimean Tatar population.

“However,” he continues, it appears to be the case that “many in Moscow think otherwise,” given that they have put Kozak in charge and announced several policy initiatives which are intended to boost the Crimean Tatars at the expense of others.

For example, Moscow has called for “three official languages” there, Russian, Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian. It has sought to buy the loyalty of the Crimean Tatar nation or at least some of its “clans.” And most significantly, Putin himself has spoken about “the need for a decision on the final rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatar people who were deported by Stalin.”

Such “a decision,” Preobrazhensky says, will involve “new compensation and the resolution of the land question on the peninsula through the legitimation of the large part of illegally constructed houses on land that the Crimean Tatars have seized.” And it will also require “quotas for those same Tatars in the republic parliament.”

In short, what is likely to happen in Crimea will be a repetition of what has happened in the North Caucasus under Kozak – including both Moscow’s de facto appointment of the head of the region and its and his alliance with local clans, which in this case are far more likely to be Crimean Tatar than ethnic Russian let alone Ukrainian.

And that in turn, Preobrazhensky continues, will mean that “the special economic relations” Moscow is prepared to extend to Crimea “will be transformed into direct dependence” on the center and its oil and gas revenues just as has been the case across the North Caucasus and especially in Chechnya.

He concludes his article with a warning: “The new system of administration will be built by the hands of those who blessed the return of the peninsula to Russia.” But “they risk becoming the main victims of this, if instead of a system of real popular administration, there is constructed an eastern satrapy in Crimea.”

If Preobrazhensky offers the prospect that Moscow will transform Crimea into a second Chechnya, Rashit Akhmetov, the editor of Zvezda Povolzhya talks about the related but alternative possibility that by its actions, the Kremlin will create a second Tatarstan, a development that also will re-order politics inside the Russian Federation.

Akhmetov suggests that Putin’s apparent support for the restoration of a Crimean Tatar Republic within the Russian Federation is a tactical move driven by his current needs. If such a republic is restored and Stalin’s deportation is denounced, the world would find it more difficult to talk about the Russian annexation of Crimea and thus will be less willing to impose sanctions.

Indeed, the Kazan editor continues, if Putin does take this step, “the international community and the UN will be forced to recognize the restoration of the Crimean Tatar Republic within Russia as an absolutely just action fully in compliance with the norms of international life.”

But of course, such an action would have enormous and very immediate consequences in Russia itself. “For Tatarstan,” Akhmetov says, “the establishment of another Tatar republic in Crimea would be a positive event” because the Kazan Tatars and the Crimean Tatars would thereby become “fraternal regions.”

The two groups of Tatars speak somewhat different languages and have been intentionally kept apart by Moscow, he writes. But they have much in common, including even the shadow of deportation.

Stalin did deport the Crimean Tatars in 1944, Akhmetov notes, but he points out that while it is less well-known, the Soviet dictator “in 1953 was already preparing the deportation of the Volga Tatars from Kazan to Siberia” and had even decided to rename Kazan and the Volga River after himself.

(Akhmetov does not say in this article, but it clearly follows from what he has written elsewhere that he believes that such a step would not only mark the end of Putin’s efforts to do away with the non-Russian republics but would also open the way for more of the punished peoples to demand rehabilitation and the restoration of their national lives and republics.)

The existence of two Tatarstans within the Russian Federation would change the balance of politics in that country, the Kazan editor suggests, and might even open the way to the appointment of a Tatar, Rustam Minnikhanov, as prime minister of Russia. There is a precedent for a Tatar ruler in Moscow, he points out: Boris Godunov.