The President of Tatarstan thinks Hillary Clinton has a lot to learn from him—at least according to headlines from the republic’s official news agency web site: “Hillary Clinton promised to consult Tatarstan President on foreign policy issues,” “US secretary of state is going to use Tatarstan’s experience in establishing contacts between countries.”
Clinton swung by the predominantly Muslim autonomous republic at the end of her three-day trip to Russia this week. After visiting the Kazan Kremlin, the Blagoveshchensk Orthodox Cathedral, and the newly built Kol Sharif Mosque, one of the largest in Europe and Russia, Clinton praised the republic as a “model for tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and Christians.”
Tatarstan is one of more than 20 ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. Located between the Volga and Kama Rivers some 500 miles east of Moscow, it is home to two million Turkic-speaking Tatars — the largest non-Slavic minority group in Russia. Chuvash, Udmurt, and Mordvin are among the other ethnic groups, alongside ethnic Russians, that make up the rest of the population. Slightly more than half of residents are Muslim.
Tatars are proud of their heritage, and their independent roots run deep. In the 15th century, they had their own medieval state—the Kazan Khanate, which ruled for more than a century, until Ivan the Terrible brought the khanate under Moscow’s dominion in 1552.
The Sunday before Clinton’s visit, more than 400 people demonstrated in the capital city Kazan to mark the anniversary of this very conquest. Demonstrators took the opportunity to protest Moscow’s policy of “Russification”—targeting a new education law passed this year that advances the use of Russian—and call for the national independence of the Tatars.
Claims to Tatar independence are not new. During the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, Tatarstan was one of many ethnic minority republics within Russia demanding full-fledged sovereignty. Chechnya’s attempts to break away resulted in two wars, and violence continues to flare there periodically.
Tatarstan was luckier. While its attempts to gain independence failed, no blood was shed. Due in part to President Mintimir Shaimiev’s savvy negotiating, Tatartstan walked away with more autonomy than any other republic in the Federation, including a significant degree of control over its economic resources.
Today, Tatarstan is, as the official website boats, one of the most economically developed parts of Russia. Rich in oil, it is also a manufacturing hub. Some of the biggest and most successful Russian companies are based there: the KamAZ truckmaker, for one. Shaimiev’s been successful in creating special economic zones and attracting foreign investment. Both Iran and Turkey, two big investors, have consulate generals in Kazan.
After Moscow and St. Petersburg, Tatarstan is said to be the most prosperous region of Russia. And, despite the prevalence of numerous ethnic groups and religions, and occasional pan-Tatar strivings for independence, actual strife is rare.
While the Tatar President’s claims to educate Secretary Clinton on foreign policy issues may be a bit far-fetched, it’s not that surprising the US State Department selected the region to showcase.
Or perhaps it was the republic’s unofficial motto that served as the decided factor: “We Can!”
Sound familiar, Obama?
– Christine Kiernan