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A Part of Russia That Wants Out

People in the Volga republic of Tatarstan are rebuilding a national identity suppressed by czars and Soviets - and trying to go it alone

By StoriesJustin BurkeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 1993

KAZAN, the capital of the autonomous republic of Tatarstan, has the look of a typically sleepy Russian provincial city.

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Coated in dust, downtown Kazan is full of Czarist-era buildings with elaborate but decaying facades. The outskirts feature drab apartment blocks, and overlooking the city from the heights above the Volga River is a white-walled kremlin, or fortress.

But on this very Russian foundation, Tatarstan's leaders are working to build a separate nation within the Russian Federation. The Tatar green-white-and-red flag has already replaced the Russian tricolor atop all government buildings.

The task is complex because Tatar leaders have essentially started from scratch. In 1552, when Ivan the Terrible conquered Kazan, the Tatars were considered Moscow's most dangerous enemies. Thus, to be sure they would never again pose a threat to his empire, Ivan sacked the Tatar capital, burning the state archives, in an attempt to destroy the national identity.

Czars and then Soviet commissars continued the assimilation work until the late 1980s, when perestroika reforms opened the door for the revival of Tatar sovereignty. That effort has gained momentum amid the Soviet Union's collapse and ongoing political turmoil in Moscow.

Tatarstan is perhaps the most active of Russia's autonomous republics, or nominal ethnic homelands, in trying to change the nature of the federation. No longer does the Tatar government of President Mintimer Shaimiyev accept centralized rule from Moscow. Instead, the republic wants control of its natural resources - including substantial oil reserves - and only a loose association with Moscow, involving mainly defense cooperation.

In a recent interview, top Shaimiyev aide Rafael Khakimov spoke wistfully of the tiny European nations of San Marino and Liechtenstein as role models for Tatarstan's self-rule. ``We have a lot to do before we can be recognized as a sovereign state. But we're working for it and I think we'll attain it,'' he says.

Many federal government officials are wary of the effort by Tatarstan and other autonomous republics to assert their autonomy, fearing it could spark Russia's disintegration. But while Moscow may oppose the sovereignty drive, intrigues in the Russian capital are preventing federal officials from formulating an effective response.

Mr. Khakimov indicates the federal government's instability is fueling the autonomy efforts. But some political observers say Tatarstan's leaders are using the sovereignty issue to try to establish their own little fiefdom. Olga Senatova, a Moscow-based political scientist, says the Tatar leaders, casting themselves as moderates, have played up the possibility of an ultranationalist revival to frighten federal officials into making initial autonomy concessions.

``There isn't a great feeling of nationalism in the Tatar leadership,'' Ms. Senatova says. ``The Tatar Constitution, for example, doesn't refer to the `Tatar people.' Instead it's the `people of Tatarstan.' It's an important difference.

``The nationalists were always used as a scarecrow to frighten Moscow,'' Senatova continues. ``But now the [Tatar] government controls everything [in Tatarstan] and there's no need to scare Moscow anymore.''

In reviving Tatar culture, the Tatar government has kept ultranationalist sentiment in check, so as not to antagonize the republic's Russian population.

Kazan's overriding concern is stability, something reflected by the government's cautious approach to reforms. Tatar officials denounced Moscow's attempt at ``shock therapy,'' which stressed rapid price liberalization. ``We felt we must first feed the people, then tackle reforms. A hungry people will never accept reforms,'' Khakimov says.

To that end, Tatarstan has been slow to discard the vestiges of the Soviet system, including collectivized agriculture and state-controlled prices. But this go-slow approach has produced some good results. For example, the republic has funneled revenue earned from its extensive oil reserves into agriculture, helping to raise yields by about 9 percent compared with the previous harvest.

``Here there is discipline and the certainty that decisions will be carried out. That's not the case in Russia,'' Khakimov says.

Tatarstan's relative economic stability is attracting foreign investment. In July, Tatar officials signed a $1.2-billion deal with South Korean automaker Daewoo to build a car factory in the republic. A Daewoo consumer electronics plant is also planned in Kazan.