PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin has arrived and departed in Washington. But another president from the Russian Federation arrived for official meetings this weekend - President Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan, the oil-rich Volga Republic that has a population equally divided between ethnic Tatars (a Muslim Turkic language group) and Russians.
For the past five years, Tatarstan has led the drive for greater sovereignty and decentralization of power in the traditionally authoritarian Russian state. The Tatar leadership rejected secession; instead, Tatarstan has successfully negotiated for greater powers within the Russian Federation.
Today political leaders throughout the former Soviet Union are advocating the ``Tatarstan model'' as a basis for resolving the most critical conflicts: the status of Crimea with Ukraine; Abkhazia within Georgia; and Chechnya within the Russian Federation. Last month the Speaker of the Crimean Parliament submitted a concept paper for regulating relations with Kiev based on the treaty signed in February between Presidents Yeltsin and Shaimiyev.
What is the ``Tatarstan model''? While avoiding direct military confrontation with Moscow, Tatarstan leaders have achieved a significant degree of sovereignty short of secession: They have declared the Tatar language to be equal with Russian and adopted their own Constitution. The Tatars have advocated ``asymmetrical'' federalism, where they exercise special rights not unlike those of Quebec, which has fought for constitutional flexibility to preserve its traditional French-language culture within a sea of English-speaking North Americans. Quebec was conquered by the British in 1759 and has stubbornly maintained its distinct identity ever since. The Tatars were subjugated by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 but managed to keep their culture alive through the imperial Russian and repressive Soviet periods. Modern Tatar nationalists want the full return of their independent ``statehood,'' while Russians assert that Ivan the Terrible merely liberated the Russians from the Tatar-Mongol yoke oppressing them since 1240.
President Shaimiyev has adopted a middle road that is supported by a majority of the Tatars and Russians in Tatarstan. It allows Russia to preserve its territorial integrity while providing Tatarstan significant autonomy in a form reminiscent of the ``sovereignty association'' of Quebec and Canada.
The Tatarstan leadership engaged Russia in a delicate dance of confrontation and compromise. A compromise was reached only after the Tatarstan delegation refused to sign the Russian Federation Treaty in March 1992, walked out of the Constitutional Assembly in June 1993, and boycotted federal elections in December 1993. At the height of tension, former Speaker of the Russian Parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov threatened to once again sack Kazan and bring ``President Shaimiyev to Moscow in a cage,'' as Russian czars did with rebellious subjects prior to public execution. A politically face-saving option was reached last February, when both sides signed a treaty providing assurance that Tatarstan will stay in the Russian Federation in exchange for several special privileges. Although many legal problems with the treaty remain, it gives Tatarstan local control over natural resources and provides for special Tatarstan citizenship, as well as for alternative military service.
Twelve unpublished secret agreements accompany the treaty, spelling out the delicate formula for defense, taxation, oil revenues, and other critical issues. Though Moscow formally has given Tatarstan sovereignty over its oil, it is reaping large sums through customs duties on all oil shipped from Tatarstan. The pipeline runs through Russian territory as in the case of Kazakhstan. Russia can thus squeeze Tatarstan, an enclave, whereas Kazakhstan has the option - though undesirable - to ship its oil through Iran.
ALTHOUGH Tatarstan's case holds out promise that other conflicts in the former Soviet Union might be managed nonviolently, that prospect is by no means assured. The Ukraine government in Kiev, for example, is concerned that Tatarstan's example could encourage forces for greater autonomy in regions such as Odessa, the independent-minded port on the Black Sea, or Donbas, the predominantly Russian coal-mining region bordering Russia. The pro-Russian leadership in Crimea wants a Tatarstan-style pact with Kiev as a tactical step toward the final goal of complete independence from Ukraine.
Still, leaders in Abkhazia and Georgia may find this approach promising, and it may provide a way out of the recent blow-up in Chechnya.
The prevention of conflict almost always goes unnoticed. Reaching an accord that satisfies the conflicting parties is a long, tedious process. Successful management of serious conflict is less likely to ``make news'' than an outbreak of violence. Elements for a serious ethnic conflict were present in Tatarstan. The American public has now learned the names of Karabakh, Bosnia, and now, for some, Chechnya. In this sense it is fortunate that, for most Americans, Tatarstan is still not on their media-created map. We need to examine these successes to provide models for preventing the ethnic conflicts that have become the somber hallmark of the 1990s.
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