IS Moscow's aggression in Chechnya strictly an internal affair? As Russian tanks roll and bombs fall on Grozny, both Chechnya and Tatarstan are accused of being ``illegal'' breakaway republics, while the Russian Federation's legitimacy is not questioned.
Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, all kinds of republics emerged as full-fledged independent states. Why not Tatarstan and Chechnya? Is Russia still an imperial power imposing its will by force?
Events that led Moscow to deny Chechnya and Tatarstan independence after the cold war are similar. There were also some parallels in their struggles for freedom and subsequent declarations of sovereignty. Yet Moscow's response to these two cases of ``defiance'' was different.
Striving to halt a referendum
What explains Moscow's restraint in Tatarstan? The charge that the Chechens are somehow responsible for the Russian mafia in Moscow has been cited to explain the brute force used in Chechnya, but it is an absurd charge. Nor is this the first time that Russians have instantly transformed adversaries into monsters in order to justify carnages.
When Tatarstan first announced its intention to hold a referendum on sovereignty in early 1992, Yeltsin had the constitutional court and the parliament declare this democratic exercise unconstitutional. Then the head of the Constitutional Court threatened to arrest the Tatar leaders in Kazan if they did not halt the referendum. Finally Yeltsin conducted an all-out television campaign to urge the people of Tatarstan not to participate. These authoritarian tactics were employed in the name of ``democracy.'' But they backfired.
Tatars were puzzled as to why Yeltsin, who had so adroitly helped to dismantle the Soviet Union, was now clinging so tenaciously to non-Russian Tatarstan as an inviolable part of his new Russian Federation.
Tatarstan and Chechnya are denied sovereignty today by Russia on the ground that they were designated as ``autonomous'' republics by the Soviet Constitution, which made it ``illegal'' for such republics to secede from the USSR. This was done because the boundaries of these republics remained within the Soviet Union. On the other hand, republics of the former Soviet Union whose boundaries coincided with those of a foreign country (such as Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan - what Stalin called ``union'' republics) were theoretically allowed to become independent states. Eligibility for statehood in Russia today is being based on this discredited constitution.
Today, Tatarstan has its own Constitution, its own parliament, and its own flag and national anthem. It has declared its laws to supersede those of the Russian Federation. Its Constitution, adopted in late 1991, describes the republic as a sovereign state, subject to international law with dealings with Russia to be based on treaties between equal partners.
Ironically, not so long ago, Yeltsin had caused the same ``democratic'' headaches and dilemmas to Gorbachev that Tatars inflicted on him in 1992. Today Yeltsin uses the same arguments to preserve his Russian Federation that Gorbachev had used to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But this time around, of course, the arguments are less credible, since they are based on an obsolete constitution. Yeltsin apparently was warned that if he tampered with the old Soviet order with his ``democratic'' ideas, he would risk the same fate for his Russian Federation!
Nevertheless, the referendum for Tatar sovereignty took place on Feb. 21, 1992, and was approved by a majority vote that included many ethnic Russians in Tatarstan. Of the voters eligible, 82 percent participated, and of these, 61 percent opted for sovereignty. Moscow instantly declared this democratic exercise unlawful and unconstitutional. (Almost half of the nearly 4 million people of Tatarstan are of Russian origin. There are more than 6 million Kazan Tatars, with less than a third living in their homeland. The rest are scattered elsewhere in the former Soviet Union).
After this alarming confrontation Moscow, instead of resorting to aggression, proceeded to make amends. Under the guidance of former Russian Deputy Premier Yegor Gaidar, who is noted for his vision and ingenuity, negotiations were conducted under conditions of mutual respect and flexibility.
Consolidation not fragmentation
Yeltsin's government did its best to address Tatar grievances and redress wrongs and injustices of the past. It made substantial economic concessions and a few political ones. For instance, it allowed Tatarstan, one of the wealthiest republics of the Russian Federation, to retain some of the foreign exchange from its oil exports. Further concessions were made later, and last February a treaty was signed giving Tatarstan at least theoretical control of its own natural resources.
Tatar leaders involved in these negotiations also deserve credit for their maturity, sophistication, and willingness to compromise. Above all they swallowed some bitter pills with grace. They were wise enough to understand that economic viability today depends on consolidation, not fragmentation. It is to be hoped that the Chechens will do the same and that events in Chechnya will not affect the progress made in Tatarstan.
But how was the sticky problem of sovereignty handled? Ironically, President Shaimiyev of Tatarstan, while insisting that his country is independent, continues to assure Moscow that Tatars are against complete secession from the Russian Federation. So far it seems that Moscow can live with the paradox of letting Tatars pretend that they are sovereign, though technically they are not.
And why not? After all, what ordinary people of Tatarstan, Chechnya, and Russia want most today is a good life for themselves and their children, regardless of where laws are made and how political scientists define sovereignty. They want the opportunity to be consumed by consumerism in peace! The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.