The flag that flutters across this regional capital is not Russian. The semi-autonomous government of Tatarstan also has its own Constitution, and its defense policy often contradicts that of Moscow, 500 miles away.
All across Russia, regional rulers conduct affairs largely as they please. If Mintimer Shaimiyev, Tatarstan's president, has his way, their power will spread to Moscow itself.
"Regional politicians have become the most important force in Russia thanks to the vacuum of authority at the center," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Institute of Applied Politics, a Moscow think tank. "Now they are uniting to collect the political power that seems to them to be lying about the streets of Moscow."
In a move that could redraw the political landscape, Mr. Shaimiyev is trying to organize many regional leaders to win control of parliament's lower house, the Duma, in elections scheduled for December. If they are successful at unseating Communist domination of the Duma, regional leaders would control both houses. They already run the Federation Council, parliament's upper chamber.
Such a coup would mark the first time in Russian history that parliamentary power would be based on territorial interests rather than ideology, which has polarized the country for most of the past century.
"Failure in reform strategy has plunged Russia, a wealthy country, into a state of national catastrophe," St. Petersburg Gov. Vladimir Yakolev told a founding meeting of a new regional bloc, All Russia, at the end of May. "Attempts to reform Russia from the top have not worked. It must be from down below, from the regions."
The party is one of three loose coalitions formed in recent months by provincial governors to compete in the December elections, with an eye to the presidential ballot six months later.
Central power, so rigid under the czars and then communism, has eroded since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Little in common
In many cases, federal authority is largely symbolic in the vast Russian Federation, which is made up of 89 regions and territories - including 20 semiautonomous ethnic republics - and spans 11 time zones from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
Finding common ground will be a challenge, however. Only 13 regions, mostly raw-materials producers plus Russia's two largest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, are wealthy enough to contribute a tax surplus to the central government. The rest are net recipients of federal subsidies and tax relief.
"The chasms among Russian regions are not just geographic and ethnic but also economic," says Ms. Kryshtanovskaya. "The economy is postindustrial in Moscow, raw materials-based in Irkutsk, agrarian in Krasnodar, and pastoral in Kalmykia. It's almost impossible to speak of common political ground."
Only the republic of Chechnya has gone so far as to attempt secession, in a disastrous 1994-96 war. Moscow maintains the Muslim-majority region is still part of Russia, while the Chechen government considers itself independent.
Less violent feuds with the federal government are legion. Notable is the campaign by the Buddhist republic of Kalmykia to withhold tax earnings from Moscow. Others, particularly the 13 "donor" regions, control much of their own finances, gold and oil sales, and trade. They draw up their own laws governing religion and education.
The trend toward greater autonomy turned an important corner during the economic crisis last August and September. In order to ensure their own survival, regions sought greater control of their economies, such as setting price controls and withholding from Moscow revenues from industry and exports.
The center-periphery chasm is mainly economic, but it also reflects the political instability provoked by President Boris Yeltsin's poor health and frequent Cabinet changes.
"Basically he has tried to maintain the appearance of national unity while permitting a drastic redistribution of power in favor of the regions," says Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow.
The near-bankrupt central government has been forced to cede authority to local leaders, whose strength and prestige grew as they took over central-government functions such as maintaining infrastructure, raising taxes, and even feeding military garrisons. Since 1996, governors have been elected, rather than appointed by the Kremlin, enabling them to forge what are often their own private fiefdoms.
Lacking a 'party of power'
A key Yeltsin failure has been his refusal to build a presidential "party of power" to bring together regional elites behind a single vision of economic reform, experts say.
"Yeltsin has created a kind of monarchical system, in which the president stands above the political fray," says Kryshtanovskaya. "In consequence he has left the electoral field open to the Communists, who are the only truly nationwide party."
Whoever becomes the next president will need the endorsement of regional bosses, political analysts say. If regional blocs also gain control of the Duma, they would have an ideal platform to increase their financial independence and wield even greater control over policies.
In negotiations to join forces, one of the kingmakers is Shaimiyev, the driving force behind All Russia. The bloc unites some of the most prominent regional figures, including the leaders of Bashkortostan, St. Petersburg, Omsk, Astrakhan, and Ingushetia. So great is its potential that the movement has received overtures to form an alliance from Moscow's powerful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Mr. Luzhkov is widely viewed as among the top contenders for the 2000 presidential race, but what his Fatherland Party lacks is the support of leading governors.
Sources close to Shaimiyev say he would prefer to join forces with Samara Gov. Konstantin Titov and his Voice of Russia movement. Speculation is rife that these two men will back, not Luzhkov, but Yevgeny Primakov, the popular former prime minister recently fired by Yeltsin.
In theory, a three-party alliance could snatch 220 of the Duma's 440 seats - the number currently held by the Communists and their allies. The jury is out as to whether this goal is realistic.
Whatever happens, it will not be easy sailing, says Raphael Khakimov, an aide to Shaimiyev who spoke at length about the problems of reconciling conflicting interests and egos.
"The main thing that unites us is the desire to oust the Communist majority from parliament. We're talking about coordinating efforts, but it's unlikely that we would fully merge."
*Fred Weir in Moscow contributed to this report.