Yeltsin Faces Nationalist Protest
Tatar activists contest authority of leader of Russian Federation and demand autonomy
IVAN the Terrible had to conquer Kazan in 1552 before he could go on to subjugate Siberia. Almost four and a half centuries later, Kazan again is an obstacle - this time for Russian Federation leader Boris Yeltsin. Like Ivan, he will have to pacify the city's nationalist desires to effectively extend his rule across Russia. The surge of nationalism that swept across the Soviet Union's 15 republics is also growing within many of the Russian Federation's 16 autonomous republics. And like republics trying to break away from the union - especially the Baltics and Georgia - many autonomous regions are aiming to gain sovereignty from Russia.
Kazan, the capital of the autonomous republic of Tatarstan, has emerged as a hotbed of the sovereignty-minded activism within Russia. The movement has intensified since Mr. Yeltsin, the leader of Russia's parliament, announced a Russian presidential election would be held June 12.
Yeltsin is virtually assured of winning, enhancing his ability to challenge Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But the Russian presidency will also expose Yeltsin to many of the same problems that have hounded Mr. Gorbachev during his six years as Soviet leader - especially the matter of renegade republics.
"He [Yeltsin] may become the president of the Russian Federation, but he won't be our president," said Fauzia Bairamova, leader of Ittifak, the main Tatar nationalist movement. "We in Tatarstan want the same thing that those in union republics are fighting for - independence."
In theory, Bolshevik leaders established autonomous republics within union republics to give various national groups limited freedom. But in many cases, the boundaries for such republics were drawn more according to political rather than ethnic considerations, making the regions easier to rule.
Thus, to this day they are prime breeding grounds for confrontation. Many nationalists accuse the Kremlin of exploiting national conflicts, such as that between Georgia and South Ossetia, to stall the union republics' drive for independence.
Embroiled in the bitter political struggle with Gorbachev, Yeltsin has been slow to act on the simmering nationalities' crisis in the Russian Federation. Preliminary discussions have been held in the Russian legislature on a treaty reshaping the federation and granting greater rights to autonomous republics - similar to Gorbachev's proposed new treaty of the union. But little concrete has been accomplished.
"There is always the threat of Russian chauvinism, and we must have guarantees against this," said Anter Khuzangai, a parliament member of the Chuvash Autonomous Republic, which borders Tatarstan along the Volga River about 500 miles from Moscow.
In Kazan, nationalist groups are striving to protect Tatar culture, with its strong Islamic and Oriental traditions, against Russian encroachment.
Various interest groups in Tatarstan are developing different approaches to sovereignty. The most radical stance belongs to Ittifak, which wants complete independence with an elected president of its own. The nationalist group also has strongly condemned interethnic marriages.
Meanwhile, Tatarstan's apparatchik-dominated parliament, which adopted a declaration of sovereignty last August and seeks to boost the region's status to union republic, said Andrei Gavrilov, a Soviet people's deputy representing Kazan.
"The Russian Federation and the Kremlin must understand this is not only a matter of national reawakening, it's also a matter of economics," said Alexander Lozovoi, vice chairman of the autonomous republic's parliament. "We want to control what we produce."
Mr. Gavrilov said many parliament members were exploiting the national issue, opposing Yeltsin for purely political reasons, hoping merely to bolster their own positions.
Nationalists want power
Yet, the desire for regional economic control is also prevalent among nationalists, and it will doubtless hamper Yeltsin's plan to carry out market-style reforms in the Russian Federation. The Kazan City Council already has adopted its own program for a transition to a market economy.
Despite a looming clash, there is general, although cautious, support for Yeltsin, mainly because he is helping to destroy the old Communist command-control system. But many expect Yeltsin to repeat many of Gorbachev's mistakes regarding nationalities.
"First he'll try to keep the autonomous republics within Russia, using so-called constitutional methods," said Gavrilov.
If that doesn't work, "he may resort to dictatorial measures, such as imposing an economic blockade similar to the one Gorbachev imposed on Lithuania - only worse, because the Russian Federation completely surrounds Tatarstan."
Unlike the clash between Lithuania and the Kremlin, however, many doubt a possible confrontation in Kazan could turn bloody.
"There is better chance for peace here because almost half of the families are mixed - Tatar and Russian," said Vladimir Belyaev, a leader of the moderate Soglasiye movement. "It will be much harder to split the people along ethnic lines here."