Tatarstan and the war in Ukraine

Tatarstan and the War in Ukraine

First published at Posle.

The Republic of Tatarstan does not stick out among Russia’s republics for its involvement in the war in Ukraine. It is not a border region. It did not lead in casualties in the first months of the full-scale invasion. Its airports did not close because of its proximity to the front. 

Yet, it is not like any other region. It is the most populous ethnic republic, Moscow’s “showcase” for the Muslim East, and one of the Russian Federation’s most influential regions. In recent weeks, however, Tatarstan has been in the news because of the war. It has been repeatedly attacked by Ukrainian drones. As a result, the republic is becoming the farthest subject of the Russian Federation to be directly touched by the “hand of war.”

In the initial months after the invasion, Tatarstan tried to keep a low profile. The war was simply ignored. Even top officials did not mention it. This silence eventually cost one of them, Youth Minister Timur Suleymanov, his position. Immediately after Suleymanov’s dismissal, the republic’s Youth Department began to actively support the war and patriotism.

The media

Since modern war is primarily waged through information, the state’s first changes began with the strengthening of media censorship. In Tatarstan, the call to arms did not immediately appear until the draft in September 2022. From the very beginning of the war, there was a certain reluctance to discuss issues previously raised in the local media. This was particularly clear on Republican television. For example, the main issues important for Tatar viewers, like preserving native languages, russification, and national policy, disappeared from Tatarstan New Century (TNV) for several months. [TNV is Tatarstan’s the main state channel and the only 24-hour public and political Tatar-language television channel in the world. It broadcasts in two state languages: Tatar and Russian. Though the TAIF group owns a controlling stake in the channel, practically all the funding comes from Tatarstan’s budget.] 

The local peculiarity is that Moscow was less concerned with media in Tatar than those in Russian. This is probably why censorship of Tatar media is much less today and why the rights of federal subjects and national-cultural problems are still discussed (albeit rarely). In contrast, both state and private Russian-language media have completely removed ethnic issues from its reporting. This was not case before the war. A serious blow to the public was the blocking and, in early 2024, adding Radio Azatliq (the Tatar-Bashkir edition of Radio Liberty) in the list of undesirable organizations. Radio Azatliq was the most open outlet for raising issues that even the Republic’s private media dared not address. 

Ethnic agenda

The problems of ethnic and cultural development of the Tatar people have practically disappeared from republican politics. The first pause occurred after about six or seven months, when there was an attempt to return to the pre-invasion issues. But at the beginning of 2023, this trend was reversed. Obviously, the mobilization, which demanded a lot of attention from state media to show the unity of Russian society, had taken its toll. Ethnic issues and the problems of the country’s regions clearly showed that all-Russian unity does not exist. To say nothing about the racism and xenophobia in the Russian Federation (which is exactly how propaganda justified the need for the so-called Special Military Operation in Ukraine).

In the second half of 2022, posters calling for volunteers appeared in Tatar for the first time. This was an important change. Before the invasion, Tatar was somewhat viewed as disturbing “national unity.” But as soon as the “Motherland” needed non-Russian peoples, they were suddenly remembered. 

And yet, pressure on Tatarstan’s cultural and political independence increased. As many Tatar experts warned, the slogan to defend the “Russian world”, which was primarily aimed outside the Russian Federation, soon boomeranged back. Its ideologists began to hunt for enemies of this so-called “Russian world” within the Russian Federation. Remember, the search for internal “Russophobes” was popular in the 1990s. And back then there was no anti-Ukrainian rhetoric at all. But since the invasion, conflicts over the fight against “Russophobia” have flared up with renewed vigor. The most notable episodes were the seizure of the January 2023 issue of Tatarstan magazine over a collage of a cat and the controversy over the construction of the Cathedral Mosque in Kazan.

I will briefly describe these conflicts. The cover of the January 2023 issue of Tatarstan magazine featured a collage combining a local artist’s two paintings a white cat and a black cat. A cat is one of the symbols of Kazan. So, the “Moscow patriots” imagined an incitement to ethnic hatred and Russophobia in the image since the black cat showed an Orthodox church and the white cat, a mosque. According to the “Sorok Sorokov” movement, the black cat symbolized the evil and darkness of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian culture threatening the “bright” side, i.e. the white cat and white mosque, symbolizing Tatar culture. The scandal ended with public apologies from the magazine’s editor-in-chief Tatyana Vafina and the head of the Republican Agency for Press and Mass Communications “Tatmedia” Aidar Salimgarayev.

Double standards regarding the “traditional” religions of Russia, even in Muslim republics, are evident in debates around the construction of Kazan’s new Congregational Mosque [Note: According to the Russian Constitution Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism are the country’s four “traditional” religions]. According to our sources in the Administration of the President of Tatarstan, the construction of a new mosque in the center of Kazan was one of the tacit conditions for the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, in which Tatarstan had invested considerable funds. Russian Orthodox Church officials accepted these conditions. And an agreement to build the mosque on the site of the former amusement park “Kyrlay” opposite the Kazan Kremlin was reached after a long search and input from environmentalists. All parties accepted this decision. In May 2022, during the celebration of the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by the Volga Bulgaria, the foundation stone for the future construction was laid in a solemn ceremony before thousands of Muslims (including foreign guests). 

However, a few months later a group of architects unexpectedly wrote a letter objecting to the construction site because of its alleged proximity to groundwater (which does not prevent housing and retail development in the neighborhood around the Kazanka River). Further, a group of Moscow architects unexpectedly announced that Rustam Minnikhanov, the Head of Tatarstan, approved their rather controversial project (which was criticized by the Muslim community) to locate the mosque outside the city center in Admiralteyskaya Sloboda. This news hit like thunderclap, given that the competition for the mosque project was over and the winner had already been officially announced. Tatarstani authorities have given no definitive response, allegedly because the Kazan Kremlin did not want to further discredit itself in the eyes of Muslims. The mosque’s project was temporarily stalled, but at the end of April, Kazan Mayor Ilsur Metshin officially announced that construction in Admiralteyskaya Sloboda would “soon begin.” 

These manufactured scandals were nothing but an attempt to stigmatize issues related to the Tatar national question. It is fair to say that this offensive against national and ethnic cultural autonomy had been underway for a long time. The war only intensified it. “Tightening of the screws” in the media, the expansion of the list of taboo topics and, predictably, restrictions for certain commentators all accompanied each of the above episodes.

Intelligentsia

We should note one important peculiarity: the national intelligentsia, including public sector employees, have refrained from supporting the military actions in Ukraine and Moscow’s policies. Tatar intellectuals and activists have adopted a formally neutral stance. If in the first two weeks of the war there were sluggish and cautious attempts to express their disagreement with Russian state policy, the fear of growing repression gradually silenced everyone who did not emigrate.

Meanwhile, the most politically active emigrants began to criticize Russian policy in Ukraine. Some of them joined emigre alliances. But why did the authorities fail to force the remaining Tatar intelligentsia to convert to Russian patriotic politics? The answer lies in the Kremlin’s sustained policy of russification in the ethnic republics, which only strengthened with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine. Ironically, the Tatar intelligentsia (from teachers to writers and scientists who associate themselves with the Tatar nation) does not depend on large state grants and has maintained its relative independence as a result. 

The two most influential organizations for the Tatar intelligentsia are the World Congress of Tatars and the Union of Writers of the Republic of Tatarstan. The first one claims to represent Tatar interests across around the world. The second is a Soviet relic for writers. The WCT became implicated in supporting the war only through the remarks and actions of its head, Vasil Shaykhraziev, a deputy prime minister of Tatarstan. Shaykhraziev began to actively advocate for the war in the second half of 2022, but remained the only WCT’s leader to actively it.  At some meetings, he demanded that his staff be more active in generating support for the so-called “special military operation.” However, support remained limited to a group of women sewing warm clothes for the mobilized soldiers. This lack of support could signal the national Tatar intelligentsia’s boycott of the Kremlin’s policies.

In connection to the war, Mufti Kamil Samigullin from the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Tatarstan (DUM RT) limited himself to statements that “the mobilization does not contradict the norms of Shariah.” The organization also sends humanitarian aid to the Russian army. Overall, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has garnered little support in the Tatar public sphere.

Mobilizing resources

In Tatarstan, by mid-2022, two volunteer military units “Alga” and “Timer” were formed under orders from Moscow. There was hardly any information about them in the media. But in February 2024, the regional newspaper Business Online published an extensive article about the complete defeat of the “Alga” battalion based on previous reports on Telegram. The battalion was crushed in one of the battles with heavy fighting. As is the case with many units from the ethnic republics, and the neighboring Bashkortostan is a case in point, “Alga” was thrown into the most intense fighting, and in one such battle most of “Alga’s” troops were killed. There was no information about the fate of the “Timer” battalion, which could have been similar. 

This low-profile approach allowed the head of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, to avoid international sanctions for a long time (unlike the head of neighboring Bashkortostan, who is much more actively involved in military issues). Nevertheless, by the end of 2023, Minnikhanov became persona non grata for many countries of the world. In April 2023, the head of Tatarstan was ostentatiously banned from entering the territory of Moldova, where he flew to meet with the authorities of Gagauzia. He could not even get off the plane at the airport in Chisinau. Thus, the moderate policy of the Tatarstan’s administration did not allow it to avoid international sanctions. This was the hope based on the belief that “Tatar cunning” and ties with the Muslim world would help spare them.

Because the powerful military-industrial complex is concentrated in Tatarstan, many industrial enterprises have also been placed under sanctions. This includes the Kamaz track manufacturing plant, Kazan aviation enterprises, the Gunpowder Plant, and Russia’s most successful special economic zone (SEZ), Alabuga. Alabuga became infamous for the assembly of Iranian Shahed drones [and the use of child labor]. This frankly foolish PR on the part of the SEZ management turned Alabuga into a primary target for Ukrainian drone strikes on Tatarstan.  

Soon after the April attack on the drone factory, governor Rustam Minnikhanov said: “I appeal to the heads of our enterprises….Wake up, guys, no one will protect you but yourselves.” That is, Minnikhanov openly confirmed that the main outcome of the so-called “special military operation” for Russian’s regions was the consolidation of all resources (or concentration of all financial and human resources in Moscow) and federalization of all losses (or distribution of all negative consequences of the war to the regions), including direct military ones. 

Tatarstan has suffered the most from the “federalization” of losses, given that for many years the republic had been building independent bilateral relations with many foreign countries, primarily with Turkey and other Muslim countries (of course, under the watchful eye of Moscow). There have also been attempts to develop contacts with the Western world. For example, in 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Kazan. Western technology manufacturers used to work in Tatarstan. For example, Ford engines were produced in the Alabuga SEZ. Kamaz and Germany’s Daimler produced the latest generation of trucks. Now all this is gone. 

At the same time, Kazan is forced to build relations with China, which is widely known for its mass repressions against the Muslim population of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.  The repression in Xinjiang has a deep significance in the Tatar collective memory. The Uyghur territory was an important center of Tatar emigration in the 1920s. Tatar intellectuals were able to not only build mosques but also their own school system. In addition to the urban centers, Tatars lived in a number of Tatar villages, where not only national consciousness but also the Tatar language was fully preserved. Before the mass repressions, about 3,000 Tatars lived in this territory and had regular cultural and economic ties with Tatarstan. Tatar schoolchildren from this part of China chose Kazan universities for their further studies, because they could receive education in their native Tatar and not feel alien among the local population. The World Congress of Tatars supervised the development of these ties. There were even attempts by these Tatars to permanently move to Tatarstan, and petitioned Rustam Minnikhanov with such a request. Moscow deliberately obstructed these efforts. 

Building fruitful relations between Russian and Chinese Tatars continued until 2017 when all ties were suddenly severed. It turned out that the Tatar activists and cultural figures who regularly came from China to Kazan for all kinds of national forums were either in concentration camps or their fate was unknown. As a result, a paradoxical situation has emerged. The Tatar factor, which used to be extremely important for building any contacts with China, has disappeared. But despite this glaring lack, foreign relations with China have reached an unprecedented level. Cultural and economic forums have been organized to promote Chinese culture, but Turkic history has no place in them.

Crimean case

Both supporters and opponents of the current conflict are unanimously agree it began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the so-called “Russian Spring” in Donbass. The Donbas did not particularly affect Tatarstan and Tatars. Crimea was different and much more complicated. Moscow tried to use the potential of Tatarstan to settle the “Tatar issue” in Crimea to reach an agreement with the Crimean Tatars, who emerged as a prominent political opposition to the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea. Negotiations were conducted at different levels. Former Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev acted as an intermediary between Moscow and Mustafa Dzhemilev (the unofficial leader of the Crimean Tatars), as many media outlets reported at the time. 

In addition, there were negotiations between the World Congress of Tatars and the Milli Mejlis of Crimean Tatars (now banned in Russia). During these negotiations, which I personally witnessed, a number of deputies of the State Council of Tatarstan (among them Razil Valiev, chairman of Tatarstan’s Parliamentary Committee for Culture) and Tatar public figures tried to convince their Crimean counterparts that it was possible to solve national problems by seeking preferential treatment from Moscow. They pointed to the success of Tatarstan in negotiating its relative autonomy in the 1994 federal treaty. Volga Tatars maintained that their role as mediators could help Crimean Tatars obtain a special status in Crimea. But everything ended as it always does. Moscow refused to recognize the Mejlis as a legitimate representative of the Crimean Tatars and, eventually, declared it extremist. Some of its members went to prison. The rest fled Crimea. The Bakhchisaray district, which has the second largest population of Crimean Tatars, was placed under Tatarstan’s supervision. And the Karasu-Bazar district, the first in terms of the number of Tatars, was assigned to Bashkortostan. Tatarstan helped with the reconstruction of the Khan’s palace in Bakhchisaray and invested in the construction of the great Congregational Mosque. The Marjani Institute of History opened a branch in Crimea, and in 2023 published the first two volumes of multi-volume history of the Crimean Tatars written by local historians. However, relations between Tatarstan and the Crimean leadership deteriorated due to both ideological disagreement (the head of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov is a well-known Russian nationalist in the past) and Moscow’s behind-the-scenes policy, which had nothing to gain by strengthening Kazan’s influence in Crimea.

Political repercussions

In January 2023, less than a year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the leader of Tatarstan lost the status of the Republic’s President and was renamed “rais,” an Arabic word for “leader.” Tatarstan was the last Russian constituent entity to have maintained that status. At the same time, the Constitution of Tatarstan was amended. The clause stating that the republic “rejects violence and war as a means of settling disputes between states and peoples and opposes war propaganda” was deleted from the founding document. As a matter of fact, the project for the republic as it emerged from the referendum on Tatarstan’s state sovereignty in August 1990 and the 1992 Constitution were definitively abolished. Tatarstan as the second republic ceased to exist (with Soviet Tatarstan of 1920-1990 being the First Republic). 

Taking all the above into account, we can make a few key predictions. The war will end sooner or later. And clearly Russia will not get the result it expected on February 24, 2022. The inevitable setback in economic and cultural terms and the disillusionment with the “Russian world” ideology will lead to the growth of national consciousness among the Tatar population. And the stronger the current restrictions in the national sphere will be, the more radical the national movement’s agenda will be in the future. Federalization and building its own regional policy will become a key issue for Tatarstan. And in contrast to the late 1980s “parade of sovereignties,” the deadlock of the unitary system will be even more evident. Especially after this unity had to be paid for with blood — the great losses among the population of ethnic republics and non-metropolitan areas.