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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Campaign Won't Get Tatar Support

KAZAN, Tatarstan -- While Russia's latest military campaign in Chechnya appears to enjoy broad support around most of the country and across the political spectrum, it is getting a cold reception in Tatarstan, the homeland of Russia's largest, traditionally Moslem ethnic group.

The republic's political elite are criticizing federal authorities for not negotiating an autonomy deal - like the one they have with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. And Tatar nationalists take an even harder line, rallying for Chechen liberation and warning that the conflict is leading to persecution of Moslems by federal authorities in Tatarstan.

"From the very beginning, when there was the first military invasion of Chechnya and an attempt to solve the Chechen problem by military means, I spoke out against it, and all this time I have maintained that position," Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev said in an interview over the weekend.

"Negotiations with Maskhadov should have been conducted before troops were sent into the Chechen republic, and they should be going on today," he added.

Though Tatarstan is politically stable and prosperous compared to other Russian regions, it contrasts sharply with war-ravaged Chechnya. Many Tatars say they feel solidarity with the Chechens, a fellow Moslem minority struggling to shake off Russian control.

As in Chechnya, Tatarstan's separatist ideas flourished when the Soviet Union crumbled. But the republic was able to secure a great deal of autonomy through clever political maneuvering - instead of plunging itself into a bloody war for independence.

This is not the first time Tatarstan has not seen eye to eye with the rest of Russia. Earlier this year, NATO's campaign in Yugoslavia enjoyed wide support among Tatars, who sympathized with persecuted Albanians in Kosovo; in contrast, most Russians sympathized with their fellow Slavs, the Serbs.

In keeping with their stance that Russia should surrender more power to the regions, Shaimiyev and other Tatarstan leaders said negotiations with Maskhadov are long overdue.

Shaimiyev said Russia's recent assertion that Maskhadov is not a legitimate authority in Chechnya is absurd.

"Why didn't they say that Maskhadov wasn't legitimate when they signed the peace agreement?" he said.

"The chance has been lost," said Farid Mukhametshin, speaker of Tatarstan's State Council. "There should have been negotiations. Moscow should have supported Maskhadov."

Rafail Khakimov, Shaimiyev's political adviser, said Moscow should have offered Chechnya some kind of special status, perhaps similar to Tatarstan's, to help Maskhadov save face at home after he signed the 1996 ceasefire agreement.

Shaimiyev said the invasion of Dagestan by Chechen fighters this summer required decisive action but warned against war with an entire ethnic group.

Others entirely blamed Moscow. "Free Chechnya! Hands off Chechnya!" reads graffiti in downtown Kazan.

In Naberezhniye Chelny, Tatarstan's second-largest city and the heart of Tatar nationalism, radicals recent view events in the Caucasus as a popular uprising.

"[In Dagestan], Moslems rose up against corrupt officials," said Fauzia Bairamova, leader of the Ittifak party, which has joined the Tatar Social Center, a prominent nationalist group, in staging pro-Chechnya demonstrations.

Alexander Salagayev, head of the Russian Culture Society in Kazan, said public opinion on Chechnya broke down along ethnic lines, with ethnic Russians, who make up 43 percent of the republic's population, largely supporting Moscow's military campaign.

Khakimov, the principal ideologist of All Russia, the party of regional governors that Shaimiyev helped launch, harshly criticized Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, saying he had fueled anti-Caucasian sentiment. It was a startling accusation, since All Russia has linked up with Luzhkov's party, Fatherland, for the State Duma elections.

"He is inciting ethnic conflicts. Charges could be brought against Luzhkov for this," Khakimov said.

In the wake of apartment bombings in Moscow, which the government has blamed on Chechen terrorists, Luzhkov instituted a "special regime," which included re-registration of non-Muscovites. Chechens and other Caucasians reported illegal searches, arrests and other harassment by the police.

Shaimiyev, however, said he supported Luzhkov's actions. "Moscow is big. There really is an enormous number of people from the Caucasus living there, and every day millions of people leave and arrive to Moscow," he said.

Shaimiyev said his government had also not been shy about violating civil rights in light of recent events. The Tatarstan government, for instance, expelled citizens of Arab countries who were teaching at a Moslem theological school in Naberezhniye Chelny, he said.

"This was also a violation. But we took this step," said Shaimiyev. The expelled teachers returned, he said, but Shaimiyev wasn't impressed. "We'll kick them out again," he said.