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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tatarstan Shows No Sign of Surrender

KAZAN, Central Russia -- The day after President Vladimir Putin announced his plans to tighten the Kremlin's grip on the regions, Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev gathered reporters at his residence under the green, white and red flag of sovereign Tatarstan to respond.

The leadership of Tatarstan, said Shaimiyev - one of the nation's most powerful regional potentates - fully supports the plans that Putin first floated a week ago.

If Putin follows through on his pledge to make all Russians live under one set of laws, Shaimiyev's reign as unchallenged ruler over this republic of 4 million could be brought to an end. But far from rushing to the defense of his autonomy, Shaimiyev is avoiding confrontation. Despite his awesome power within Tatarstan's borders, Shaimiyev may have little choice, observers say.

"Tatarstan has gone quiet," said Rashit Akhmetov, editor of the opposition newspaper Zvezda Povolzhya. "Everyone is sitting and waiting."

Tatarstan led the regions in wresting away from Moscow many of the political and economic powers associated with sovereignty. Most importantly, control over the region's vast oil deposits - Tatarstan's oil industry generates more than $1 billion a year in revenues - passed into the regional government's hands. Many of Tatarstan's laws - from additional tax legislation to the lack of term limits for presidents - contradict federal legislation.

Shaimiyev, a former Soviet party boss well known for his ability to painlessly switch ideologies, has coyly avoided addressing the central question: Is he ready to give up his independence?

"I wouldn't say that this [Putin's proposals] will threaten independence. I don't think anybody ... wants lawlessness," he said in an interview with ORT's Sergei Dorenko broadcast last Saturday. "There should be one set of rules in the state."

But for all the Tatarstan leader's outward acquiescence, the mood in Kazan is far from one of surrender. Officials close to Shaimiyev say they don't want to give anything up and are counting on success at the negotiating table to allow them to retain most, if not all, of their current powers.

"Our powers will stay with us. ... We don't plan to give them up," said Rafail Khakimov, a close adviser to Shaimiyev.

"They may try to scare us in Moscow, and some regions will give up right away," Khakimov said in an interview Monday. "We aren't afraid, that's the difference. We'll sit down at the negotiating table and find a common language."

Tatarstan has done well at the negotiating table in the past. A 1994 treaty broadly outlined areas of regional control - such as land distribution and natural resources - and areas of federal control - nuclear energy and defense, for example. But the nuts and bolts of the relationship are set forth in specific agreements that must be renewed every few years.

This time, they will struggle to hold on to more than a fraction of their current powers, analysts said.

"Tatarstan on its own won't be able to resist these changes," said Nikolai Petrov, a regional politics analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

Indeed, the republic already has been forced to make concessions. When Putin visited Kazan in March, he forced the republic to direct the same amount of tax revenue to the federal budget as other regions, Khakimov said. In return, that money will stay in Kazan at the regional branch of the federal treasury and will be directed toward federal projects in Tatarstan, he added.

Meanwhile, members of Tatarstan's weak opposition forces say they welcome any measures that would bring Shaimiyev into line.

"You can't talk about human rights until you have state power," said Alexander Shtanin, the only Shaimiyev opponent in the Tatarstan parliament. Shtanin had to sue the regional election commission eight times for election fraud before being allowed to take up his seat earlier this month.

Shtanin and other Shaimiyev opponents say Moscow's crackdown means the 63-year-old leader will probably not run for a third term next year. Tatarstan amended its constitution to allow presidents to run repeatedly, but federal law limits regional leaders to two terms.

With Putin leading the charge to tighten federal control - and placing an especially strong emphasis on the need for regional laws to conform to federal legislation - the wily Shaimiyev is unlikely to disobey Moscow so blatantly, they said.

Some observers said they foresee a deal where Shaimiyev would get a seat in the Federation Council as compensation for not running for president in elections due the first half of next year.

One of the three bills Putin has sent to the State Duma would restructure the upper house so that it is no longer made up of governors and the heads of regional parliaments. Instead, the regional parliaments will elect full-time senators - a position that comes with immunity from prosecution.

State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov said Tuesday that lawmakers plan to debate the three bills on May 31 in a first reading and would pass them by early July.

Tatarstan officials are quick to point out that Putin's proposals to strengthen the so-called vertical power structure is something they have firsthand experience in. In fact, Tatarstan takes it a step further.

While Putin's bills would give Moscow the right to dismiss governors and governors the right to dismiss mayors if a court establishes that they have broken federal law, Shaimiyev appoints and dismisses mayors and district administration heads unilaterally.

"It [the vertical power structure] is necessary, first and foremost in the transitional period," Shaimiyev told ORT. "I am for elections - that really should be the end goal because power belongs to the people. But at this stage in the development of society, a certain mechanism of cooperation between various levels of government is needed."

Some Shaimiyev critics said they feared that in strengthening federal power, Putin is simply aiming to replace the regional authoritarian regimes with a nationwide dictatorship.

"On the whole, all these initiatives are part of Putin's overall strategy of strengthening his personal power," said local Communist leader Robert Sadykov.

Damir Iskhakov, a former leader of the Tatar nationalist movement, said he is concerned that Putin will crack down on the cultural autonomy of the regions as well as the political and economic independence of the governors. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tatarstan has seen a revival of the Tatar language and culture.

"Putin doesn't understand the difference [between Tatarstan and other regions]. He thinks they should all be uniform," Iskhakov said.