This article, translated from the Russian by Maxim Edwards, was originally published in Zvyezda Povolzhya on 21 June as “Glava ili Khan?”
Of all the national Republics of Russia, only Tatarstan and Bashkortostan retain the title of President for their leaders. Given the fact that both Presidents of these regions were not actually elected, but instead appointed, it does make one wonder how they were legitimately named Presidents in the first place. Nevertheless, Kazan and Ufa are not in any hurry to surrender these job titles. All the other national Republics have already begun to call their leaders not Presidents, but Heads.
According to the Federal Law adopted in December 2010, under which the leaders of Federal Subjects cannot be called Presidents, the deadline for the name change has been set at 2015, although it would appear that Tatarstan is in no hurry to comply.
Director of the Academy of Sciences’ history institute Rafael Khakimov, one of Mintimer Shaimiev’s closest political advisers, thinks that Tatarstan still has grounds to debate the legality of the Federal law: “There is a notion of exclusive rights of Federal Subjects, written in the Russian Constitution, which includes the right to name posts.” Ideologically, Moscow cannot actually explain the need for the law, which would be to admit some political weakness on its part.
“The idea that the President of Russia has to be the one and only cannot be taken seriously,” exclaimed Khakimov. “even football clubs are allowed to have Presidents, so why not Republics?” Khakimov offers instead the compromise of renaming Tatarstan’s President the Rans, which roughly translates into Arabic as President. “If Moscow does not like the word President to define the leader of the Republic, then the word Rans should be acceptable. To the Islamic world, it has the same connotations as President.”
Deputy of the Tatarstan State Council Marat Khairullin said that, for him, the issue of primary importance is that the leader of the Republic, whatever he may be called, will now be directly elected by his own people rather than appointed by Moscow. The question of the post’s name is of secondary importance. “Some alternative could be found – perhaps Chairman,” Khairullin wonders, “and before drawing the analogy with the Chairman of the collective farm, remember that the leader of the People’s Republic of China is also a Chairman.”
The renowned writer and social activist Lev Ovrutsky says that Tatarstan should be in no hurry to rename the post. “Russia’s recent history has taught us that political changes and the restoration of order can happen relatively quickly. For example, not since the early days of Shaimiev’s leadership have elections of regional governors been considered, yet here we are, around 20 years on and they are now topical and a real possibility again.” Ovrutsky adds that much can happen before the deadline in 2015 – perhaps the law at that time will have been cancelled or changed. Perhaps regional Presidencies could have taken on more political significance and will be in demand.
The view of Tatar nationalists and separatists was elaborated upon by Nail Nabiullin, chairman of Azatliq, the Union of Tatar Youth. Nabiullin believes that the post of President must be maintained at all costs, as it is a reminder of Tatarstan’s sovereignty and perhaps independence. “The leadership of Tatarstan should stand firm and not play into the Federal Government’s hands in this case,” Nabiullin said. “Too many concessions have made already – enough is enough!” At the same time, Azatliq’s leader suggested that if the name of the post has to change, a title should be chosen which “adequately reflects the cultural-historical heritage of the Tatar people,” such as the Turko-Tatar titles “Khan” or “Ilbaşi” (Lord of the Land).
“Of course, if you wanted, you could call Minnikhanov anything: the Gauleiter or the Overseer of Tatarstan,” said the journalist Irek Murtazin, author of the book The Last President of Tatarstan (2007), which earned him a jail sentence under Shaimiev. “In my book, I wrote that the post then known as President had little legitimacy, because the power to choose who held it was not in the hands of the people,” said the former political prisoner. According to Murtazin, “if Moscow wants to, it can stamp its foot down hard and immediately Minnikhanov will conform and call himself the Head of Tatarstan, and all these ideas about being a Khan or Rans will simply be forgotten’.
The head of Kazan State University’s Department of Conflict Studies Alexander Salagayev believes that the title of President will be kept at least until the Summer Universiade in 2013. “It’s one thing when you receive foreign visitors to your office under the name President, but quite another when you introduce yourself as a Head, a term quite incomprehensible to foreigners.” According to the academic, after the closing of the major sporting event, the enthusiasm among Tatarstan’s elite to keep the title will gradually subside – it will simply become less relevant. He believes that the much discussed alternatives to President – to find something atypical and uniquely suited to Tatarstan (some Tatar nationalists proposed the titles Atatatar, father of the Tatars, in homage to Atatьrk; Khakim, or ruler; Hoja, or master; and of course Ilbaşi and Khan) – are irrelevant, as the Federal Government is only interested in one standardized title for all the regional leaders.
Doctor of Political Science Sergei Sergeyev is sure that local elites in Tatarstan will hold onto the title of President for as long as they possibly can. In his opinion, the very appearance of the title was associated with Tatarstan’s sovereignty project under Shaimiev, so any waiver in it will be a painful blow to the Kazan Kremlin. Therefore, Tatarstan will continue to use the title right up until the deadline in three years’ time, and only then change the title of the post.
The President of the Russian Cultural Society in Kazan, Mikhail Shcheglov, suggests that the decision to delay the renaming of the title President is yet another ill-advised and unwise project in the interest of the Tatar intelligentsia. “All this talk about how special the title is does nothing but to flaunt power and ambition,” Shcheglov adds, saying that such behaviour can hardly be public-spirited. “It’s not clear to me exactly what’s wrong with the title Head of the Republic – why once again is there so much showing off over this issue?”
Rais Suleymanov, head of the Volga Regional Centre for ethno-religious studies, sees the very fact that using medieval Tatar titles (such as Khan, Khagan, Elteber, and Emir) was even entertained as more evidence for “Tatarstan’s ethnocrats being increasingly out of touch.” “When analysing some of the proposals put forth by citizens who were deeply concerned over this issue, one sometimes wonders whether some of them belong in psychiatric hospitals… if Minnikhanov did end up being called, for example, the Khagan of Tatarstan, it would be dismissed as funny but also quite pathetic,” concluded the expert.
It should be noted that the abolition of the title President in relation to the leaders of Federal Subjects was initiated in August 2010 at the behest of the head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov. Subsequently, on 29 December 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a law banning the heads of subjects of the Russian Federation from naming themselves Presidents.
Following Chechnya, “Presidential” offices were abolished in the Republics of Buryatia, Bashkortostan, Mari El, Udmurtia, Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Yakutia, Adygea, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia. By law, the Republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan will have until 2015 to change the titles of their leaders from President to Head.