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Sovereignty after the Soviets
Prof. Kate Graney on Russian federalism
Expert opinion: Home audio with Jill  Linz
Faculty farewells Linke, Mensing, Partha, Miller
Art, work, and chance Raffle-ticket creativity
Plugging into "Unplugged" Dorms compete to save energy
Teammates from abroad Sports as universal language
Kids of Survival on view Vandals or Van Goghs?
Faculty honored with endowed chairs Anzalone, Brueggemann, Leavitt, O'Brien, Pfitzer, Sattler
Scholarly smorgasbord Talking ecophobia, Crackberries, and Eros
Sportswrap Winter sports highlights

Sovereignty after the Soviets

“Organized hypocrisy” is how some international-relations scholars define sovereignty: One nation declares its autonomy, another “recognizes” it, borders are staked out … yet all that etiquette and convention is just a sham devised to keep the peace. Skidmore political scientist Kate Graney agrees that sovereignty may be slippery, but for her that can actually enhance its utility.

For over a decade Graney has studied how the Russian republic of Tatar­stan has used semantic niceties and legal brinksmanship to achieve a measure of sovereignty. Graney says the Tatar leaders have studied other multiethnic federations—like Canada (with Quebec) and Spain (with Catalonia)—and the Tatarstani “sovereignty project” holds similar promise for avoiding the destabilization of the larger state and in fact strengthening democracy and federalism. That’s a core finding in her recent book Of Khans and Kremlins: Tatarstan and the Future of Ethno-Federalism in Russia.

Tatarstan began as a Turkic and Mongol society and was an Islamic khanate for several centuries, until it was conquered in 1552 by Tsar Ivan IV. The tsars and their Soviet successors needed access to the region’s gas, oil, and Volga River shipping, so they granted Tatar merchants and industrialists some cultural autonomy. As the Soviet Union was dissolving, Tatarstan was among the first Russian substates to declare sovereignty, in 1990. While many others have since had to rescind or ignore their claims, and some have exploded into rebellion, Tatarstan has kept a unique balance.

The republic sports the trappings of sovereignty, from police cars bearing the state seal alongside federal insignia to Tatar observances sharing the calendar with Russian national holidays, and it has also exercised some real authority, such as creating its own state bank and negotiating directly with foreign nations. But asserting sovereignty without independence is tricky. In her chapter “Dual(ing) Citizenship,” Graney describes a peculiar, hard-won compromise resulting in the issuance of Tatar­stani passports, which are sewn into Russian passports, not just appended, so the Tatar document is both attached to and distinct from the Russian. Probing the psychology behind the politics, Graney points to “deep longings for recognition.” From early Russian oppression to today’s mass extinctions of small-group languages, “Tatars see their culture on the brink of dis­appearing.” She adds, “As a white American, I can take for granted the security, and dominance, of my ethnic identity. Tatars can’t. In my visits with them, it’s eye-opening to see ethnic feelings run so strong.”

Why haven’t those strong feelings led to violence, as in Chechnya and elsewhere in the Caucasus? For one, Tatar­stan has been under Russian control for much longer, and it hasn’t made calls for secession or independence. By pushing the envelope in tiny increments and sometimes backpedaling under pressure, Tatars have shaped the kind of sovereignty-sharing that Graney says is “the very heart of federal systems.”

In fact, she argues, the Tatars’ crafty tactics may benefit Moscow. Tatarstan’s constitution, which up­holds minority rights for ethnic Russians and other non-Tatars, could work for other republics. By hosting international conferences and engaging with entities like the World Bank and European Union, Tatarstan can play the advance man for Russia, boosting the parent state’s position in the global community. Tatarstan is showing Moscow how to forge “constructive relationships with Russia’s Muslims, at a time of great inter­ethnic tension.” And by playing the “barbarian” card against Russia—portraying it as close-minded and backward compared to the civilized, westernized, progressive Tatar culture—Tatar leaders claim they’re in a position to lead Russia toward the West and help it fulfill its “Eurasian destiny.”

Of course, rhetoric and reality are both evolving fast in Russia. And Graney ack­nowledges that endemic corruption, old authoritarian habits, and other problems could derail progress. But she says Tatarstan’s flexible approach to sovereignty at least offers a vision for peaceful federation-building in a multiethnic, interdependent world. She hopes to revisit Tatar­stan in 2010, for the 20th anniversary of its sovereignty. —SR