Statements, interview


The voice of experience: Mintimer Shaimiyev in conversation

Oleg Pavlov, 06th September 2011

Mintimer Shaimiyev served in the government of Tatarstan during Soviet times (1969-91) and was subsequently President of the republic for nearly 20 years. Oleg Pavlov talked to him about the past, the present and the future of his republic, and of Russia.

About the author

Oleg Pavlov is a journalist in the Tatarstan capital Kazan. Local correspondent of the Liberty Radio (Russian Service)



I went at the right time

Oleg Pavlov:

You have been managing people since your youth. You were President of Tatarstan for nearly 20 years. Then 18 months ago you resigned from your post...

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I think I went at the right time. I didn’t go prematurely, you know, but at the end of that particular term of office. My departure was normal, by today’s standards, but perhaps I should have gone earlier.

O.P.:

So power grabs hold of people?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

When you see how hard it is to relinquish it, it’s difficult to blame those in power. You have to have experienced it yourself. But I viewed all of this as ordinary, as routine work. The only post that was completely new and unusual for me was that of President of Tatarstan.

Mintimer Shaimiev was one of the key regional politicians of the Yeltsin era but in 1999 he co-founded a coalition to challenge Yeltsin’s handpicked successor Vladimir Putin. When this failed, Shaimiyev managed to find a common language with the new president and the Kremlin, thus saving his job as president of Tatarstan.

O.P.:

When did you realise that the moment had come?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I’d already come to a decision a year before my departure - I knew what I would be doing, while my health permitted.

O.P.:

You probably had to agree everything with the Moscow Kremlin?

"When you see how hard it is to relinquish it, it’s difficult to blame those in power. You have to have experienced it yourself. But I viewed all of this as ordinary, as routine work."

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I went to see Putin as far back as 2005 to say that I didn’t want to be appointed (elections for heads of regions had been abolished). Some will doubt my words perhaps, but it’s true. Putin said: ‘I should really like you to stay, because I don’t see anyone else heading Tatarstan just yet.

O.P.:

For a President who previously had easily won elections, maintaining your position by appointment was not an entirely desirable means of staying in power?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Nevertheless we came to an agreement, I thanked Putin and saw out another term as head of the republic. About a year before that appointed term was nearly up, Putin already knew that I was definitely leaving. When Medvedev became president, we agreed everything in the most civilised manner.

O.P.:

Will you reveal the secret of how the new President of Tatarstan was nominated?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Dmitry Medvedev said: ‘We will recommend whoever you nominate for the position of President of Tatarstan.’ We put forward 5 names and Moscow was surprised, even amazed, that we had such a strong field of candidates. When they had considered all of them, they asked me whom I preferred.

O.P.:

Were you prepared for that question?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I named Rustam Minnikhanov [11]. I think that the right man was appointed and events since have confirmed this.

O.P.:

On what basis did you decide to recommend Rustam Minnikhanov in particular?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

The current President of the Republic served as prime minister for eleven or so years, hand in glove with me, working very independently on the basis of complete trust.

Rustam Minnikhanov (right) was prime minister of Tatarstan for more than 10 years. For the outgoing president Mintimir Shaimiyev (left) he was the logical choice of successor and the Kremlin had no objections.

O.P.:

You’re now a State Councillor of the Republic of Tatarstan. When you were standing down, did you already know what you’d be doing?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

There were several different options. The Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation suggested positions at various levels, but I agreed to none of them. I told them I’d only stay in Tatarstan. I don’t blame those who try to leave, but I have more respect for those who operate according to the principle ‘serve the community you’re born in’. As a result we settled on the position of State Councillor, newly established.

There is only one Mecca in the world.

O.P:

But you continue to have a fairly large and powerful mandate, which is laid down in the Law [12] on the State Councillor

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I’m now busy with a very significant project, the restoration of the town of Bulgar [13] - the ancient Tatar capital - and the island-town Sviyazhsk [14], the centre of Orthodox Christianity in Tatarstan. Lobbying power is needed to implement this project and there is provision for it in the budget. Besides, the project has such wide resonance that people are really giving it serious support.

It wasn’t the right time to think about our historical heritage earlier. But now - the roof isn’t leaking, there’s bread on the table in every home and in the country as a whole. Now it’s time to signal the revival, or, more accurately, discovery of spirituality by our people.

Bulgar represents Islamic civilization of the tenth century, Sviyazhsk Orthodox Christianity of the mid sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. In Bulgar we are restoring, and, where necessary, conserving. And we’re doing just the same in Sviyazhsk.

O.P.:

I think Bulgar is called the‘Mecca of the North’…

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Yes, but we’re not inclined to call it that. Mecca is Mecca; there is only one Mecca in the world for Muslims. It would be more appropriate to describe Bulgar as the place in today’s Russia where the state voluntarily adopted Islam. Voluntarily - that’s most important. It’s well known that Islam was adopted earlier in the town of Derbent (Republic of Dagestan), but that was as a result of conquest.

The former capital of the Muslim Volga Tatars is in need of thorough renovation. The former president now has time to supervise his favourite project. During his presidency mosques mushroomed across the republic and Tatar rose to the rank of state language alongside Russian.

O.P.:

Sviyazhsk was founded by Ivan the Terrible, the Tsar who conquered Kazan [15].

Mintimer Shaimiev:

It isn’t really about Ivan the Terrible. What matters more is the work of several centuries of craftsmen. Many churches in Sviyazhsk were built with the support of the Tsars. There are unique frescos on the walls. These include the only fresco cycles to have survived from that era and the best preserved monumental paintings from the mid sixteenth century, which have no equivalent in any of the Old Russian schools of fresco painting. How can we allow all this to disintegrate and disappear before our eyes?

O.P.:

Sviyazhsk is also inseparably linked with the often tragic history of the twentieth century.

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Repressions didn’t only take place in the 30s - they began in 1918. Trotsky blamed Red Army troops for retreating from Kazan, and had every tenth soldier shot. That happened on the island of Sviyazhsk. There was also a GULAG there, and a psychiatric hospital - what wasn’t there on the island! We’ve already put together a first list of those who were shot: more than three thousand people, by name. We need to pass objective history on to future generations, but one mustn’t live for revenge.

O.P.:

Tatarstan has generated interest, since not only Russians and Tatars but also other ethnic groups coexist peaceably at grassroots level - indeed, at any level…

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Happily, especially at grassroots level. Incidentally, when they asked me what I considered the greatest victory of my life, I answered that it was when people, irrespective of their ethnicity and their religious affiliation, trusted me as leader of the republic.

Tatar fundamentalists often criticize Shaimiyev for not making enough effort to keep the Tatar language and culture alive. They regard his other favourite project, the restoration of Sviyazhsk, the old settlement on the Volga famous for its Orthodox monuments, as one more example of his neglect of old Tatar traditions.

Unitary Russia cannot be a democratic state

O.P.:

Doesn’t it worry you when Moscow politicians, in faraway central Russia, call for a unitary state? How can it be a federation, if there is a government of one nation?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I’ve said more than once that a unitary Russia cannot be a democratic state, and anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken. God preserve us from such a historic mistake. We had a unique opportunity to join the ranks of civilized countries. We endured all the difficult years of perestroika in order to do so, we changed the structure of life and society and suddenly, the country turns out to be a unitary state. Well, that would be the downfall of Russia.

"I’ve said more than once that a unitary Russia cannot be a democratic state, and anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken. God preserve us from such a historic mistake."

O.P.:

A scary prospect?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

How can there be a unitary state made up of lands inhabited from time immemorial by different peoples who have been the masters of those territories, with their own traditions, native languages and professing their own religion? If you don’t take this into account, it means these people will be troubled in themselves. And if they are under strain, then it’s not a democracy any more. They will always demand their own rights…

Yes, it’s easiest if we’re formed into single file, and given orders. But since 1985 a whole generation of free individuals have grown up, so it’s dangerous to talk about unitarism. Phobias and intolerance are already making themselves felt. The authorities must nip this in the bud, and there can be no double standards. Young people don’t believe in double standards. If we employ double standards, then all our efforts to strengthen tolerance and discover spirituality will come to nought.

O.P.:

So you advocate considerable independence for territories within the Federation?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Russia is made up of separate sovereignties and lands that have come together over the centuries. It can only be a democratic, federal state. Complicated? Yes. Note that even in single-nation countries there is an increasing tendency to grant independence, at least economic independence, to individual regions. But we don’t want to give ours the right to local government, so we don’t provide their budgets. At the same time we talk a lot about the independence of local government. But no matter how often you say the word ‘halva’, the taste in your mouth gets no sweeter. They need to resolve day to day questions, which means they need to be given the ability to do so.

The Budanov case [16] is a sad example. Yes, the problem of Chechnya is complicated. But what was the young girl who was raped and killed guilty of? If we want to live in the same state, then there has to be a legal opinion, with no outside influence - only a court of law. But instead, how they tried…and Budanov was almost acquitted. And what about the cases of synagogue vandalism? Too often we excuse intolerable actions: we’ve been attempting to portray them as simple hooliganism for several years now, although it was obvious that people of different ethnicities were being killed in Petersburg and Moscow. It’s only now, with the passing of the years, that we are beginning to pay the price for underestimating what has been going on in society.

O.P.:

Are you worried when you hear the slogan ‘Russia for the Russians’?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

This is the death knell of Russia. If we want to ruin the country with our own hands, then we should carry on in this spirit. One shouldn’t consider this an attractive slogan - it’s a provocation to all other peoples. There was much more of the positive in the nationalities politics of the USSR.

‘Shaimiyev, where are you going?’

O.P.:

We’ve mentioned the Soviet Union… it’s been 20 years since it fell apart. Do you regret that collapse?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

In the new circumstances it was impossible to keep hold of the Baltic States, because they were incorporated into the Union against their will. But I can say that a reformed Union could have been preserved without the Baltic countries. And that this would have been beneficial for everyone. The countries of the CIS which have embarked on the path of independent development wouldn’t say this now, of course. They already have faith in themselves. The individuals who organised the putsch out of a desire to preserve the USSR simply speeded up its demise.

O.P.:

But just six months before the country collapsed the citizens of the USSR voted to preserve it [17], and the Union Treaty was being prepared for signature…

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I’m a living participant of that work on the Union Treaty, because all the heads of autonomous republics were also there. How did we get there? There was one historic moment. At one of the Congresses of People’s Deputies of the USSR a higher governing body was created - the Federation Council. Not the current one, another one. Rulers of the Union republics joined this body and they were supposed to govern the country collectively, under the leadership of President Gorbachev, and to work on the Union Treaty.

At one point I seized my chance. I’d formulated amendments to the Constitution of the USSR whereby the leaders of autonomous republics would also be included in the Federation Council. I got up and went to the rostrum just before the vote. Gorbachev asked in surprise, ‘Shaimiyev, where are you going?’ I explained to him that I had some amendments. I made my speech and my amendments were put to the vote. I don’t think the auditorium really understood anything clearly, but they voted ‘for’. Thus, in a moment the heads of autonomous regions were level with the heads of the union republics who were working on the text of the treaty.

The republic of Tatarstan boasts several important defence plants and 10 percent of Russia's oil reserves. Its ethnic and religious diversity gives rise to complexities which Shaimiyev managed for years to keep in hand. Few regional politicians in post-Soviet Russia have achieved similar status and influence.

O.P.:

And what was the reason for the demise of what had seemed like a strong state?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

It had something to do with the prevailing excessive centralization at the time and the lack of rights for union republics. You can’t regulate the whole of human life. I always remember how, at one of the congresses of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev criticized Gosplan [18] [the state planning committee] for taking its eye off the ball in planning thread production, and at some point or other there was suddenly a shortage. When I was chair of the government of the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, Moscow told us what the fat content of our tvorog [a type of curd cheese] should be. This is not just some amusing story. If the fat content of the tvorog was higher, that meant that we were failing to deliver a certain amount of butter to the Union reserves, and were eating it ourselves.

The union republic with the least rights of all was the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic; in others there was a greater degree of freedom. So after perestroika started, it was Russia that made the first declaration of sovereignty [19]. This goes almost unmentioned now. We in Tatarstan made our own declaration only after Russia’s, because we had no rights before either the Union or Russia. So Tatarstan was doubly without rights.

O.P.:

When, and how, did you find out about the Belavezha Accords [20]?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

From the media. At that point work at Novo-Ogarevo on the Union Treaty [21] was complete, and the process of signing had been disrupted by the putsch. The Belavezha Accords put me in mind of a compartment holding several important passengers in the last carriage of a train called the USSR, departing for non-existence…

O.P.:

Were you anxious about the future of Tatarstan at that point?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Yes, definitely! I was already anxious in the summer of 1991. Tatarstan’s aim was to gain the status of a union republic; we didn’t want to remain an autonomous republic without rights in the future too. I spoke out at almost all of the Novo-Ogarevo meetings, setting out my arguments. The Union Treaty, which was ready for signature on 20 August 1991, was initialled by Tatarstan on the condition that the status of the republic be raised. We had high hopes of this. I continued discussions of this question with Mikhail Gorbachev and with Boris Yeltsin. We were supposed to meet Boris Nikolaevich on 19 August… but history took a different turn, which led the country to the Belavezha Accords in December 1991.

Worries about the fate of Tatarstan only increased. In March 1992 we held a referendum which asked the question ‘Do you agree that the Republic of Tatarstan is a sovereign state and an independent entity under international law, building its relationships with the Russian Federation and other republics on the basis of equitable agreements?’ 81.7% of the population who had the right to vote participated and 61.4% of them answered yes to the given question. The people of our multi-ethnic republic had made their choice.

At that time detachments from the Volga military command were relocated to the boundaries of the republic. The centre was faced with a complicated dilemma. What should be done with Tatarstan? This question was animatedly, but secretly, discussed in the high-up offices of the Moscow Kremlin. In this way the beginning of a new epoch in the development of Tatarstan was linked with the collapse of the USSR.

Everything in the country is linked to ‘United Russia’

O.P.:

The former mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, [22] was one of the politicians of the new Russia with whom you formed a fairly close relationship. Have your relations continued?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Not recently.

O.P.:

Why?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Yury Mikhailovich is now in, let’s say, a confined space. At first, when it was all going on, we were in touch.

"It was inevitable: new conditions - new party. It was necessary to unite, and good that we had wit enough not to drag out this process. We became co-chairs of ‘United Russia’ - Luzhkov, Shoigu and I."

O.P.:

Do you have a theory about why he was retired in so different a way from your own retirement?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

He had only a little time left; he would have had to leave the post of mayor of Moscow at the end of his term of office in 2011. What happened? Well, it’s possible that there were some issues between the federal authorities and the President, but we’re not privy to this information…

O.P.:

I ask about Luzhkov because you and he set up the ‘United Russia’ party together, which perhaps not everyone remembers.

Mintimer Shaimiev:

The first movement founded by Yury Luzhkov was ‘Fatherland’ (Otechestvo). Then, also in 1999, we set up the ‘All Russia’ (Vsia Rossiia) political movement with the governor of St Petersburg Vladimir Yakovlev and the president of Bashkortostan Murtaza Rakhimov.

O.P.:

You’re talking about the time when the Yeltsin era was coming to a close and the political elite of the country had begun to think about the future…

Mintimer Shaimiev:

We were becoming more attractive to the regions, and they joined us enthusiastically. The centre got worried. At that point Evgeny Primakov [23] said that if we joined forces with ‘Fatherland’, he too would support us. So we did, but this made President [of the Russian Federation] Boris Yeltsin genuinely nervous. He invited me to meet him and asked what we were doing, what we wanted to achieve. I said that we were uniting the rulers of the economically powerful regions, and that their experience was needed in order to get through these difficult years peacefully. I calmly explained that if we didn’t do it, then others would. Then the organisation ‘Unity’, headed by Sergei Shoigu [24], was swiftly put together.

O.P.:

And after the Duma elections of 1999 it became clear that the conditions were favourable for ‘Unity’, and Vladimir Putin won the presidential elections…

Mintimer Shaimiev:

Everyone came together for an inaugural congress: ‘Fatherland’, ‘All Russia’ and ‘Unity.’ The result was ‘United Russia’ (Yedinaia Rossiia).

Few regional politicians have mastered the rules of Russian political life like Mintimer Shaimiyev. In the new Putin-Medvedev era he was one of the founders and leaders of the Kremlin backed 'United Russia' party. In Tatarstan this helped him to protect the power of the local Tatar elite which emerged after the collapse of the USSR.

O.P.:

And is a party like ‘United Russia’ really necessary?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

It was inevitable: new conditions - new party. It was necessary to unite, and good that we had wit enough not to drag out this process. We became co-chairs of ‘United Russia’ - Luzhkov, Shoigu and I.

O.P.:

Are you satisfied with your party’s work?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

That’s a difficult question. Initially, yes. At the first congress I said in my speech that the country was undergoing reconstruction, that we wanted to create a new society and that United Russia must be a right-centrist party. I was told that rightist ideas wouldn’t find any support at a time of reform, because reform is painful. But the reforms will be linked with our party all the same. And now everything that happens in the country is linked to ‘United Russia’. We need to accept responsibility and give people an explanation. Yes, there are unpopular decisions, but they are necessary for this and that reason.

O.P.:

How independent is ‘United Russia’ in its decision- making?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I’ve said more than once that if you have a majority in parliament, then you must also form the government and take power into your own hands. The experience of other countries tells us this. But with us it’s the other way round: we have a majority in the Duma, but we are under the government. So the government proposes decrees, which don’t always originate with ‘United Russia,’ and we are obliged to accept them practically unanimously.

O.P.:

Does ‘United Russia’ need some real political competition?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

I’d understand, if it was the first time we had a majority in the Duma. But we still haven’t come into our own. If the party with such a significant majority in parliament had been responsible for forming the government, it would have speeded up the creation of a multi-party environment. Some other party should have gained prominence, taking advantage of the criticism of ‘United Russia’. It could have said, for instance, it’s not working out, let’s take it to the voters and let them decide. I understand that this is an acceptable option. But we are delaying the creation of multi-party politics. The problem will not be resolved simply by lowering the 7% barrier for party entry into parliament. This is simply a way of making ourselves feel good. In Russia multi-party politics must become an established institution. Then political reform will be complete.

"In neither political nor economic reforms should we rank ourselves with the developed countries. We are a developing country, but with skewed economics, though this doesn’t mean that we are backward."

O.P.:

So can ‘United Russia’ become the party of your dreams?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

It must. There has to be a leading party. And I am sure that ‘United Russia’ will win next time round. But the Duma elections predetermine the results of the presidential elections. Many people are currently speculating about who will run in the presidential elections, but if we take the civilized path, about which I’ve spoken, then the problem will resolve itself. There are parties, there are movements, they have leaders and they should, they must, take part in the elections, including the presidential elections. And the winning party should form the government.

O.P.:

What else must Russia do in order to turn into a developed country?

Mintimer Shaimiev:

In neither political nor economic reforms should we rank ourselves with the developed countries. We are a developing country, but with skewed economics, though this doesn’t mean that we are backward. Our political reforms are developing a new reality, which will lead to the civilized development of democracy. And of course, the improvement of the judicial system, which especially concerns President Dmitry Medvedev. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet achieved a completely independent judiciary and this work must go on. But it isn’t that simple, because it reflects the condition of society itself. We are living through a complex transition period, so what can we do about corruption, when even countries with long-established democracies suffer from it and have difficulties dealing with it? But we basically can’t do anything without an independent judicial system. Yes, there are people who don’t believe in our politics, who don’t support us. But we aren’t idealists. We have examples of successful society building in other countries. We need to learn from them and steadfastly walk the path to democratic development.


Published on openDemocracy (http://www.opendemocracy.net)