It turns out that the building I live in is the highest point in Kazan. At any rate, if you travel by boat down the Volga towards the city from the direction of Moscow, my building is the first thing that appears on the horizon, and only later do you see the Kremlin. First, however, the boats pass from the upper reaches of the Volga via the island fortress of Sviyazhsk, some 40 km away from Kazan at the confluence of the Sviyaga river. Imagine a small island in the middle of the water, with Orthodox monasteries peppered around it. The ensemble of churches, which date from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, is magically compact and particularly magnificent in sunny weather, when the gilded domes of the church shine in all kinds of hues. It’s hard to call this place a town today – the 150 or so wooden houses and gardens don’t really live up to this name. Only the cobbled streets are testament to the fact this was once a lively place, beloved by merchants and Orthodox clergy.
Ivan the Terrible built Sviyazhsk just two weeks in 1552. He did so by transporting a prefabricated fortress by water to a place that was a Russian outpost during the capture of the capital of the Kazan khanate. The convenient geographical location – the Siberian tract and the water route along the Volga – made this spot a useful residence for merchants. Gradually, however, the significance of Sviyazhsk faded, and by the end of the last century, it had become no more than a remote village. The only sights of note were the GULAG prison — later turned into a mental hospital — and ruined monasteries. When the mental hospital closed, the few remaining residents lost their jobs, and the island became empty.Today Sviyazhsk is beginning a new life. The task of its regeneration, and the revival of the ancient capital of Volga Bulgaria, further down the Volga, has been driven forward by the first President of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev, and the charitable foundation he created specially for this purpose.
Shaimiev was the top politician in Tatarstan for over 20 years. Initially, he was the first secretary of the Tatar Oblast committee of the Communist Party. Later he was elected President. In 2005 his powers were extended by Russian President Vladimir Putin. At his height, he was considered to be one of the most influential figures among Russian regional heads. Shamiev was forced out of his post in March 2010, with Rustam Minnikhanov was appointed in his place.
Only people who take no interest in politics whatsoever found Shaimiev’s resignation unexpected. In Russia — where decisions are not taken publicly — one can always judge future events by “signs” made by heads of state. One of these signs came in autumn 2009, when at a meeting of the State Council, Dmitry Medvedev interrupted a speech by Shaimiev quite abruptly. Following this, Shaimiev was not invited to a session of the ruling United Russia that was meeting to discuss candidate lists for the post of head of the region (according to Russian law, this figure is nominated by the ruling party).
Shaimiev was, however, allowed to remain President until the end of his term, which expired in March 2010. It is thought that this happened because he yielded to pressure from Moscow and because he saw the sense to ask the Russian President not to consider his candidature (everyone remembers how pale and upset Shaimiev looked when, following a tête-à-tête meeting with Medvedev, he informed journalists about “his” decision). In the end, United Russia – whether out of politeness or out of the wish to maintain intrigue – included him in the list of candidates. The list also included the speaker of the regional parliament Farid Mukhametshin and the then-prime minister of the republic Rustam Minnikhanov. Everyone realized that Minnikhanov would be the second President of Tatarstan, since no one took Mukhametshin’s candidacy seriously.
When Shaimiev went, people saw a glimmer of hope: “what if…?”, they thought. What if political life in Tatarstan suddenly livened up? What if some changes really took place? The newspapers were saying the Shaimiev era was over. People honestly thought it was. It seemed clear that Shaimiev would go away and devote himself to some quiet and noble task – restoring historical monuments, creating tourist infrastructure perhaps.
But it so transpired that Shamiev did not actually leave the scene completely. This much became clear when the State Council – Tatarstan’s parliament – passed a law creating a new position of “State Advisor”. From the very first lines of the bill, there could be no doubt who the job was intended for, nakedly stating that only the First President of the republic could hold this position. The powers assigned to this “State Advisor” were wide-ranging. He could initiate bills, and it would be obligatory for any of his recommendations to be examined by the President of Tatarstan, and therefore by other officials. But this is not all. Shaimiev has to this day not even left his office in the Kazan Kremlin. Most amazingly, there is no place reserved for the new “President” within the local citadel of power! Rustam Minnikhanov remains in the House of Government, and only comes to the Presidential palace for important events or meetings with Shaimiev.
The same claim could be made in respect to the composition of the regional government. Around 50% of ministerial chairs have been retained by Shaimiev’s people; Minnikhanov has distributed the other half among his own. The Prime Minister of Tatarstan – Ildar Khalikov, the former mayor of Naberezhnye Chelny – has also been reduced to purely cosmetic functions, filling a position that has ceased to be independent.
Ruslan Zinatullin, leader of the Tatarstan office of Yabloko party, is an expert on the region’s politics. Last autumn, he correctly predicted Shaimiev’s departure, and also accurately determined the balance of forces which would arise in this case. We talked recently and he told me some very revealing things about the formation of the new government. Initially, he said, the new President formed a government based on the ex-President’s recommendations, and only presented them to the new Prime Minister afterward. That is to say that Prime Minister Khalikov was not asked – not even formally – about who he would like to see in his government. He was simply presented with a list as fact: these were the people he was going to work with.
The figure of Khalikov should not be seen as coincidental, by the way, seeing as he is a blood relative of Shaimiev’s wife. In other words, the republic’s long-held traditions of nepotism and clanhood are alive and well. Another relative, Ilshat Fardiev, is now head of the energy ministry. This particular ministry has recently been expanded to take charge of petrochemical giants such as Nizhnekamskneftekhim and Kazanorgsintez, one of the largest manufacturers of polyethylene in Europe, the oil-refining complex Taneko (currently under construction), and other important economic resources. Zinatullin told me he considers that the functions of the ministry have been expanded quite considerably, even in comparison with the Soviet period.
All these enterprises are in theory supposed to be publicly owned companies; even if there is a government stake, officially it is only ever a partial one. That is to say government officials are not supposed to interfere in their management. Of course, in practice things operate quite differently. Indeed, Fardiev’s super-ministry was actually created for the very purpose of control over important economic resource. The way things operate in Tatarstan is that you come up with an idea for a certain project, secure money for it from the federal budget, and then oblige business to invest. The plans to build a distribution centre in Sbiyazhsk under Shamiev’s patronage were organized exactly this way.
Then there is the matter of Shaimiev’s sons, Airat and Radik, who as the owners of TAIF Group are considered to own more than half of the Tatarstan economy (and some analysts give a figure of 80%). Absolutely nothing has changed for the brothers or their business and they continue to dominate in Tatarstan. Perhaps their father is right in saying the success of the company is purely dependent on the “enormous talent” of his children. Many people in the republic doubt this. They compare their “talent” with the “talent” of Yelena Baturina, billionaire wife of the former mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov, and the “enormous abilities” of Ural Rakhimov, son of the former President of Bashikiria.
There is some evidence that the public attitude to Shaimiev has changed. His popularity was high in the past, but after he was appointed as State Advisor with almost Presidential powers, many people changed their minds. My mother said that people on public transport have even talked about the reincarnation with condemnation, even contempt. I have also heard the same opinion from ordinary Kazan residents. Everyone remembers that Shaimiev announced on several occasions that he would not hold on to power, and that his main concern was the “well-being of his native Tatarstan”. When Rustam Minnikhanov was sworn in as the President of the republic, Shaimiev even came out with an astonishing admission: “I recognize that I held on to power”, he said. “What happened or how things turned out during this time, this is the way it is. I don’t regret this for one simple reason: everything is comparative. We have done a great deal together”. Now people have concluded that Shaimiev will not only hold on to power, but cling to it by any means available. He invented a position for himself that gives him quasi-Presidential powers. He refused to leave his Kazan Kremlin apartments, despite a a new luxurious building having taken shape alongside (built as the future residence of the first President of Tatarstan, the building was later urgently handed over to the agricultural ministry. This happened at a time when the republic was hit by the severest drought in a century, and the funds used to build the building could have easily been used to restore the country’s dysfunctional irrigation system).
It would seem that Moscow is not altogether happy with Shaimiev’s decision to maintain influence. Ruslan Zinatullin believes that a sign of this dissatisfaction is that neither Medvedev nor Putin came to Rustam Minnikhanov’s inauguration. The usual protocol is that someone from the highest leadership of the country would be present at events of this sort, yet only the speaker of the State Duma Boris Gryzlov and the Presidential representative in the Volga federal district Grigory Rapota were sent to attend. Dissatisfaction, of course, is one thing. As yet, the federal authorities have not seen fit to interfere in the new system that has been created in Tatarstan. But the reality is simple: while Shaimiev made a concession, albeit unwillingly, to step down as head of the region, he has quite clearly managed to stay in power.