Tatarstan has announced it will open a representation office in the United Arab Emirates later this year, the 15th such institution that the middle Volga republic has established since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Were Tatarstan internationally recognized as an independent country, such an announcement would be entirely normal and probably unworthy of any particular notice.
But Tatarstan is, by both its own acknowledgment and that of the international community, part and parcel of the Russian Federation. Consequently, the existence of such institutions raises some important questions: Is Tatarstan on the way to becoming an independent state? Or do those representations reflect nothing more than the efforts of a region to attract international trade and investment?
While there is no definitive answer to those questions, Tatarstan's use of such institutions appears to reflect an innovative combination of three very different traditions.
First, from the earliest days of the USSR, the union regions and republics maintained what were called "permanent representations" in Moscow and the capitals of some of the other republics. While such institutions often served as little more than post offices for documents being sent between cities or as travel agencies for people visiting in one direction or another, they retained a certain symbolic importance for peoples who had few other trappings of sovereignty. Not surprisingly, these institutions often figured prominently in fiction of non-Russian writers. One Uzbek novel of the late Soviet period, for example, was set largely in the office of the Uzbek SSR permanent representation in Moscow.
Then when the Soviet Union fell apart, those permanent representations of the union republics served as the foundation for the development of genuine embassies. To that extent, the Tatarstan permanent representations--particularly those in Moscow, Sverdlovsk, and St. Petersburg--continue a tradition with deep roots in the Soviet era.
Second, in the scramble to attract foreign investment, many regions of the Russian Federation have established trade offices abroad modeled on those that the regions of European countries and the states of the United States have in other countries. Frequently, those institutions were set up on the advice, if not the insistence, of Western countries interested in developing regions long cut off from outsiders. As in the case with these other regions and republics, Tatarstan has done the same, implicitly in the case of its permanent or plenipotentiary representatives in France, Australia, the U.S., Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan and explicitly in the case of trade representatives in Ukraine, Lithuania, and Austria.
Third, those institutions reflect the assertion of Tatarstan's sovereignty, of its interest not only in promoting its unique economic interests but also in establishing its political presence.
On the one hand, Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev is simply acting on the advice of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who famously told an audience in Kazan some years ago that Tatarstan, like the other parts of the Russian Federation, should assume as much sovereignty and independence as it could handle.
Many in Tatarstan took and continue to take Yeltsin's words to mean that they could hope some day to have their own independent state, recognized by the world community and with a seat at the UN. For such people, the creation of ever more representations abroad represents a step-by-step approach toward that goal, an approach less likely to offend Moscow than a more dramatic assertion of independence and hence one more likely to be effective.
On the other hand, Shaimiyev and other politicians in Tatarstan undoubtedly see the existence of such representative offices abroad as a useful lever in their negotiations with Moscow. That lever may help the Tatars to achieve more from the central Russian government even if full independence is not on the agenda of either the Russians or themselves.
By highlighting Tatarstan's ability to reach beyond the borders of the Russian Federation and by attracting a kind of implicit, if not explicit, international recognition of that republic's distinctiveness, such institutions seem destined to play a major role in the future not only of Tatarstan but of the Russian Federation's other regions as well.
But whether they will continue as a vestige of the Soviet past, as a means of decentralization of the Russian Federation, or as a harbinger of more radical changes will depend less on how many such representations are created than on how they are viewed by those who send them, by those who receive them, and by Moscow.
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