''If the constitution doesn't clearly state the sovereignty of the republic, we'll send you to heaven''

An interview with Boris Zheleznov, one of the authors of the basic law of the Republic of Tatarstan

''If the constitution doesn't clearly state the sovereignty of the republic, we'll send you to heaven'' Photo: Timur Rakhmatullin

Twenty five years ago, on 6 November 1992, Tatarstan was the first among the regions of Russia to adopt the 'post-Soviet' constitution. About the vicissitudes of the work on this document, 'national' pressure on its authors, Moscow's reaction to its appearance – read in the interview of Realnoe Vremya with one of the authors of the basic law — Boris Zheleznov, Professor at the department of constitutional and administrative law of the Kazan Federal University.

Mr Zheleznov, you are one of the authors of the Constitution of Tatarstan...

Yes, I wrote the chapter on the national-state structure of the Republic of Tatarstan. Now it doesn't exist in that form, it's called 'On the administrative-territorial structure of the Republic of Tatarstan'. This chapter contained articles about our sovereignty, which then were removed. Besides, I wrote the law on the president of the Republic of Tatarstan, together with Shaimiev, in his presence. This law was later fully included in the constitution as a separate chapter.

We will return to that topic later, but for now, let me ask you a question — why it was you whom they turned to draft articles of the basic law? And who asked you?

In 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Tatar Republic formed the Constitutional Commission consisting of 39 people headed by Shaimiev (he was then Chairman of the Supreme Soviet). The commission included politicians, deputies and five professors of law department of our university, including me. This happened after the adoption of the Declaration on state sovereignty of Tatarstan on 30 August 1990. In fact, it stated on the need to start the preparation of a constitution (on the basis of the declaration).

By the way, I was one of the authors of the declaration. How did it happen? In 1990, a large group of politicians and scientists drafted its first text. We published this draft in the newspaper Sovetskaya Tatariya, and then it was brought in for consideration of Supreme Soviet session. A large part of the deputies found it too 'uniony'. It was formed a drafting committee, which supposed to take into account remarks of the deputies, who were taking more 'nationalistic' positions. The text was immediately amended and, in fact, it was repudiated.

Could you give us examples of the articles that were revised?

I can't tell you exactly right now. Nobody remember these details either. I remember that the provision that we were part of the RSFSR was removed. The commission, which included me, had differences, however, by a majority of votes it adopted the text of the declaration in the form in which it is known today. It indicated that we were a sovereign state, that our laws had supremacy on the territory of Tatarstan, and Russia was barely mentioned. That is, it was adopted a strict variant.

Back on our subject, members of the Constitutional Commission were divided into working groups, distributed 'by chapters' of the future document. The group, led by me, included five or six people and among them were deputies who firmly advocated sovereign status of the republic. The issues were resolved by democratic vote, we had debates.

We developed a draft of the Constitution (it was already the year 1992) and brought it to the session. It raised a big uproar. Our project was sharply criticized, especially by Bayramov, Safiullin and others. A drafting commission was formed again, the parliament met for several days, and on 6 November, by the last day of the session, almost all questions were agreed

Someone even wrote me the anonymous note, ''Mr Zheleznov, if our constitution doesn't clearly state on the sovereignty of the republic, we'll send you to heaven.'' When I saw this note on my desk at the department, I immediately went to Shaimiev. I told him, ''Mintimer Sharipovich, I am not even a Tatar. The threat is serious.'' And he answered, ''I receive such threats every day.'' I said, ''But I don't have a police post near my house. In short, I am leaving the Constitutional Commission.'' At this moment, Likhachev entered (Vasily Likhachev — in 1990-1991 Chairman of the Committee of constitutional supervision of Tatarstan, later Deputy President of the Republic of Tatarstan, Chairman of RT State Council, now a member of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation — editor's note). Shaimiev told him, ''Zheleznov no longer wants to work in the Constitutional Commission.'' The response was, ''Give him to me.'' But I was still dragged to meetings of the commission. We developed a draft of the Constitution (it was already the year 1992) and brought it to the session. It raised a big uproar. Our project was sharply criticized, especially by Bayramov, Safiullin and others. A drafting commission was formed again, the parliament met for several days, and on 6 November, by the last day of the session, almost all questions were agreed. In the original text 'the Russian Federation' was mentioned only twice and in the genitive case.

Did this draft contain the referendum of March 1992?

Yes, it did. But not in the 123rd article as it is now. The 61st article stated that the Tatar Republic is a democratic state, united (that's where the shoe pinched) with the Russian Federation by the Constitution of Russia, the Constitution of Tatarstan and the Treaty on the delimitation of powers.

Some deputies strongly objected to the word 'united'. Many nationalists in the Supreme Soviet were opposed any 'union' in general, they thought we had already withdrawn from Russia. They didn't want to even indicate any connection with the Russian Federation. By the way, if you remember, the text was criticized even by pro-Russian part of the parliament, from their positions. In the end, on the eve of the last meeting, Shaimiev gathered five scholars from the commission, and asked me as a political scientist, ''I have heard that there is a thing such as associated membership.'' I replied that yes, there was, for example, Puerto Rico is an associate member of the United States, they have close ties, in the American Congress there are two representatives of Puerto Rico with the right to vote.

Then came November 6th. All the main chapters of the Constitution had been adopted, but there again was an uproar around the 61st article. Many other articles followed from it — for example, that our men serve in the army of the Russian Federation only upon agreement with Tatarstan, the Republic determines where to serve them; that all the contents of the bowels of our land belong to Tatarstan, and so on. We had to decide who we were.

It was already 5 o'clock in the evening, everyone was tired, around the building there was a raging sea of men in green armbands. Then Shaimiev came to the tribune and offered to write not 'united', but 'associated state'. This had the effect: everyone understood that word to the best of their knowledge. Most members weren't lawyers, they took the word 'associated' as opposed to 'united', that is, as if we were not part of Russia.

In general, Shaimiev made a speech and then proposed to put this wording on the ballot. Almost everyone voted in favour. And in the basement the tables has already been served. Voted and went to drink vodka. Everyone was happy.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, all autonomous republics continued to be the subjects of the Russian Federation, but we turned out to be in limbo. It was necessary to decide — who were we?

It has been 25 years since that moment. How do you assess this document today?

Certainly, the Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan served as a reference point. The Bashkirs thoroughly relied on it. I was invited to Bashkortostan, I conducted examination of their project. The representatives of the Republic of Sakha, Tuva came to us, got familiar with our laws. The Declaration, as I remember it, we adopted the fourth, but in the constitutional building we were, so to speak, a flagship.

You have said he wrote the law on the president in his presence. What were the suggestions from Mintimer Sharipovich?

There were no suggestions. I consulted with him when I was writing, but we did everything from scratch. I did not take any sources and analogies. We were writing as we saw it. For two days in his office.

But didn't he set a kind of vector?

The vector was set by the Declaration and the whole course of events.

Legal collision

How did Moscow react to the adoption of the Constitution?

It was a big conversation. Let me remind you that Yeltsin was here on 8 August 1990, before the adoption of our declaration. It was that time when in a crowded hall of UNIKS he said the very phrase, ''Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.'' Then he came out, we surrounded him, and he again repeated it. So, when he gave a speech in UNIKS, I sent him a note proposing to change the status of the autonomous republic and to discuss this issue. That time I was writing a doctoral thesis on this topic.

He appointed me to meet on 1 September at 9:15 AM in the White house. I came, we talked. Boris Nikolaevich then said, ''I am sure that the Republic will always be with Russia. And talks about secession of the Republic will be lifted.'' After returning to Kazan, I reported to Shaimiev about our conversation. But when we adopted the declaration, Yeltsin kept silent. Because for him it was a competition with Gorbachev. On 26 April 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted the law where the autonomous republics, along with union ones, were named as subjects of the union federation.

Did this mean equation?

No. They were equated in words, autonomies remained subjects of the second grade. But Gorbachev — including through this — expected that the autonomous republics would support him in competition with Yeltsin. But the Soviet Union collapsed. All autonomous republics, except our, in their declarations stated that they were part of the RSFSR. But our stated that we were a sovereign republic, that on our territory there were the laws of RSFSR, which were not contradicting the legislation. It was practically declaration of a sovereign state. That is, when the Soviet Union collapsed, all autonomous republics continued to be the subjects of the Russian Federation, but we turned out to be in limbo. It was necessary to decide — who were we?

Already in the declaration we envisaged the conclusion of a treaty with Russia on equal terms. And we started negotiations on our status. By a decree of Shaimiev, it was created a commission (it included me, too), which was sent to Moscow. It was headed by Likhachev. Yeltsin by a decree established his commission headed by State Secretary of Russia Gennady Burbulis.

The 123rd article of our constitution says that its first article (about the status of the republic) can only be changed by referendum. But the Russian law on referendum of 2002 prohibits the entities to submit to referendum the question of their status. Things come full circle

In August 1991, a few days before the SCSE [the State Committee of the State of Emergency], we met in the building of the White house. We went out to meet each other, warmly greeted, as many of them were familiar well with each other. Their commission was represented by Minister of Justice Nikolai Fedorov, a former student of mine. He even broke the etiquette: he saw me, ran, lifted, began to whirl. Here came the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, ''What are you doing?!''

But then sat down and began to argue. We argued for a long time, really, for two whole days. We adopted the protocol: to solve all problems by political means and to respect the desire of the parties to improve their status. This is the known document of 14 August 1991, it became the basis of further negotiations, the results of which guided in development of our constitution. Our delegation met then several times (by that time I had resigned from the commission).

In the end, it was developed a common agreement, under which in our constitution we wrote such relationship with the Russian Federation. But Russia didn't take it into account in its constitution. And in the relevant article of the Constitution we were identified as a part of the federation, along with other republics and regions. It so happened that their article did not correspond to ours. This contradiction exists until today: in the Russian Constitution we are just a part, but in ours we retain the first article: we are a sovereign state, we are bound by the treaty. Yes, the Russian Constitution also mentions subjects-states, rather 'republics (states)'. But there is no word 'sovereign'. But the agreement of 1991 stated that we are 'a republic (a sovereign state)'. That is, we have retained this provision (with the exception of the powers transferred by the Russian Federation).

So today we have a problem. The first article of our constitution says that we are a sovereign state, united with the Russian Federation by the constitutions and the treaty. But there is no treaty. What shall we do?

The 123rd article of our constitution says that its first article (about the status of the republic) can only be changed by referendum. But the Russian law on referendum of 2002 prohibits the entities to submit to referendum the question of their status. Things come full circle.

What way out would you suggest?

I don't see a direct way out. There needs to be some political decision. Our leadership is not raising this question for now. I was at the event, which marked the 25th anniversary of the constitution, and as I understand it no one knows what to do with it. They raised a fuss about the Tatar language, but this issue is like to be resolved. But it cannot be helped, the article exists, and the question has to be addressed.

My only idea is to refer the matter to the constitutional court of the Russian Federation. Or to our constitutional court. Let them scratching their heads. So, we are again being at a crossroads.

By Rustem Shakirov, Timur Rakhmatullin. Photo: Timur Rakhmatullin
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