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Democratization and Gender Politics in Post-Soviet Russia: The View from Tatarstan

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, policymakers and academics have been concerned with promoting the related goals of fostering genuine political democratization and improving gender relations in post-Soviet spaces. Concretely, this has meant efforts to increase the openness, responsiveness, and transparency of post-Soviet political systems, and efforts to ensure that women's particular political, economic, and social concerns find their way onto the policy agenda in the new states. Unfortunately, in the case of Tatarstan, one of Russia's national republics, neither of these goals has been realized to a satisfactory extent. The Tatarstani example in fact demonstrates the crucial link between real political reform and the achievement of women's policy goals--in the absence of the former, hopes for the latter are dim as well. Indeed, the marginalization of women from the policy-making process in post-Soviet Tatarstan appears to be less a result of patriarchal structures and traditions (though those variables also play a role) than just one aspect of a more complete marginalization of all societal actors from the political system. The one positive lesson that can be drawn from the experience of women's groups seeking to wield real political power in post-Soviet Tatarstan is that absent real domestic democratization, the importance of international aid and support for women's groups becomes magnified.

During the past decade, the republic of Tatarstan has been engaged in a multifaceted campaign to make its 1990 declaration of sovereign statehood a reality, seeking new levels of political, economic, and cultural autonomy within the Russian Federation and in the international arena. One of the arguments the republic's President Mintimer Shaimiyev (elected June 1992 and currently on his third term) has made to garner support for the republic's quest for sovereignty is that with increased levels of sovereignty, Tatarstan would be free to pursue democratic political reforms more rapidly than the "rest of Russia." Interestingly, Shaimiyev pursued the opposite strategy on economic reform, arguing that a sovereign Tatarstan could pursue a "soft entry to the market" which would protect Tatarstan's citizens from Russia's brash strategy of shock therapy. Unfortunately, however, Shaimiyev's promises of sovereignty leading to advanced levels of democratization in the republic remain largely rhetorical. Instead, the litany of abuses of power lodged against the Shaimiyev regime include: falsifying election returns in local and federal elections; tampering with the registration of opposition candidates and parties in the republic; establishing a strict vertical and ethnocratic distribution of power wherein most of the (hand-picked and ethnically Tatar) regional heads of administration and heads of large corporations also sit in the republic's parliament and presidential apparatus; and finally, the co-optation of independent civil society actors into the presidential apparatus and the harassment or marginalization of those actors who resist co-optation.

Evidence of these non-democratic trends is particularly visible when one examines the attempts of women's interest groups to gain access to the policy-making system in Tatarstan. Not only is a miniscule proportion of the "ethnocracy" in Tatarstan female (only 5 out of 130 parliamentary deputies are women), those women in parliament are relegated to areas traditionally associated with "women's concerns," such as family and child welfare. These female deputies express frustration about the difficulty of getting their male colleagues to take seriously their concerns about the dismal state of women and children's health and economic conditions in Tatarstan and complain about the reluctance of the Tatarstani parliament to delegate resources to these issues. The government of Tatarstan responds by pointing out that it has created an organization called Women of Tatarstan to serve as an umbrella to unite women's groups in the republic, but some women's activists in the republic charge that the group is a mere figurehead, devoid of any real power or even pretensions to affect real political, social, or economic change. Instead, Women of Tatarstan limits itself to organizing festivals on March 8 and engaging in small-scale, intermittent acts of charity for women with large families. Independent women's groups in Tatarstan also complain that organizations which resist joining the umbrella structure, such as the Club of Intellectual Women of Tatarstan or Femina, an independent women's organization based in the Tatarstani city of Naberezhnyie Chelny, risk being either ignored or even actively repressed by the government. As a result, activist women in Tatarstan have very little access to the official channels of political power in the republic, and even those women who make it into the tightly-controlled power structure in Tatarstan feel marginalized and ineffectual.

Fortunately, in the Tatarstani case we also see evidence that international sources of material support for independent women's organizations and linkages with international networks of feminist activists, scholars, and analysts have helped women to overcome these barriers to political efficacy, at least to some degree. For example, with the help of grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Soros Fund, the EU, and UNIFEM, Femina has conducted and published an impressive array of sociological studies about women and poverty, women and family, women and politics, and general attitudes about gender in Tatarstan. As a result of their wide range of international contacts, Femina has been able to pressure the Tatarstani government into providing at least token material and moral support for its activities. In 2001 the State Council of Tatarstan gave the group a small grant, and Femina's leader, Elena Mashkova, was named the "Woman of the Year" by the republic's official women's group Women of Tatarstan. While it still remains to be seen whether the high-quality but politically-sensitive studies done by Femina will really be able to influence policy-making decisions in the halls of power of the Kazan Kremlin, it is doubtful that without the material and moral support of international actors Femina's activities in Tatarstan would be recognized by the government even to the small degree they currently are. Furthermore, Tatarstan's one independent women's newspaper, Zhenschina--one of only a handful of such newspapers left in all of Russia--also demonstrates the crucial role of international financial and moral support in fostering democratization and gender equity in the former Soviet Union. Existing without any government funding, and surviving with the help of small-scale entrepreneurial ventures and grants from international agencies, the bi-monthly Zhenschina not only publicizes women's concerns about politics, art, family, sexuality, and health, but is also one of the only publications in the republic which dares to be critical of the Shaimiyev regime and which voices ethnic Russian concerns about "Tatarization" in the republic.


Policy Recommendations

Supporting independent women's organizations and publications in the former Soviet Union helps to carve out and protect democratic spaces in post-Soviet contexts. The U.S. government thus should continue to offer material, informational, and moral support both directly to independent women's organizations in the FSU and to other organizations which offer support to the FSU.
The idea that outside observers are aware of developments in their polities does affect the behavior of policymakers in the FSU. Thus, in their direct contacts with political elites in the FSU, U.S. government representatives and other international actors should emphasize the role independent women's organizations play in the process of democratization and encourage their counterparts in the FSU to take the publications and activities of these groups seriously and integrate them into the policy-making process.
While it is easy to become demoralized about the failures of democratization in the former Soviet Union, the case of women's organizations in Tatarstan suggests that sustained international efforts to support independent women's groups and other potential members of civil society can make a difference in stemming the tide of creeping authoritarianism. Now more than ever, it is important to recognize these small steps forward and to sustain this progressive movement for the future.


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