The centrepiece of the Tatar Sabuntuy Celebrations in Kazan
I spent two days at the weekend in Kazan which is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, which in turn is part of the Russian Federation. This does not make me an expert on Russia although I have previously spent a week in Ekaterinburg. It has though given me an insight into Russian society, a glimpse at how the system works and a belief that most of the problems faced by Mayors and councillors in dealing with the problems of their peoples are much the same as ours.
As a representative to a local government congress representing the world body of local government (UCLG) it was neither the time nor place to raise issues which I would otherwise have done as a politician. I made it clear to a number of people that the views that were being expressed by some of them over issues of international and personal morality were not the same as mine or those of my Country. I made a point of saying that I had not been in Kazan I would have been marching in Liverpool Pride celebrations because of my belief in a diverse society which delights in difference and recognises the rights of all.
What I found in the Congress was that the Mayors from within the Russian Federation were dealing with the same issues that we are. Their processes were very similar. They were trying to grapple with the development of a city in a rapidly changing society. They are as affected by changes in communications and the climate as we are. Like us they have problems caused by the demographic changes of an ageing population and are wondering how things will be paid for. They are looking to develop tourism; communications hubs; attract inward investment; provide adequate training; and keep the streets safe and clean. In fact their discussions mirrored those in the other regions such as North America, South America and the Middle East that I have already visited this year.
Kazan itself was clearly a modern, progressive well run city. I had the advantage of being there at the time of Sabuntuy which is a Tatar celebration. On Saturday we spent the morning at the show ground where it seemed that every village had their own exhibition area. They showed what their village did; the music of their village the business of their village. They enticed you in with little sweets or treats and you watched their musical and artistic acts as well as looking into the recreations of their homes and workplaces. It appears that it is a bit like the Notting Hill Carnival where the village spends the year working together planning and practicing for the big event. They were proud of their village and proud of their status as Tatars.
The centrepiece of the morning was a big celebration in the arena based on the rivers of the area. This was to commemorate the fact that taking place at the same time was an international swimming event run by FINA with swimmers, divers and synchronised swimmers from more than 170 Countries. Hundreds of young people from about 5 to 25 took part in quite a dazzling display. The singing was superb although I haven’t got a clue what they were singing about!
I didn’t have the opportunity to talk to any ‘ordinary’ Kazan residents but looking at them en-masse it reminded me of a big event in Sefton Park. Here we had people whose prime concerns were getting and keeping a job; bringing up their kids; having somewhere decent to live; and enjoying themselves whilst doing it. I suspect that their beliefs were no different to mine or yours in such regards. That is what got them motivated not the big stage play acting of Presidents or Prime Ministers.
But it was not all play! I took the opportunity to have discussions with a number of Mayors and staff of the President of Tatarstan. We concentrated on the areas where we could agree which was a vast area. In particular I spent time with Ilsur Metshin the Mayor of Kazan who had just been re-elected as President of the Eurasian Branch of UCLG. He wants that section to play a bigger party in the affairs of the World body and, crucially for me, wants to improve the work being done within Eurasia to help local government become better and more efficient deliverers of local and basic services.
Some who read this might think that I have become an apologist for a different political system. Not so! But I am aware as I go round the world that we can learn from each other. That different things happen around the world in different ways for different reasons. Sometimes it is that difference that provides a greater challenge to one’s own methodology than just talking to people doing the same thing in the same system as your own.
Kazan is a well-run city which is clearly thinking ahead and in Ilsur Metshin has a Mayor who looks outward at the potential role of his expanding city in the region; in Russia and the World. I believe that we can learn some things from him and he and his colleagues can learn some things from us.
To take that further I believe that creating a strong network of local players from around the world is the only way to eventually deal with the problems that we face. A thousand councils determinedly getting on with doing things about climate change is far more important than a thousand national politicians talking about doing something. 10,000 councils delivering services better because they have learnt from each other is better than the endless and meaningless prognostications of the G8 or the G20.
Two of the four principles of liberalism which make me a Lib Dem activist are internationalism and localism. I recognise simultaneously that there is only one world but that we live in communities where a difference can be made to people’s lives. I work, on a voluntary basis, for UCLG because this is the international body for local government. My aim is to increase its power and influence because it is at our level that a real difference can be made to people’s lives. By joining together we in local government can produce the actions that are needed to create a sustainable world while the big boys and girls produce only words and hot air.