Russia's domestic Muslim strategy - the lurking threat

In the second of two articles on Russia’s Muslim strategy, Walter Laqueur observes that hostility to the United States and its allies inclines Russia’s elites towards an anti-Western alliance. This blinds them to threats close to home. These are, above all, demographic: while Russia’s population shrinks, its Muslim enclaves keep growing
Walter Laqueur
27 November 2009

Russia’s internal Muslim problems are no doubt of greater political importance than its relations with foreign Muslim countries. Russian attitudes towards its Muslim minorities are full of contradictions, probably inevitably so. Moscow insists on absolute loyalty on the part of its Muslim citizens, but cannot and does not want to fulfill many of the demands of even the more moderate elements among the Muslims.

This refers above all to the Muslim republics on the middle Volga such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. They have a measure of autonomy but want much more. The present rulers a political elite date back to the Soviet period: Murtaza Rakhimov and Mintimer Shaimiev, the political bosses of the two republics, both in their seventies, began their careers in the Communist era, gained the Order of Lenin and similar distinctions, and have been in command since 1991 and 1993 respectively. They actually belonged to the orthodox wing of the Communist party, which was opposed to the Gorbachev reforms.

The economic situation in these two highly industrialized regions is better than in most other parts of the Russian federation, largely thanks to the oil industry and its various branches. Nevertheless (or because of it), they have made growing political and economic demands of Moscow. The idea that the first deputy prime minister (or president) of the Russian Federation should be a Muslim seems to have originated in the Volga region. Political separatism has few prospects here: Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are cut off from the other Muslim regions, the Russian ethnic element is strong in both republics (almost half in Tatarstan—more in the major cities such as Kazan and Ufa), and there have been many mixed marriages. The Bashkirs are a minority in their republic, and the Muslims amount to a majority only if the Tatar sector is added. However, the relations between the two ethnic groups has not always been smooth. The influence of modernist Islam (jadidism) remains strong, and there has been, and continues to be, criticism of and even contempt for fundamentalist Islam (“We do not want to return to the middle ages.”).  Opposition to Moscow is based more on nationalist than religious grounds.

Muslim Moscow

The second major concentration of Russian Muslims is Moscow. Estimates of their number vary greatly—between 1.5 and 2 million—but walking the Moscow street their massive presence is unmistakable. Whole quarters of the capital have been taken over by them, such as Butovo in the far south, but also regions near the big official and unofficial markets. There are many new mosques (among them four or five truly big ones), Muslim cultural clubs, hospitals, schools, kindergartens, food shops and even a supermarket named Apelsin claiming to be on the European level. It is announced that more will be opened soon. There are no major bookshops as yet and no Muslim Russian newspapers, but there is a great deal of activity on the Internet. (The works of Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi and other radical Muslim thinkers have been translated and can be obtained without difficulty.) The authorities have been trying to expel the illegals, of whom there are a great many, closing down some of the major markets. (This was directed not only against Muslims but also against Chinese, other Asians and “people of Caucasian background” in general.)

On the other hand, Luzhkov, the influential Moscow mayor, has gone out of his way to gain popularity among the Muslim residents, allocating funds for some of their religious and cultural institutions (which remain firmly under the observation of the KGB). Perhaps more important, Putin and Medvedev have done the same, sending greetings to the Muslim community on the occasion of their holidays and even visiting one or another major mosque. Such practices, aimed at the domestication of Islam would have been unthinkable ten or even five years ago, and they reflect the growing importance of the Muslim presence in the capital.

 Muslim Caucasus

Northern Caucasus is the third and most dangerous Muslim concentration. The basic facts are well known and need not be reiterated in detail. Some 160,000 soldiers and civilians are believed to have perished in the two Chechen wars. Eventually, Russia succeeded in imposing a solution (for the time being), and relative calm prevails. Grozny, the heavily destroyed capital, is being rebuilt. Chechnya has become a partly autonomous Muslim region in which the Sharia is the law of the land; the local authorities have been pressing for the legalization of polygamy.

To what extent the new Chechen leadership believes in fundamentalist Islam is by no means clear; more likely they feel the need for an official ideology that could serve as a uniting force, and at the same time counteract the accusations of the rebels that the members of the ruling pro-Putin clique are apostates, hostile to Islam. The rebels, who suffered heavy blows, not only hate the Russian occupiers but also bitterly attack America (which they claim supports Russian oppression) and denounce the Jews (the source of all global evil). However, not all the declarations attributed to the Chechen opposition on the Internet can be taken at face value; Russian black propaganda seems to be at work.

Nevertheless, the Russian policy of appointing more or less trustworthy satraps such as the younger Kadyrov offers no guarantee as far as the future if concerned. Moscow is quite aware that their local representatives will press for more and more independence (and money), are difficult to control and, in the final analysis, cannot be trusted.

The end of the Chechen war brought no peace to other parts of the northern Caucasus. On the contrary, attacks by Islamist gangs against the authorities in Dagestan, Ingushetia and other republics and regions increased in 2009, resulting in the killing of police chiefs and other leading officials. In June 2009, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, president of Ingushetia, narrowly escaped death in an attack in which he was injured. The situation was deemed sufficiently serious for Medvedev to visit Dagestan (for the second time in one year) and Ingushetia. It is thought that no Russian president has ever done that before.

No solution seems to be in sight for stabilizing the situation in northern Caucasus, partly because of the continuing attacks of the jihadists, but also because there seems to be an inherent, traditional inclination towards long wars in the region. And if there is no outside enemy, Caucasians seem to enjoy fighting one other.  There are some forty nationalities and thirty languages in Dagestan alone, and the situation in other parts of the region is not very different. During the Soviet era the conflicts were suppressed. Now the Islamists may believe that if they could only succeed in defeating Russia militarily and expelling the Russian civilians, they might impose their own pax Islamica on the region.

The middle Volga region and the Caucasus apart, Russia confronts radical Islam in the former Muslim republics of the Soviet Union in Central Asia and, to a lesser degree, Azerbaidjan.

Neighbours to the south

Russia keeps a close watch over Central Asia. If radical Islam were to take over political power in these republics or even only one or two of them, this would be a major disaster for Russia, which considers this vast region an integral part of its ”privileged zone of influence.” Radical Islam has attempted to gain a strong foothold in a variety of ways. The high tide of the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which joined forces with the Taliban, was between 1999 and 2004. Hizb-ut-Tahrir began to send its emissaries even earlier. (It was banned in Russia in 2003 and is banned now in most other republics, but probably maintains small underground cells.) Their campaigns were defeated by often brutal repression, and of late there have been relatively few terrorist attacks. There is reason to assume that radical Islam has struck root in at least some regions, but it is difficult if not impossible for outsiders to know how deep these roots run and what forces the jihadists could mobilize.

In addition to the extremist opposition to the Central Asian governments, there are more moderate forces also opposed to the authorities, and it would be wrong not to differentiate between these two forces. Moderate opposition arises from the fact that local governments are authoritarian (only in Tadjikistan is the opposition represented in parliament), corrupt and fairly inefficient. It could be argued that Central Asia has never experienced good, efficient and incorrupt rule, and that, as in many other countries, nothing can work in these places without at least a modicum of corruption. However, there are degrees of corruption, and at time of acute economic crisis these republics could be vulnerable to Islamist movements pretending to combine the orthodox practice of the true faith with honesty and greater efficiency.

A new Russian doctrine?

If Russia has an overall strategy vis-à-vis Islam and the Muslim world, it is replete with contradictions and can be understood only within the framework of how Russians see their place in the world now and in the years ahead. There is the constant contradiction between a feeling of worthlessness and the sentiment of superiority, of having a mission to fulfill.

Worthlessness found its classical formulation in Chaadayev’s Philosophical Letters (1836): we had neither a Renaissance nor an Enlightenment, we have contributed nothing to world culture, we have not added a single idea, but we disfigured everything we touched. We belong neither to West nor to East. Chaadayev was declared a madman by the Tsar who sent him his doctor several times a week. But Chaadayev’s diagnosis has influenced Russian thinking to this day and is frequently quoted.

On the other hand, there is the feeling of superiority, the view of Russia as the Third Rome possessed of a unique mission in the world. These feelings of mission were not prominently voiced during the late Soviet period or the decade after, but with the economic recovery they became not just respectable but achieved almost the status of an official ideology.

Similar contradictions abound in relations with the Muslim world. On the one hand, there is the conviction that Russia ought to strive for an alliance with the Islamic countries or at least some of them (above all Turkey and Iran—the Arab countries usually figure last and Pakistan does not figure at all). On the other hand, a deep distrust prevails: Putin’s “Russia has only two reliable allies, its infantry and its artillery” (the saying was borrowed from Tsar Alexander III).

The fading and discrediting of Marxism-Leninism have required a new doctrine. (Marx is hardly ever quoted these days and Lenin only seldom. Stalin had a major comeback but as a Russian patriot, not as a Marxist.) The new Russian doctrine has many facets and it ranges from the relatively sober to the obscure, farfetched and bizarre (which suddenly became respectable) to the clinically mad.

To begin with the last: Yuri Petukhov, recently deceased, was a widely read science fiction writer. Shortly before his demise he formulated his political views and prophecies in Russkii mirovoi poryadok (The Russian World Order). According to him, all foreigners are Nean-derthals and degenerates (the term appears a thousand times in his book), Europe and America were created by Russians and should be repossessed, all Russian leaders including Lenin and Khrushchev (a weakling who did not dare to go to war over Cuba) were traitors. Only the great Stalin is an exception. Hitler was a romantic, the First and Second World Wars were unleashed by the treacherous Americans and the British, Pearl Harbour was a magnificent operation, and so on. The American degenerates, in collaboration with the European jackals, want to destroy Russia, and caused the Chernobyl nuclear explosion of 1986.

Petukhov expressed the thoughts and feeling of not a few simpleminded compatriots. Alexander Dugin and Igor Panarin operate on a more sophisticated level. Few took them seriously a decade or so ago, but more recently they have become respectable and even influential within the Kremlin (reportedly through Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s political mastermind).

Dugin began his ideological odyssey in the ranks of Pamyat, the ultra-right anti-Semitic group in the last days of Soviet rule. When he realized that such primitive and outdated views had no political future, he established his own school. Panarin, on the other hand, originally belonged to the liberal dissidents but later made his way to the other end of the political spectrum. He became known in the West following his prediction that America would not exist beyond 2010. There would be a civil war and the country would be divided into six separate states.

Dugin seems to enjoy considerable respect among the military, the media and even in academic circles, whereas Panarin’s influence is mainly felt in academe and the foreign ministry academy. Dugin tried for many years to present a synthetic new ideology, a mixture of some of the more disreputable Western elements (Italian neo-fascism in the style of Julius Evola, the new right of Alain de Benoist in France, and neo-Nazi geopolitics).  He later realized the need for some specific Russian elements and adopted an updated version of Eurasianism, an ideology first developed in the 1920s among Russian émigrés.

The Eurasian idea, in one form or another, is widely spread among Russian political elite. One example is Put’ voinov Allakha: Islam i politika Rossii (The Way of the Warriors of Allah: Islam and Russian Politics), a basic text at the Russian Military Academy and the university of the security services. The book was authored by Zhuravlyov, Melkov and General Shershnev, all of them teachers at these institutions. They regard Islamist separatism a major threat to the survival of Russia and have no sympathy for countries which have adopted the Sharia and sponsor jihadism. But when it comes to strategies of how to confront these dangers, the message is ex oriente lux: the world has to turn to the East rather than the West for inspiration and leadership to find a way of salvation.

Since Russia alone is not strong enough to counteract American and European influence, an alliance of Russia, India, China and Iran (called RIKI) is envisaged. (The authors, otherwise not distinguished by a sense of humour, mention that they are aware of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the heroic mongoose in Kipling’s Jungle Book.) These countries behaved very well in the past, and did not exploit the decade of Russian weakness after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the RIKI countries are also religiously close to each other: Russian ethics are close to Asian ethics and have nothing in common with the capitalist and usurious Protestant ethic as described by Benjamin Franklin and Max Weber. The authors also note that Catholicism is a far greater danger to Russia than Islam—thus contradicting their earlier claim that is Islam is a major menace.

Seen in this light, RIKI would become not only the leading political and military global factor, but also the moral leader of the world. These are ambitious plans, especially considering that they involve countries that have very little in common and in fact deeply distrust one another. Russia and China, China and India, Iran and the rest of the world, show no great eagerness to collaborate too closely and are among the most corrupt in the world. Yet this is the geopolitical world view conveyed to the trainees of the military forces and the state security services.

Russia blinded?

The nationalist right-wingers, both moderate and extremist, agree that the United States and its European allies are Russia’s most dangerous enemies by far. The fact that the Soviet Union lost out in the Cold War and eventually collapsed seemed to confirm Russian fears. This has shaped Russian strategy to the present day, and probably will do so in the foreseeable future. Even if the more extreme fantasies about American intrigues and crimes are not shared by the mainstream Russian establishment, the preoccupation with America has blinded large sections of the Russian elite to other threats facing their country.

Foremost among these is demographic decline: the shrinking of Russia. The political repercussions of this disaster are far from fully clear among those shaping Russian policy, both vis-à-vis the Muslim minority at home and Islam in Russian foreign policy. Islam expert Malashenko, for example, believes that neither in the short term nor by 2050 will there be any reason to speak of the Islamization of Russia. Other observers take a less sanguine view, often drawing attention to the ethnic background of the recruits to the Russian army, which is increasingly of Muslim origin. In any case, it is not just a matter of statistics. Much depends from the measure of integration of national and religious minorities in Russia: will they be loyal to regime or will the separatist trends become stronger?

The Russian authorities, while strictly observing developments inside the Muslim communities (and intervening when necessary), are trying to keep their Muslims content and prevent national strife (“Islamophobia”). But they face the growing xenophobia promoted by the Russian right, and popular opinion in general (“Russia for the Russians”). The Russian Orthodox Church likewise follows what they regard as official appeasement of Islam with grave misgivings. They want to preserve their old/new status as the state religion, and while the Kremlin is vitally interested in good relations with the Orthodox Church, it finds it increasingly difficult to pursue a balancing act between the Orthodox and Islam. Appeals for a dialogue between the religions are mere eyewash; there is no such readiness to talk on either side.

The Caucasus remains Russia’s soft underbelly and no solution is in sight. Most of the action has shifted from Chechnya to Dagestan, Ingushetia and some of the other regions. Dagestan is very poor, and an independent Dagestan without constant help from Russia could hardly exist. But such economic considerations will not stop the fighting; the rebels can always argue that they aim at a united northern Caucasus. This may be no more than wishful thinking, but useful as a powerful myth while the fighting continues. Russian policy will continue as before: brutal repression of separatism and the imposition of a leadership considered trustworthy by Moscow (and collaborationist by jihadists).

Otherwise, Russian foreign policy vis-à-vis Islam and Islamism has been undecided, trying to keep all options open. With America still looming as the great threat, Islamist anti-American activities should have been welcomed without reservation (and often were), but there seem to have been doubts of late about the wisdom of such a policy. The Kremlin may follow the misfortunes of the West in Afghanistan with schadenfreude, but if the United States and NATO were to withdraw from Afghanistan, it would again become a Russian problem as a base for jihadist activities in Central Asia.

Still, regime strategy is dominated by the American shadow and the conviction that what helps the United States must be bad for Russia. This appears strange if Islam should indeed be “Russia’s fate.” But it may take a long time for Russia to unlearn its obsession with the West.  

Walter Laqueur

Walter Laqueur has written more than twenty books, translated into as many languages. He was a co-founder and editor of the Journal of Contemporary History in London and the Washington Quarterly. Concurrently he chaired the International Research Council of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He has taught at Georgetown, Chicago, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, and Tel Aviv universities. He lives in Washington, D.C.

This paper first appeared in the Middle East Papers of Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH)


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