December 20, 2008

Russia courts the Muslim world

Islam preceded christianity on our territory, says Putin

Le Monde diplomatique.



By Jacques Lévesque

Vladimir Putin was the first head of a non-Muslim majority state to speak at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, a gathering of 57 Muslim states, in October 2003. That was a political and diplomatic feat, especially since Russia was waging a long-running war in Chechnya at the time. Putin stressed that 15% of the total population of the Russian Federation are Muslim (1), and that all the inhabitants of eight of its 21 autonomous republics are Muslim (2), and he won observer member status with the organisation, thanks to support from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Since then, Putin and other Russian leaders, including the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claim that Russia “is, to some extent, a part of the Muslim world”. In an interview with Al Jazeera on 16 October 2003, Putin stressed that, unlike Muslims living in western Europe, those in Russia were indigenous and that Islam had been present on Russian territory long before Christianity (3). So Russia now claims to have a privileged political relationship with the Arab and Muslim world and believes that, as a mostly European state, it has a historic vocation as a mediator between the western and Muslim worlds.

There are reasons for these claims. The first is to counter the pernicious effect of the Chechnyan war, in Russia as much as in the rest of the world. The aim is to avoid, or at least limit, polarisation between Russia’s ethnic majority and its Muslims by reinforcing Muslims’ feeling of belonging to the state. “We must prevent Islamophobia,” said Putin in the Al Jazeera interview. That will be difficult given the way anyone suspected of being a Muslim fundamentalist is pursued, and not just in Chechnya. “Terrorism should not be identified with any one religion, culture or tradition,” Putin insisted. Before 9/11 he called Chechen rebels “Muslim fundamentalist terrorists”; now he speaks of “terrorists connected to international criminal networks and drug and arms traffickers”, avoiding any reference to Islam.

The other purpose in seeking special ties with the Arab and Muslim world is related to Russia’s foreign policy aim to “reinforce multipolarity in the world” – to sustain and develop poles of resistance to US hegemony and unilateralism. This means taking advantage of the hostility to US foreign policy in the Arab and Muslim world. The Soviet Union used to present itself as the natural ally of anti-imperialist Arab states “with a socialist orientation”. Now Russia is seeking strong political relations not only with Iran and Syria, but also with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, which have long been close allies of the United States.

Economic considerations are important, especially in the energy sector, the power behind Russia’s return to the international stage. The Kremlin believes there is a major future in nuclear energy and the export of nuclear power stations, which may give Russia a competitive edge in technology and make it more than just an exporter of raw energy. The same is true of high-tech weapons, which were the most successful economic sector of the former Soviet Union before serious difficulties in the 1990s.

The Kremlin is no longer seeking formal alliances. It wants strong but non-restrictive political ties in frameworks such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), which do not put it in direct opposition to the US. Significantly, Iran only has observer status in this organisation, although it would like to be a full member.

One more explanation for this new policy towards the Muslim world is the quest for a post-Soviet Russian identity at home and abroad. This is not just political opportunism. In 2005, the academic Sergei Rogov wrote in the official foreign ministry review: “The Islamic factor in Russian policy is first and foremost a question of identity. . . That is one of the reasons why Russia cannot yet be a nation state in the European sense of the term. . . Our relations with the Islamic world directly affect our security” (4).

It is important to grasp what that means. In September 2003, Igor Ivanov, then foreign minister, said the war in Iraq had increased the number of terrorist attacks on Russian territory as elsewhere in the world. That was before Beslan (5), but Russia was already fearful of terrorism as a consequence of the Iraq war. Russia had hoped that a new multipolar configuration would emerge from the concerted opposition at the UN Security Council by France, Germany and Russia, which had deprived the US of international legitimacy for the war.

A complex relationship
Russian leaders, with Putin and Medvedev at the head, were seriously concerned that a “clash of civilisations” would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and unconditional US support for Israel’s most intransigent policies, Russian leaders thought potential US attacks on Iran would be a catastrophe, with destabilising consequences in Iran, so close to Russia, as well as in several former Soviet republics and in Russia.

This is a key to understanding the complex and difficult relationship that Moscow has with Tehran. Iran is an important geopolitical partner, as well as being the third-biggest buyer of Russian arms after China and India, and a showcase for the controlled export of nuclear power plants. Iran’s leaders have refrained from expressing support for Chechen rebels. Iran and Russia cooperated in supporting armed opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan, long before the US. (Afghanistan under the Taliban was the only state in the world to recognise the independence of Chechnya and offer assistance to Chechen fighters.) But Moscow did denounce President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks about Israel as “shameful” and put pressure on Tehran by voting with the US for economic sanctions at the UN Security Council, although it excluded military action.

By risking a deterioration of its relations with Iran, Russia wants to show the US and other western powers that it is responsible when it comes to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. It also wants to persuade Iran to find a modus vivendi with the International Atomic Energy Agency. By agreeing to limited and gradual sanctions, Russia hopes to reduce the threat of an armed attack against Iran for as long as possible. Russia does not want an Iran equipped with nuclear weapons on its frontiers, but it would prefer to live with a nuclear Iran than face the consequences of a US attack on Iran.

The ambivalence of these positions has contributed to a rapprochement with traditional US allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both concerned that Iran may have access to nuclear weapons. However, like Russia and for the same reasons, they are opposed to US military action. They fear the consequences at home as well as among their immediate neighbours.

As a result of the war in Iraq, Turkey has a de facto independent Kurdistan on its borders, a problem that would be seriously aggravated by a destabilised Iran. Russia intends to take advantage of this at a time when its economic exchanges with Turkey – and political convergence – are at their best for two centuries.

Russia also intends to keep improving its relations with Saudi Arabia, which opposed the war in Iraq despite its hostility to Saddam Hussein. (It did, however, make its bases available to the US.) In February 2007 Putin made a first visit by a Russian or Soviet head of state to Saudi Arabia and offered contracts for the construction of nuclear power plants and arms. He also pleaded for an increase in the number of Russian Muslims authorised to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Saudi support for the Chechen rebels, openly expressed until 2002 (without recognition of the independence they claimed), suddenly stopped.


Translated by Krystina Horko

Jacques Lévesque teaches at the faculty of political science and law at the University of Quebec, Montreal, and is author of 1989, la fin d’un empire: L’URSS et la libération de l’Europe de l’Est, Presses de Sciences Po, Paris, 1995

(1) This figure does not provide a clear picture of the situation. According to both Russian and western analysts, the high birth rate in the Muslim communities, together with immigration from the independent Central Asian republics, should lead to a sharp increase in the Muslim population by 2010. See Dmitri Shlapentokh, “Islam and Orthodox Russia: From Eurasianism to Islamism”, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, London, n° 41, 2008. Some experts, including Murray Feshback, a specialist in Russian demography, claim that these estimates are exaggerated and are unlikely to be realised soon.

(2) Apart from Chechnya, these include North Ossetia, Dagestan, Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. The largest and most densely populated are Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, which also have the most Muslims. More than half the Tatars live outside of Tatarstan. The Moscow region alone has a larger Muslim population than Bashkortostan.

(3) Islam began to spread over present-day Russian territory from the end of the 7th century, whereas the first Russian state only adopted Christianity as its official religion at the end of the 10th century.

(4) Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn, vol 51, n° 4, Moscow, 2005.

(5) More than 1,300 children and adults were taken hostage in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, on 1 September 2004. Two days later, following an assault by Russian security forces, 344 civilians died (according to official figures), mostly children

No comments: