Is Tatarstan Facing a Surge of Religious Extremism?

I am now blogging occasionally at the Atlantic Sentinel on broader Russia-related issues. I’ll cross-post here for ease of access. Here’s a post on religious extremism in Tatarstan.

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I recently came across an article that argues that Tatarstan is facing an Islamization scenario akin to what has already occurred in Ingushetia and Dagestan. It reports on a talk given at a conference on ethnic and religious tolerance recently held in Kazan. Rais Suleimanov, the deputy director of the Center for Eurasian and International Studies at the Kazan Financial University, points out that youth comprise 40 percent of people who regularly attend mosque in the region. Yana Amelina, the head of the Caucasus department at the Center and another conference participant, notes that radical Islam has over the last few years replaced ethnic separatism as the dominant anti-state ideology in the Caucasus and is now spreading into the Volga region.

When I was last in Kazan two years ago,  I was struck by the sheer number of young women wearing “Islamic” clothing and young men with those beards that act as markers of Islamic identity in the FSU. This was in stark contrast to previous visits, when everyone (and especially young people) wore European style clothing and hair styles. The number of people with such Islamic markers was also much higher in Kazan two years ago than in my visit to Baku last week.

Of course, wearing traditional clothing or a beard is not a sign that one is a wahhabi extremist (though it might be interpreted as such a sign by the local authorities). But I think there is no doubt that young people are more religious now than they were 5-10 years ago and that the religion they are following is not the “traditional (Hanafi) Islam” of the area but less moderate imports from the Middle East.

But this does not mean that they are all ready to take up arms against the government or support some kind of Islamic Caliphate. The authorities would take that interpretation at their own peril — if they start repressing religious Tatars, they may end up promoting more violence than if the people were left alone to worship as they please.

The proposal in the article that the government should reject any attempts at dialog with the “wahhabi lobby” in Russia and instead ban all “wahhabi activity” seems to be particularly counterproductive in this regard. This is the kind of thing that was tried in places like Kabardino-Balkaria 5-6 years ago and only led to more people taking up arms against the authorities, because of a desire for revenge against authorities who humiliated them or repressed their relatives. Those who follow this topic may well remember the story about Russian interior ministry operatives going into mosques and forcibly shaving people or carving crosses into their hair. The net result of these actions was a rapid increase in anti-government attitudes, followed by Islamic radicalism, and then a spike in violence in the region.

The regional authorities could shoot themselves in the foot by taking excessively harsh measures against non-violent but pious Muslims who reject the traditional Islamic leadership in the region in favor of strands of Islam imported from the Middle East. In that case, one could see the formation of violent bands whose goal is revenge against those who humiliated or hurt them.

If, on the other hand, followers of Salafi Islam in Tatarstan are monitored but not persecuted, the chances for a significant surge of religiously-based violence in the region is pretty remote.

Violence in the Caucasus is due to a combination of religious extremism, a hopeless economic situation, and a perception that the local authorities are all crooks. Tatarstan may have more religious extremists than it used to, but its economic situation is pretty good by Russian standards and its authorities are less blatantly corrupt than those in the North Caucasus. Unless we start seeing massive unemployment among young Muslim men in the Volga region, I don’t think we should worry about the kind of violence and instability that we see in Dagestan or Ingushetia spreading to Tatarstan.

There will be occasional disenchanted Tatar extremists who want to fight, but they will continue to do what they have been doing for the last decade — they’ll go off to the Caucasus, or to Afghanistan, and fight there. Tatarstan itself, as well as the entire Volga region, will become more religious, to be sure, but will nonetheless remain fairly stable and non-violent for the foreseeable future.

A comment on Russian regime stability

The excellent Power Vertical blog has an entry today about parallels between current protests in Russia and the early perestroika period. Brian Whitmore implies that given these parallels, there is likely to be a significant increase in popular protest in Russia in the near future.

I am sympathetic to Brian’s analysis, but we should remember one crucial factor that allowed the early perestroika activism to turn into something more — the willingness of the authorities to allow it to develop and to grow. I’m pessimistic about the current authorities’ willingness to do the same. More likely, any efforts to expand protests will be met with force by the government.

Perestroika was only in part a popular protest movement. Popular protest developed and grew because Gorbachev wanted to use it to break the back of the conservative CPSU bureaucracy. I see no parallels in the current environment to this aspect of perestroika, and therefore it seems to me that protest will remain relatively small scale for the foreseeable future and will not threaten the Putin/Medvedev regime.

Stratfor’s expanding ignorance

Stratfor, the company that provides  “global intelligence” to the world, seems to have completely lost its collective mind. It is currently in the middle of publishing a four part series on “Russia’s Expanding Influence.” (The reports are only accessible through the website to subscribers, though they are being reprinted in Johnson’s Russia List.) No author is listed, so I must assume this means it is a collective product that has the imprimatur of the entire corporation.

To summarize briefly, the introduction indicates that because of its geographic indefensibility, Russia needs a buffer zone around its borders to be a stable and strong state. The next part is the core of the argument and worth quoting in full:

First are four countries where Russia feels it must fully reconsolidate its influence: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia. These countries protect Russia from Asia and Europe and give Moscow access to the Black and Caspian seas. They are also the key points integrated with Russia’s industrial and agricultural heartland. Without all four of them, Russia is essentially impotent. So far, Russia has reconsolidated power in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and part of Georgia is militarily occupied. In 2010, Russia will focus on strengthening its grasp on these countries.

This analysis is so wrong as to be funny. To say that Russia has reconsolidated its influence in those three countries is to be completely ignorant of current events. Belarus has recently turned away from Russia and is trying to get closer to the EU. Kazakhstan is primarily focused on developing its economy and is turning more and more to China in the economic and even inthe security sphere. And anyone who thinks that Yanukovich will do whatever Russia wants will be sorely disappointed. All signs in Ukraine point to him driving a hard bargain and making Russia pay for what it wants — it won’t be the knee-jerk anti-Russianism of Yushchenko, but he won’t meekly submit either.

Furthermore, as Keith Darden has shown in great detail in his recent book, for most of the last 20 years, Belarus and Kazakhstan have been spearheading re-integration efforts in the former Soviet space, efforts that Russia has repeatedly resisted. The story of the Belarusian efforts to increase political integration with Russia is instructive in this regard. After years of getting nowhere on implementation, Belarusian President Lukashenka has finally given up and has turned to the EU to balance his previously completely Russia-focused foreign policy. With Kazakhstan, Stratfor discusses  the gradually increasing Chinese influence but underplays its current role in the country and in Central Asia as a whole. In fact, rather than Russia having “reconsolidated power” in Kazakhstan, there is a three-way competition for influence in Central Asia between Russia, China and the United States. Russia is for the moment the strongest player in this competition (and the US is clearly the weakest), but its influence is waning while China’s is increasing. Kazakhstan, just like the other states in the region, is quite happy to play off these three powers against each other to preserve its own freedom of maneuver.

Anyone who thinks that the result of the recent Ukrainian elections means that Ukraine is returning to Russian orbit will be in for some nasty surprises in the coming months. As we saw as far back as 1994, Ukrainian politicians who campaign on pro-Russian themes are likely to adopt a more middle-of-the-road foreign policy once they get elected. Yanukovich’s early signals indicate that he is likely to follow the same trajectory as Kuchma did more than 15 years ago. Even analysts who are deeply suspicious of Russia, such as Jamestown Foundation’s Vlad Socor, believe that Yanukovich will try to balance Russia and the West in order to preserve his own freedom of action. In today’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, Socor writes:

The Brussels and Moscow visits have probably set a pattern for Yanukovych’s presidency. He is moving almost without transition from a pro-Russian electoral campaign to a double-vector policy toward Russia and the West. Meanwhile, Yanukovych has no real popular mandate for new policy initiatives, having been elected with less than one half of the votes cast, and lacking a parliamentary majority (although he and Donetsk business may cobble together a parliamentary majority). For all these reasons, the president is not in a position to deliver on any agreements with Russia at this time.

Ukrainian-Russian relations will certainly be less strained than they were over the last five years, but by no means does this mean that Russia is anywhere close to controlling Ukrainian politics.

Overall, I find this analysis puzzling. I can’t imagine that the folks at Stratfor are so clueless that they don’t already everything I wrote above. The only alternative, though, is that they are distorting the situation in the region in order to pursue some kind of political agenda dedicated to resurrecting the Cold War-era confrontation between Russia and the United States. I find this possibility even more disturbing than the possibility that they are actually unaware of the political situation in the region.

Update: I just read part 2 of this series, which includes a section about the Baltics. While I have no desire to go into it at length, the following sentence was just too amusing not to note: “Estonia is also mainly Ugro-Finnish, which means that Russians are surrounded by Ugro-Finns on both sides of the Gulf of Finland.” Now I can’t quite get the image of Russia being surrounded by Estonia and Finland out of my head.

Russia’s new military doctrine: An exercise in public relations

Last Friday, the Kremlin finally published the long-awaited text of Russia’s new military doctrine. All in all, it’s a fairly innocuous document largely filled with empty generalities. Aleksandr Golts is probably right in arguing that this is the best that can be expected in a situation where clans of military bureaucrats are engaged in an ongoing conflict. He describes the document as fifteen pages “filled with breaking news that the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea.”

Nevertheless, there are some important points to be made regarding this document. The item that has received the most publicity, though, is something that did not make it into the final document. Despite Nikolai Patrushev’s prediction of several months ago, the doctrine does not include any statement about the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. The text reads “Russia retains the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use against it or (and) its allies of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or in the case of aggression against the Russian Federation using conventional weapons, if [such an attack] threatens the very existence of the state.” This is more or less taken verbatim from the previous edition of the military doctrine, which was adopted in 2000. Nikolai Sokov points out that if anything, the criteria for use of nuclear weapons are actually somewhat narrower, as the final clause  in the previous edition read “in situations critical for the national security of Russia.” The only other innovation in this regard is that the new text makes clear that all decisions on the use of nuclear weapons are made by the President of the Russian Federation.

Commentators inclined to treat anything done or said by Russian officials with suspicion argue that such a statement was excluded from the military doctrine to avoid increasing tension with the international community but is undoubtedly included in the unpublished and classified “Basic principles of state policy in the area of nuclear deterrence to 2020” document, which was approved at the same time as the military doctrine and supposedly spells out the situations in which Russia would use nuclear weapons. Given that planners in both Russia and the United States still by and large subscribe to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction, there is little point to secret plans to use nuclear weapons — the whole point is to publicize a relatively explicit set of situations in which your side would use nuclear weapons in order to make sure that the other side does not cross those lines.

More believable commentators speculate that the absence of the clause on preemptive use of nuclear weapons is a sign that negotiations with the United States on a new START treaty are going well.

For me, the most striking passages in the  doctrine have to do with the listing of external threats facing Russia. Eleven such threats are listed, including some fairly generic ones such as the spread of international terrorism and the spread of ethnic and religious extremist groups in regions near Russian borders. But the first threat listed refers explicitly to NATO and its efforts both to extend its reach globally and to bring its military infrastructure close to Russia’s borders. The second threat listed refers to “efforts to destabilize the situation in specific countries and regions so as to undermine strategic stability,” clearly a veiled reference to Russian elites’ belief that the US was behind popular efforts to remove autocratic rulers in various former Soviet states in the last decade.

Because of these two sentences, the new doctrine is much more explicit than any previous official policy document in declaring that Russia considers NATO and its member states to be the most significant source of military danger to Russia. This makes for good domestic politics, but does little to address the real security issues facing Russia. Nor does it provide for a realistic set of guidelines for how to structure the Russian military in coming years. Clearly, Russian military planners are not planning  a military buildup on Russia’s western border. The actual threats will continue to emanate from the south in the near term, with a growing potential for tension with China sometime down the road.

Russian military planners know full well that NATO is not a threat and this was made clear today when French and Russian officials announced that they were going forward with the sale of France’s Mistral amphibious assault ship to Russia. It seems fairly unlikely that Russian officials would buy military technology from an enemy state, nor that such an enemy would agree to sell it.

It seems to me that the prominent mention of NATO in the list of threats is a sop to the military’s old guard, who have been defeated in the battle over the future direction of the Russian military through the elimination of the mass mobilization army and the forced retirement of most of the old guard generals. Listing NATO as a threat is seen as a relatively harmless way to keep them quiet while the current leadership presses ahead with both structural reforms and closer ties with foreign defense industry.

Thus, we can see that Russia’s new military doctrine is simply a public relations document both in terms of its statement on nuclear policy and its listing of the key foreign threats facing Russia. In this context, it is not surprising that the content of the rest of the document is so generic, as the only politically relevant parts of the document are those that serve a PR purpose. As far as Russia’s military and civilian leadership is concerned, the rest could be filled with complete gibberish.

North Caucasus Federal District

Yesterday,  President Medvedev split the Southern Federal District into two parts, creating the North Caucasus Federal District. The new district includes Stavropol krai and the ethnic republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, North Osetia, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. The district will be headed by Alexander Khloponin, who was previously the governor of Krasnoyarsk krai in Siberia. He will be both the presidential representative to the district and a vice-premier in charge of the region.  The capital of the new district will be in Piatigorsk, a fairly small resort town (~150,000) in Stavropol.

What does this mean for Russian politics and the region?

First of all, there’s the question of why the region was divided in the first place. One hypothesis is that it was done to separate the troublesome ethnic republics of the North Caucasus from Sochi, the site of the 2014 winter Olympics. I find this vaguely plausible but not very likely. Nobody outside Russia (other than a few scholars) really cares about the federal districts. And renaming and reorganizing things doesn’t change the essential geography. No matter what district they’re in, Sochi is still not that far away from places with a bad international reputation, such as Chechnya and Beslan.

It seems more likely that this was done  to increase Moscow’s control of the region, both by making it more geographically focused (and thus hopefully improving governability/control) and by bringing in the right person to take charge.

This brings me to the second question: why Khloponin? While there are some rumors circulating that Dmitry Kozak was offered the position but turned it down, Khloponin nevertheless seems to be ideally suited for the job. He is an outsider who is not beholden to any of the clans that run political and economic life in the district’s republics. This is an absolutely critical factor, as he will have the task of reducing the influence of these elites, who until now have largely traded on the threat of more instability in the region to receive continued financial subventions from the center.

Khloponin is also an excellent manager, with a proven track record both in business (as chief of Norilsk Nickel) and in politics (as governor first of Taimyr okrug and then of Krasnoyarsk — one of Russia’s largest and most economically significant provinces). He has received high marks in both positions and was instrumental in effectively carrying out one of the first regional mergers — by folding Taimyr and Evenk autonomous districts into Krasnoyarsk. He is also not considered a member of either Putin or Medvedev’s teams, thus allowing him to have access to both leaders.

One thing he is not is a general (or a silovik of any kind). Russian papers are speculating that this is a sign that Russian leaders have decided it is time to shift from a policing/counter-insurgency strategy in the North Caucasus to one of hoping that economic development leads to a reduction in violence and an increase in stability. Military and quasi-military operations will still be necessary from time to time, but these will be handled either by provincial leaders (such as Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya) or by existing quasi-military structures (such as the local branches of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Khloponin, on the other hand, will be responsible for overall coordination and particularly for the district’s economic development.

To this end, the unique combination of giving Khloponin the positions of both presidential representative and vice-premier is particularly significant. This allows him access to both President Medvedev and Prime-Minister Putin and puts him in charge of not just the power ministries. As Vice-premier, he will have the authority to give orders to representatives of all federal ministries in the region. The unique nature of the position is also meant to serve as a signal to regional leaders that he is someone with direct access to the top leaders in the Kremlin; in other words, he is someone to be respected and obeyed.

Finally, there is the question of why Piatigorsk was made the capital of the region. This seems fairly straightforward — it is close to all of the regional capitals without actually being one of them. If the capital of the new district was placed in one of the republics, it would give that republic an advantage over the others, something that would not go over well in the region. Placing the capital in the city of Stavropol was possible, but it is farther removed from the republics. Piatigorsk is only an hour or so drive from any of the other capitals in the district. It hosts the Liudmila market, which is a central meeting point for traders from the entire region. And last but not least, it is a resort town, which will make it an attractive place to live for the federal bureaucrats who will now be based there (and also an attractive place to visit for officials from Moscow…).

Overall, this seems to be a very successful decision on the part of Medvedev and Putin, allowing them to reap the benefits of Khloponin’s potential success in the region, while giving them the necessary distance from their new viceroy to lay the blame squarely at his doorstep should things go badly awry.