Monday, March 26, 2007

Window on Eurasia: What Kind of Muslim Country Will Russia Become?

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 26 – Projections published last week by a Czech commentator and a Russian demographer that Muslims in 2050 will constitute more than half of the population on the territory of what is now the Russian Federation have sparked a variety of reactions debate in Moscow.
Not surprisingly, most people have rejected these projections as exaggerations, but intriguingly, several have taken them seriously enough to ask what such a demographic shift would in fact mean for the peoples of the region and whether there is anything the Russian government can or should do to block it. (For a general survey of Russian opinion on this issue, see the article, "Will Russia Become Islamic?" in the March 20 "Komsomolskaya Pravda," online at
On March 20, a Russian agency translated an article by Roman Joch from the Czech newspaper “MF Dnes” ( Entitled “The Russians are Dying Out – and Lying as Well,” Joch’s essay advanced three arguments few Russians could be expected to be comfortable about.
First, this essay suggested that the Russians were “lying” by claiming that the opening of an American radar station in the Czech Republic and of ten American rockets in Poland in any way represent a threat to the Russian Federation, which as Joch points out have more than 780 vehicles capable of delivering 5700 nuclear weapons.
Instead, the Joch continued, the limited American presence in these countries is intended to protect the region from attacks by “the small number of rockets which can be launched” toward it “from the Middle East.” Moscow “knows that it is lying when it calls this Western system of defense a threat.”
Second, it insisted that the current Russian government has failed to acknowledge the more immeidate problem that “Russia is dying out.” Because of low birthrates, high rates of abortion, declining life expectancies among men, and the spread of various diseases including HIV/AIDS, Russia’s population is declining rapidly.
Over the next few years, the article continues, Moscow is likely to find it increasingly difficult to retain control of the rapidly depopulating but resource rich regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East and may in fact consider NATO membership for itself in order to prevent the loss of these regions to China.
And third -- and most provocatively -- the article suggests that the demographic decline of ethnic Russians, the continuing growth among Muslim groups there, and increasing immigration into the Russian Federation mean that by 2050, Russia will be a predominantly Muslim country.”
Moreover, Joch writes, this problem is already beginning to have an effect. Already, he says a quarter of Moscow’s residents are Muslim and even more ominously “only eight years from now,” a majority of soldiers in the Russian military will be Muslim.
Joch asks: “What will this lead do? To a quiet and peaceful transformation into a multi-cultural but to a large degree Islamic society? To a civil war like the one in Bosnia but on a much grander scale? To an Islamic military coup? [Or] to growing separatism of the Chechen kind?”
The Czech writer concludes with the following lines: “In 1571, the Muslim Crimean Tatars burned Moscow. It is possible that on the 500th anniversary of this event, the capital of Russia will no longer be Moscow but Bakhchisarai, the onetime capital of the Crimean khanate. And Russia then will not be called Russia.”
At almost the same time, Anatoliy Antonov, a demographer at the Moscow International Academy of Prognostication, said many of the same things about the demographic future of the Russian Federation, albeit in a more restrained and less dramatic way (
While Antonov suggested that Moscow has some options to affect these trends – by building different kinds of housing, conducting a pro-natalist policy, and even supporting religious belief, which he said would boost the birthrate – his conclusion was if anything even more bleak from a Russian perspective than that of the Czech writer.
If the Russian government does not move and move quickly to increase the birthrate among Russians – and any steps it takes won’t have a major effect until 2040 -- Antonov continued, then “by 2060, the population of Russia will be about 60 million, of whom half will consist of immigrants, their children and grandchildren.”
Given that most of these new immigrants will be from post-Soviet Muslim countries and that Muslims now living in the Russian Federation are by virtue of their higher birthrates certain to increase their share of the population as well, Antonov’s conclusions also point to a “Muslim Russia” by the middle of this century.
Projections like those of Joch and Antonov have been made before, but in almost every case, Russian writers have almost unanimous dismissed them as wildly inaccurate, with various Russian officials and academics insisting that there is no chance that the Russian Federation will become Muslim at any time.
Not surprisingly, some commentators have reacted the same way to these latest projections, but what is interesting now is that three very different Moscow-based sources have discussed the possibility of a “Muslim Russia” relatively calmly and even asked whether such a country might work to Moscow’s advantage.
The first, the “Russkaya Liniya” site, one whose Orthodox and Russian nationalist positions could have been expected to denounce the Czech author (and Antonov as well), reported what Joch had written almost without comment, noting only that not all demographers agree with him (
The second, Nataliya Royeva, a member of the editorial Council of ForumMSK, acknowledged that if current demographic trends do continue it is completely possible that the Russian state will lose control of the Far East and itself become an Islamic country (
Many people, Royeva acknowledged, consider that such a “Rusistan” would be the “greatest evil” possible to imagine, but some people, she said, have a different view and “do not see any tragedy in this,” either in the immediate future or over the longer term.
At the very least, members of this latter group recognize that the Tatars can hardly be blamed for the fact that “under approximately the same conditions, Russian women give birth to fewer children and Russian men drink more?” Nor should the Chechens be denounced because Muscovites won’t do the jobs that Muslim immigrants will.
And she suggests that those who seek to put all the blame on Muslims for these developments is a manifestation of the rising tide of Islamophobia in Russia, a trend that itself “is the most effective means of provoking the collapse and liquidation of the Russian Federation.”
But it is a third observation along these lines that is the most intriguing. At a seminar organized last week by the upper house of the Russian parliament argued that Russia’s “multi-national and poly-confessional nature” gave the country “a competitive advantage” internationally (
While some participants worried about the consequences of immigration – according to one expert, more than one of every 15 residents of the Russian Federation is an immigrant – others suggested that Moscow not only should but could integrate them into Russian society and Russian culture.
One of the best means of doing so, Rafgat Altynbayev, the deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on Federation Affairs and Regional Policies, said, would be to create institutions in all Russian cities like the Moscow House of Nationalities.
Although that goes against the position taken a few weeks ago by Valeriy Tishkov, the director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and the chairman of the Social Council’s commission on tolerance, that help the Russian authorities to view immigrants not as a dangerous threat as a valuable resource.
And another speaker at this meeting, Sergei Gradirovskiy, who directs the Middle Volga Federal District’s Center for Strategic Analysis, seconded that view, arguing that Moscow should stop obsessing about “the struggle with illegal” immigrants and focus instead on creating a genuine “political nation.”
By accepting migration as inevitable given population declines among ethnic Russians, Gradirovskiy said, the Russian government will thus improve the country’s chances of being able to “maintain itself on the largest territory in the world”
Polls suggest that most Russians would reject these positions, but the fact that they are being advanced especially in the wake of the article in the Czech media represents an important straw in the wind, one that could point to a very different direction for Moscow’s policies in the future.