Thursday, April 19, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Stavropol ‘Stable Only in the Level of Tension,’ Experts Say

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 19 – Relations among the ethnic and religious communities of Stavropol’ kray, a predominantly Russian region in the northern Caucasus, are tense now and may become more so over the next two years, according to experts who met last week at the request of the Russian Federation’s Southern Federal District.
Its coverage of the meeting this week, “Vecherniy Stavropol’ led with the assertion that “stability in inter-ethnic relations [there] ended together with the USSR” 16 years ago (http://www, and
Now, the paper said, the experts attending the conference said, the situation in the kray regarding both ethnic and religious ties could best be “characterized as stably tense or stably complex” even though much of the tension remains below the surface and thus “hidden” from public view.
This conference attracted officials from the kray committee on nationality affairs, the special services and law enforcement organs there, as well as leaders of religious and social groups, and academic specialists on ethnic and religious affairs. Vasiliy Shnyukov, the head of the kray’s nationality committee, gave the lead speech.
Shnyukov suggested that something new is taking place in Stavropol: participants in various social and economic conflicts are actively seeking to present these fights as ethnic both to avoid responsibility for some of their actions and also to gain support from members of the particular groups involved.
That represents, Shnyukov said, a reversal of the situation up until now when both officials and participants involved in such conflicts sought to play down the ethnic or religious coloration and to present them as simply fights about day-to-day existence, “even if [such conflicts] took place under extremist slogans.
The kray official described the ways in which this had happened over the last few months in struggles between the Cossacks and local Russian administrators over a plant polluting the environment and more typical clashes between Dargins and Armenians in the Kursk region of Stavropol’.
All this makes addressing underlying social and economic issues even more important, Shnyukov argued. Otherwise, there is an all-too-real chance that the current hidden tensions will emerge in ways beyond the capacities of officialdom to contain them.
Other participants in the meeting, the newspaper reported, concluded that the situation was likely to deteriorate somewhat over the next two years. They pointed to three reasons for that. First, the introduction into the region of investments from Moscow was undermining the economic and political relationships in the kray.
Second, the meeting’s participants said, the difference between rapid economic growth in portions of Stavropol’ kray and “the stagnation of neighboring subjects of the Russian Federation” invites immigration from the latter with all the ethnic and religious tensions that seems certain to arise.
And third, plans being discussed in Moscow to create a network of megalopolises in place of the existing political divisions of the country “inevitably contribute to a decline of the importance of other regional centers” not chosen to be the site of such super cities.
In his remarks, Yuriy Skvortsov, the deputy head of the FSB for the kray, noted that “at present the outflow of the indigenous population [Russians] from the eastern and north western districts of the kray was continuing,” something that also was making the situation there ever more “complex.”
And to the extent that the ethnic Russians seek to “defend their spiritual and cultural interests,” other smaller groups will inevitably view this “as a manifestation of the representatives of the titular nation” to themselves and react by asserting their own national and religious values.
Up to now, Skvortsov continued, the authorities have been able to keep the situation in hand through the regular use of their police powers, but that situation may not continue because as the newspaper put it “it turns out that even the special services here find their hands tied.”
According to the FSB official, his officers often cannot root out extremism because Russian laws do not define the Internet as part of the mass media and thus subject to regulation and because existing legislation does not define key terms, including Wahhabism and other kinds of extremism.
The paper reported that “it turns out that from the center have come recommendations in general not to use the word “Wahhabism” in describing extremist manifestations” any more. The reason? Because Moscow in recent months has sought to ally itself with countries “where Wahhabism is a state religion.”
Among other participants at the meeting was Mukhammad Khadzhi Rakhimov, a Pyatigorsk imam. He too indicated he was worried about religious tensions and instability in Stavropol’. But intriguingly, he argued that many officials are focusing on the wrong problem and in the wrong way.
According to Rakhimov, the real threat within Islam in the kray comes not from Wahhabi-type radicals but rather from Sufi muridism that transforms its followers into “zombis” who will carry out any order without regard to its consequences for themselves or their society.
The secular authorities, including the law enforcement bodies, simply do not know enough or “have the levers for a broad gage opposition to the introduction of this dangerous ideology.” And consequently, he called for the establishment of a local muftiate (Muslim spiritual directorate) to take charge of this effort.
But even as he argued that Muslims must be put in charge of controlling Muslims, Rakhimov said that the authorities must play their part in preventing the radicalization of society by not so unqualifiedly supporting Russian Orthodox Christian congregations against the followers of Islam.
At the end of this two-part article, Elena Pavlova, the “Vecherniy Stavropol’” journalist, concluded: “New laws are necessary in order to ensure “that freedom of conscience is not transformed into freedom from conscience” and the belief that no one will be punished for anything.
“Such ‘freedom’" as now on offer, she argues in language consistent with the views of at least some of the participants at the meeting she covered, “is an impermissible luxury under conditions when a struggle is going on for the hearts and mind of people. A struggle for the future of the country.”

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