Monday, October 22, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russian Prosecutors’ Actions Undercut Putin’s Claims on Tatarstan

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 22 – Even as President Vladimir Putin was insisting during his town meeting last week that Tatarstan is “a very good example of the fraternal existence of various cultures and religions,” Russian Federation prosecutors in that Middle Volga republic were behaving in ways that call his words into question.
According to the Tatarstan newspaper “Zvezda Povolzh’ya,” Moscow prosecutors started by conducting a search in the Tatar-Turkish lycees for the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi, whose books have been declared extremist by the Russian courts (
But not finding a single copy of Nursi’s writings, the prosecutors cast their net wider in an operation they called “Strengthening Tolerance.” In fact, it was anything but. The officials demanded that the schools stop teaching physics, mathematics and chemistry in English and using texts published in England or translated from Russian.
Teachers and parents of the students, the paper continued, were “shocked by such obscurantism,” especially because Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev repeatedly has declared that young people in his republic should seek to learn English “to perfection.”
When teachers pointed out that there was no such thing as “Christian” or “Islamic” physics or mathematics, the prosecutors then backed down and said that the Turkish instructors at these lycees did not have the right to teach in English, but then it turned out that their diplomas to do so had been certified by Moscow.
And after learning that, the prosecutors said that nonetheless the lycees could not continue to function because supposedly their registration documents “do not correspond to the latest laws of the State Duma” – although the Moscow officials were not able to specify with which laws these documents did not correspond.
“Zvezda Povol’zhya” concluded that “those from Moscow doing the checking are saying approximately the following: they have given us the task of closing the Tatar-Turkish lycees and we will close them regardless of the facts,” and the paper speculated that all this is a prelude to an attack on Shaimiyev himself.
Putin’s description of the situation in Tatarstan where he said Kazan officials had done the right thing by not tearing down a church to restore a mosque but rather rebuilding the latter next to it and that the Kazan mosque compared favorably with the one in his hometown of St. Petersburg received international coverage.
But the actions of his agents in Kazan at virtually the same time have been ignored, not only because they took place far from the Russian capital but also because they do not correspond to the image of life in the Russian Federation that Putin and his boosters there and in the West want to project.
Unfortunately, as reports from two other events this month have highlighted, this kind of action by Russian officials against Muslims of even the most moderate kind is far from restricted to Tatarstan.
At an OSCE meeting in Cordoba devoted to Islamophobia, Galina Kozhevnikova of the SOVA Center in Moscow said that Muslims in her country increasingly are becoming “the objects of persecution from the side of law enforcement organs and prosecutors” (
The “overwhelming majority” of cases brought against them, she continued, are “fabricated, with the courts generally ignoring such official malfeasance. Equally bad, she said, Russian officials routinely deport citizens of other countries in such cases, “despite the threat of much more severe persecution than in Russia itself.”
And at a Makhachkala session devoted to the human and religious rights situation in Daghestan, visitors from Moscow were provided with overwhelming evidence that Russian officials routinely ignore not only law but also reasonableness in their efforts to crack down on Muslims (
Mamat Baisultanov of Khasavyurt told the visitors about how these officials treated him and his family. Searching for bandits, they broke into his house by mistake, but instead of apologizing and withdrawing, they found guns in the yard, arrested his son and charged him with participating in bandit groups and having ties to Shamil Basayev.
“At the court,” Baisultanov said, “I said look at the date of birth of my son. It turns out that when he was supposed to be fighting with Basayev, he was 11 years old.” After that, the judge dropped “all the charges” except for keeping arms illegally. For that he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Sergei Kovalev, a longtime human rights campaigner at this meeting observeed: “The arbitariness committed by certain law enforcement structures in Daghestan is part of the Russian system. Throughout the country, a tight grouup of FSB officers and generals exists and influences the government” throughout the country.”
If the Russian Federation in general and Daghestan in particular are to have a chance for a better future, that situation needs to change, Kovalev concluded, saying ”We must have a government which does not use the law as a weapon but rather one that is subordinate to it.”

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