Thursday, November 1, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Is the Kremlin Worried about a Muslim Boycott of Elections?

Paul Goble

Destin, FL, October 31 – This week, the Inter-Religious Council of Russia took the unusual step of publicly declaring that anyone who does not vote in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections is taking a step that is not only “criminal” but threatening to the future of the country.
The Council which unites the so-called “traditional” religions of Russia – Orthodox Christians, traditional Muslims, Jews and Buddhists – posted this declaration on the website of the state Central Election Commission, from which other media outlets have picked it up (
On the one hand, this statement probably reflects no more than the kind of public-spirited action that the authorities expect from this group. After all, the council added that it was calling on all political parties to avoid inflammatory statements about religion and nationality and to relate to these issues “especially delicately.”
But on the other, there is at least one clear indication that some in the Muslim community, angered by the increasingly nationalistic and anti-Islamic attitudes of the major Russian parties, are considering a possible call for a boycott, something that the Kremlin certainly would not want to see happen.
During a roundtable discussion on “Islamophobia in Russia: the Role of the Force Structures, Elections and the Media” last week, Orkhan Dzhemal, an outspoken Muslim journalist and deputy editor of Smysl’, said that Muslims were now forced to consider not voting in order to put pressure on those in power.
As things stand now in Russia, he said, “We cannot create an Islamic party, and we cannot form a non-Russian party.” But that does not mean, he continued, that the more than 20 million Muslims in Russia do not have “other methods of defending [their] interests” (
And saying the time for just talking was past, he added “Only pressure, only a firm position within the law can force our opponents to compromise. Let’s set ourselves this task: until parties include in their programs sections on internationalism and on struggling with Islamophobia, we will work for a boycott of the elections in the regions.”
None of the other panelists at this session joined him in this call, but Dzhemal is both clever and influential. Ant he defended his position as being in the interests not only of Muslims but of Russians as well, however poorly the latter may understand this at the time.
“If we allow Islamophobic and xenophobic attitudes to develop,” he said, then sooner or later” parts of Russia will fall away just as the non-Russian republics did in 1991. And that would be a disaster for everyone because it would transform Russia from its status as “one of the key powers of Eurasia” into a petty state.
Indeed, if Russian nationalism of the anti-Islamic variety continues to grow, then, Dzhemal suggested, “Russia could become Georgia, Belarus or Pakistan. It is possible that this would not be a bad state but …[think what it would mean in terms of] status. The sense of statehood would suffer!”
On the basis of public opinion polls, it would seem that a far greater threat to high levels of participation in the upcoming elections is widespread public indifference arising in many cases from the growing sense that voting is irrelevant because everything has been decided behind the scenes.
But if there is one thing that President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated again and again it is this: he does not like to leave much to chance. And consequently, it is entirely possible that he sought to enlist the country’s religious leadership to get out the vote, lest a possible election boycott by a few Muslims undermine the image he wishes to project.

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