Vienna, December 10 -- A senior FSB counter-intelligence officer says that the intelligence services of Western and Islamic countries are competing for influence among Russia's Muslims, a comment that suggests Moscow may now be prepared to use espionage charges not only against those Muslim groups it has identified as extremist but also against Muslims who like the government oppose the extremists.
Up to now, Russian officials, including those in the security services, have said that they believe that most Muslims in the Russian Federation are on their side and oppose the extremists, but this statement opens the possibility that even those who oppose the groups Moscow does not like could face charges that they are working with foreign intelligence agencies, some of whose governments also oppose the extremists.
That opens two dangerous possibilities. On the one hand, this risk means that extremist groups may find it easier to recruit from among the moderates. After all, the radicals can argue, in the new and increasingly authoritarian and arbitrary environment of Vladimir Putin's Russia, moderate Muslims have less to lose by doing so than they may have thought.
And on the other, outside groups, including human and religious rights activists, journalists, businessmen and even tourists who some Russian officials believe work as agents of their governments are likely to find themselves under even tighter scrutiny and even greater restrictions, something that will effectively throw a cover over what officials in Muslim areas far from Moscow may feel free to do.
On Friday, the Moscow newspaper, Rossiiskaya gazeta, quoted the words of Rustem Ibragimov, the head of the counter-intelligence department of the FSB Administration for Bashkortostan., on the way in which his agency views the activities of foreign intelligence services in Muslim regions like the one in which he works (http://www.interfax-religion.ru/print.php?act=news&id=21818).
Because Ibragimov's argument has been repeated by other Russian news outlets, guaranteeing that it will reach a large audience, and because it appears to be more than the usual effort of such agencies either to posit a threat justifying larger budgets for themselves or to frighten local officials into working more closely with them, the remarks of this senior FSB officer merit close attention.
"Along with other Muslim regions of Russia," he said, Bashkortostan in the Middle
Volga "has become an arena of struggle [of the intelligence services of the West and of Muslim countries] for a division of spheres of influence." And he suggested that these services have already achieved some notable successes in doing just that.
"Using the interest of both government structures and business in attracting investment, such guests frequently attempt to tie the outcomes of inter-governmental cooperation to the level of influence of Muslim clergy on the social-political processes in the republic," Ibragimov continued. And in the process, representatives of these services develop direct contacts with local people.
"The special services of these states are trying to create and strengthen their positions in the circles of the local political elite and major business and to influence the rising generation. [Indeed, he says] in a number of cases, their behavior goes beyond the bounds of the neutral collection of information" and is designed to affect the ideological outlook of Muslims in these regions.
And he concludes that it is precisely this "competition among various foreign religious centers" and the intelligence services with which they are associated that is "one of the many destabilizing factors in the Muslim community of [Bashkortostan] and other [predominantly Muslim] regions of the Russian Federation."
While some may be inclined to dismiss Ibragimov's remarks as overly dramatic and this reading of them as a worst case scenario, in the current environment in the Russian Federation, both officials and many Muslims are certain to think about these possibilities either on their own or because extremist elements within the Islamic community will point them out.
And consequently, at the very least, his observation is likely to increase tensions between Muslims and the Russian authorities -- at least until there is some indication that the Kremlin will conclude that both Ibragimov and his statement need to be disowned lest they create a situation even more threatening to the Russian government than the one it now faces.