Sunday, February 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Tatars Use Russian Interregnum to Push for Legalization of Waqfs

Paul Goble

Baku, February 17 – Legislators in Tatarstan are taking advantage of uncertainties from the upcoming change in the Russian presidency to press for the legalization of waqf properties, a move that President Vladimir Putin has opposed but that his handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev may be more inclined to support.
And while this particular case is perhaps a marginal one, it calls attention to the possibility that the Tatars and other groups elsewhere in the Russian Federation are likely to use what many see as a kind of interregnum during this transfer of officials if not of power in order to explore whether the limits Moscow has imposed on them might change.
To the extent they do so, such efforts may help to define a shift in Moscow’s course on some issues after Medvedev assumes office, even if he remains publicly committed to the Putin Plan and Putin remains the effective power behind the throne in the Kremlin.
Last week, the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Nationality Questions of the Tatarstan Republic State Council discussed a protest from the republic’s prosecutor that certain provisions of a republic law permitting waqfs – property whose income supports Muslim activities – contradict Russian Federation legislation.
According to the prosecutors, federal law governs all property relations in the country, Russian codes make no reference to waqfs, and consequently Kazan exceeded its powers when it introduced the term and legalized the practice for Tatarstan via a republic law in 1999.
But in the words of Vechernyaya Kazan’ yesterday, “with the principled part of the protest, the deputies could not agree and put off its consideration [until they can find out] what Dmitry Medvedev, the candidate for president of the Russian Federation, will say on this issue” (
The committee’s chairman, Ravil’ Valeyev, told the group that he believed Medvedev might have a different point of view that that of the prosecutors. “When Medvedev visited Kazan and the Russian Islamic University in November 2007, he agreed to discuss this question,” Ravil pointed out.
Shortly thereafter, when Russian Federation prosecutors raised their objections to the Tatarstan law, Guzman-khazrat Iskhakov, the chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan and the Rafik Mukhametshin, the rector of the Russian Islamic University, sent Medvedev a letter, the paper reported.
The two pointed out that waqf properties could be included without difficulty in federal land and tax laws by equating such holdings with the existing legal regulation of Orthodox Church monastery property, an argument that Muslim leaders have made repeatedly since 1991.
That view appears to have the support of the executive branch of the Tatarstan government. Renat Valiullin, the chairman of the Council on the Affairs of Religious Organizations of the Tatarstan Republic’s Council of Ministers, suggested he backs such amendments to federal legislation.
He noted that “today the state is interested in the development of traditional religions. It seems to me that such an amendment to the law ought to go forward. For even in the Russian Empire, although it was an Orthodox empire, the word ‘waqf’ was included in state documents.”
The major reason that the restoration of waqf property is so controversial is that it would make many of the often financially hard-pressed Muslim communities in the country far more independent, something that some MSD leaders and many Russian officials fear.
But the most important aspect of this case is not what it says about the legalization of waqfs but rather what it indicates about the way in which political discussions are likely to proceed over the next several months as Putin departs and, formally at least, Medvedev and his team assume office.

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