Thursday, March 13, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia May Soon Become a Full Member of the Islamic Conference

Paul Goble

Baku, March 13 – The Russian Federation may soon become a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) if proposed changes in that organizations charter are approved, a development that would entail profound consequences for the OIC, for Russian foreign policy and for Muslims inside the Russian Federation.
At a meeting in Senegal this week of the foreign ministers of the OIC countries, that organization’s general secretary announced that member states have been asked to approve some radical changes in the organization’s institutional structure and requirements for membership (
Under the new rules, the group, organized in 1972 and now including 57 Muslim-majority countries, would thus be open to states where Muslims are minorities, if two-thirds of the current countries approved. Among the first states in that category likely to be admitted, if these still controversial measures go through, is the Russian Federation.
Moscow has had observer status at the OIC since 2005, and two senior officials this week signaled that the Russian government would like to have still closer ties with the group. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the Dakar sessions.
And on the other, Valery Blatov, spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said that Russia wants even closer ties with the OIC than it has now and has even included a section to that effect in its new concept paper on Russian foreign policy
Many factors are currently pushing Russia in the direction of closer cooperation with the Muslim world in general and OIC in particular. First of all, both Moscow and the Muslim world now view the West as the enemy, and thus they have a vested interest in cooperating on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Second, Russian leaders clearly see the declining fortunes of the United States in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore and even increase Russia’s influence in a region that ever more Russian commentators have identified as central to Russian geopolitical interests.
And third, Russia itself has a growing Muslim population of its own. Demonstrating the Kremlin’s interest in ties with the larger Muslim world is thus politically useful domestically and even more a way to direct the actions of Russia’s Muslims toward foreign policy initiatives Moscow would like to see advanced.
(For a useful survey of these and other factors currently pushing Moscow in the direction of expanded contacts with the Muslim world in general and the OIC in particular, see the 2500-word article devoted to this question with appended sources at
If the OIC does agree to include the Russian Federation as a member – and this step appears highly likely although not yet certain – that move will affect everyone involved. Most immediately, it will likely lead the OIC itself to be increasingly outspoken against the West.
At the Dakar foreign ministers’ meeting, OIC members condemned “certain Western countries” but not Russia for failing to combat Islamophobia, even though few Western countries have as bad a track record in that regard as does Vladimir Putin’s regime (
At the same time, the inclusion of the Russian Federation as a member of the OIC and the possibilities that would offer for its foreign policy almost certainly would contribute to a further tilt in the direction of neo-Eurasianism, the view that Russia, as a special case, must combine Orthodox and Muslim values.
That could create some problems domestically among Russians who view this idea as a not so subtle attack on the centrality of the Orthodox Church or on Russia as a European country, and it would certainly exacerbate tensions with Western countries that would see such a Russian self-definition as fundamentally antagonistic to Western values.
Perhaps the most paradoxical impact of Russian membership in the OIC, however, would be on that country’s more than 25 million Muslims. Most of the Faithful there would immediately and overwhelmingly welcome this step, seeing it as a confirmation that the Russian leadership views them as an important partner.
But at the same time, Russian membership would certainly lead many of Russia’s Muslims to demand better treatment and a larger place in Russian life because they would be able to argue that unless Moscow treats them well, it will find it difficult to advance its interests in the Islamic world.
And consequently, what Moscow and the OIC states are almost certainly viewing exclusively as a foreign policy question likely would have an answer whose domestic consequences inside the Russian Federation almost certainly would be far greater, all the more so for being unrecognized and unplanned.

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