Vienna, April 18 – The continuing fallout from the dismissal of the political advisor to the president of Tatarstan and yesterday’s suspension of the deputy mufti there for urging Muslims to burn books Moscow has declared extremist point to an upsurge in political and religious radicalism in a region Russians have long viewed as stable.
This week, Rafael Khakimov, the advocate of genuine federalism and moderate EuroIslam who was fired at the Kremlin’s assistance after 18 years as political advisor to Tatarstan’s President Mintimir Shaimiyev, gave an interview and published an article in Moscow, neither of whose contents can be welcome to the Russian government.
In his interview, Khakimov made it clear that Moscow continues to manifest what he called its “imperial instinct” while republics like Tatarstan have created systems that protect the rights of individuals groups and open the way for a better and more international future (http://www.apn.ru/opinions/article19741.htm).
Unfortunately, the Kazan historian said, the historical record suggests that empires must first be destroyed down to the ground before they can be replaced with real federations, the only political arrangement that allows governments to take into consideration all the richness and variety within major countries.
Indeed, he continued, it is no accident that most successful major states and all but one of the G-8 countries is a federation and that the one that isn’t – France – operates on the principle of legal subsidiarity, which includes many features that would be described as federalism in other countries.
If it is to succeed, Khakimov said, Russia must remain a federation too. Yeltsin “intuitively” understood that when he told Tatarstan and the other republics to “take as much sovereignty as you can handle.” Unfortunately, he continued, Yeltsin’s successors have not built on that understanding and have moved in the wrong direction.
That not only has prevented the country and the republics from achieving all that they could, the Kazan historian said, but it has also created a situation that may prove fateful, even fatal for the center. When the republics had real power as Tatarstan did in the 1990s, it had to take responsibility for itself, something not easy but valuable.
But when it lost power in this decade, Tatarstan and its people have simply blamed Moscow for what is wrong, something that contributed to centrifugal forces that are already being fed by the sad reality that today “all Russian political parties” continue to act under the influence of the Soviet-era Communist Party system.
Just what conclusions he and other thoughtful Tatars are drawing from that, Khakimov made clear in his own article, published in Moscow yesterday. In it, he attacked Moscow even more sharply and came very close to suggesting that Tatarstan must go its own separate way (http://www.apn.ru/publications/article19778.htm).
In the last decade, he wrote, Russia has been falling behind the most advanced countries of the world, confident in its belief that earnings from the export of raw materials will be enough to sustain it as a superpower. But that assumption is profoundly and dangerously wrong, as many in Tatarstan already understand.
What is needed, Khakimov argued, is greater investment in the knowledge economy, in people who will be inventive and clever. And if the Russian Federation as a whole is not prepared to do that, then each republic should. And Tatarstan must be prepared to make the shift from raw materials exporter to creator of knowledge.
The most important first step in that direction, Khakimov suggested, is to master English. Knowing Tatar and Russian is not enough in today’s world. Everyone must know English because the most important intellectual productions are published in that language.
Those “who master English will always be a step ahead,” he insisted, and consequently, English, not Tatar and not Russian, “must become the working language of the republic. That will allow Tatarstan to stand on its own and “find its place as a state formation not only in the Russian Federation but in Europe and also in Asia.”
Indeed, Khakimov concluded, “the historic place of Tatarstan” and its uniquely tolerant religion EuroIslam, a trend that he argued has insisted for centuries, must be in the closest possible cooperation with the countries of Eurasia and the structures of Europe.”
Three things are striking about Khakimov’s remarks this week. First, they are more radical than even the outspoken ideologue of federalism has been in the past, a reflection of his anger and frustration about being fired by Shaimiyev under pressure from the Kremlin.
Second, instead of joining the Russian opposition as he said he would do right after being fired, Khakimov is positioning himself as a critic of the entire Russian political system, a stand that will contribute to a deeper divide between Moscow and Kazan than has existed for many years.
And third, now that he is out of government, Khakimov – who remains director of the Kazan Institute of History –is certain to speak out ever more forcefully and thus mobilize opinion not only in Tatarstan but elsewhere in the Russian Federation as well, something he has been constrained from doing since 1991.
Consequently, those in Moscow may rue the day that they decided to demand that Shaimiyev fire Khakimov, a step that may have brought them short-term satisfaction as a demonstration of their power but one that almost certainly will undermine the very basis of Moscow’s authority in Tatarstan and elsewhere as well.
But a second personnel change in Kazan this week, one that Moscow did not orchestrate but unintentionally set the stage for, may prove equally fateful, because it shows that the Muslim establishment in Tatarstan is prepared to take a high profile action directly at odds with Moscow’s demands.
On Thursday, the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan took the unprecedented step of suspending Valiulla Yakupov, the first deputy mufti who has often been its intellectual spokesman for, in the words of Interfax, for calling on the faithful “to observe Russian law.” (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=24004).
Nineteen leading Muslim figures in Tatarstan demanded that Yakupov be punished in this way for calling on believers to destroy books that Russian courts and the Russian government have determined as “extremist” and perhaps especially for comparing the contents of some of them to that of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
Akhmad Khalikov, the Tatarstan MSD press secretary, said that the Muslim leaders had called on Valiulla to apologize for what he had said and voluntarily retire from his position as first deputy chairman of the MSD. But Valiulla apparently was not prepared to do either, and so a compromise – suspension until 2010 – was agreed upon. (www.kommersant.ru/region/kazan/page.htm?year=2008&issue=66&id=256829§ion=7258).
Most Muslims in Russia and elsewhere oppose Moscow’s ban on Islamic works, arguing that the authorities there do not know what they are doing. And even more object to burning or otherwise destroying these books lest believers inadvertently destroy the words of the Koran or the Prophet, something they view as sinful.
Debate about this has filled Muslim periodicals, websites, and homilies for the last several months. But no one has gone as far to meet Russian government demands for the destruction of these books and periodicals as Valiulla did – and now his Muslim colleagues have punished him for it.
That sends a very clear message that the Muslims of Tatarstan, traditionally the most moderate followers of Islam in the Russian Federation, are not prepared to be moderate about this. And to the extent Moscow continues its effort to ban books, it will almost certainly lead more of the Muslim leaders there to harden their position.
If that kind of Muslim radicalism links up with the political radicalism that Khakimov’s latest words suggest – a combination that is increasingly easy to imagine in the case of Tatarstan – that could prove an explosive mix, one that could threaten Moscow’s control not only of that Middle Volga republic but of much else besides.