Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Muslims Seen Moving into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Changing Religious Balance in Both

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 3 – Russia’s military and political actions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are likely to have another unintended consequence: they are likely to make it easier and more attractive for Muslim émigrés from the North Caucasus to return there and change the ethno-religious balance not only in these two republics but in the region more generally.
At present, Muslims constitute approximately 35 percent of the populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but both Muslim leaders there and analysts in Moscow say that the new situation which has arisen in the wake of Russia’s moves in Georgia is certain to increase that figure, possibly to the tipping point of more than 50 percent.
In an interview given to “NZ-Religii” and published today, Timur Dzyba, the mufti of Abkhazia, said that Muslims in his republic – including Abkhaz, North Caucasians, Tatars, Bashkirs and Turks – have been able to maintain their share of the population in recent times but now expect to expand it (
In the 19th century, he noted, the tsarist authorities expelled “a significant part of the Abkhaz-Abaza population.” Nows, perhaps as many as 500,000 Abkhaz live abroad, as well as many of the five million strong Circassian communities there who view themselves as closely related to the Abkhaz and who have celebrated Sukhumi’s declaration of independence.
After the war in 1992-93, the mufti continued, the Abkhaz authorities established a Committee for the Repatriation of the Abkhaz, and over the past 15 years, more than 1,000 have returned. But now, the mufti said, far more are likely to do so as the republic’s economy improves and as transportation ties with Turkey expand.
Contacts between Abkhazia and the Abkhaz of Turkey are expanding rapidly, he said, and as a result, “repatriation will become more intense,” with visa problems reduced to a minimum and the government in Sukhumi actively interested in developing its ties with Turkey and boosting the size of its population.
Dzyba insisted that relations between Muslims and Christians in Abkhazia are good, that those returning are not going to be informed by the events of the 19th century – “times have changed” – and that the expanding Muslim population will not lead to demands that Muslims play a larger role in the government offices in Sukhumi.
One reason for his confidence in this regard, the mufti pointed out, is that Abkhazia’s Muslims have developed ties with the traditional Muslim leaders of the Russian Federation. And another is that the level of religious knowledge and activity among the Muslim community in Abkhazia remains low.
But even as he invoked this as a reason for believing that an increase in the percentage of Muslims there will not destabilize the situation, the Islamic leader said that he hoped that the influx of Abkhaz and other groups from abroad, many of whom are more deeply religious than the Abkhaz in Abkhazia have been, would lead to a rebirth of Islam there.
Meanwhile, in a comment to the website, Andrey Gusev argued that the religious balance in South Ossetia is also set to change under the new circumstances, as a result of both immigration and the activities of the mufti of North Ossetia, Ali-haji Yevsteyev, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam (
Saying that “it is difficult to predict” whether the Islamic factor will grow in Abkhazia as a result of immigration, Gusev said that “in Ossetia (North and South), it is obviously doing so.” Immigration and demographic factors are increasing the share of Muslims there, but far more important is the work of Mufti Yevsteyev.
“A product of a mixed Russian-Ossetin family which professed Orthodoxy,” Gusev noted, “Yevsteyev is well educated (he has degrees from two Muslim universities) and is the first mufti directly elected by believers and not by the [Russian government-backed] Islamic-bureaucratic” structures.
That has given him enormous authority locally, something that has allowed him to stand up to the political authorities but also a quality has attracted some negative reviews from Russian commanders and officials on the scene and from the heads of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) in neighboring republics.
Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchate has not been willing to accept Orthodox parishes in the two breakaway republics, despite requests from both places. It does not want to create a precedent that church borders should follow political ones, a notion Kyiv would be happy to deploy against Moscow (

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