Vienna, June 8 – Despite its pledges to fight Islamist movements and its expanded “anti-extremism” measures, the Russian government has adopted policies that make the rise of Islamist extremism in the center of the country increasingly likely, a situation that has led one analyst to conclude that the authorities are “losing control” over Moscow and other major Russian cities.
And this situation is especially dangerous because with regard to three major policy initiatives, the Russian authorities appear to believe that what they are doing will have exactly the opposite effect, an attitude that makes it less likely that the powers that be will change course before the situation gets out of hand.
First, under pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists of almost all stripes, the authorities have generally refused to allow more mosques to open in Russian cities (as opposed to rural areas where many have) even though the number of Muslims in many urban areas has grown rapidly since the end of the Soviet period.
Thus, in Moscow, the number of officially registered mosques has increased only from four to five since Soviet times while the number of Muslims has risen from less than 100,000 to more than 2.5 million, and in St. Petersburg, the number of registered mosques has gone up from one to two, even though the number of Muslims has increased from 15,000 to one million.
As a result, by deferring to the church and nationalist sentiment, the Russian government has effectively opened the way to unofficial Muslim groups, many of whose members are either more radical to begin with or who become so as a result of the secrecy and sense of official persecution they experience.
Second, in its drive to build Vladimir Putin’s “power vertical,” the Russian government has dismissed or undermined officials who have proven more adept at dealing with Islamic groups and has signaled its intent to reduce the freedom of action of the governments of non-Russian regions across the country.
On the one hand, Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov has been very successful in blocking the rise of Islamist movement in his republic, but now because of his criticism of Moscow, he is likely to be expelled from United Russia and thus out of a job. It is unlikely that his successor will be as effective in that regard (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=185561).
And on the other, a speech prepared by Valery Tishkov, the influential director of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology, which calls into question the whole notion of “ethnic territories,” suggests that the Russian government may resume Putin’s program of amalgamating federal units (www.valerytishkov.ru/cntnt/novye_publikacii/vatishkov_.html).
If that happens, not only will it anger many non-Russians (and some Russians as well), but it will open the door for Islamic radicals to play on this discontent. Indeed, the radicals are certain to argue that only they and not some new, Moscow-installed ethnic leaders can defend and advance the interests of historically Islamic peoples.
And third, Russian officials, especially in Moscow where they are more closely observed by Western embassies and journalists, have been reluctant to move as harshly as they have earlier and elsewhere against public actions by North Caucasian diasporas lest such actions trigger an even broader problem.
In the name of “tolerance," Sergey Mikheyev of the Moscow Center of Political Technologies says, the authorities regularly put up with actions, including the use of guns, by these groups that the powers that be would never stand still for if any other group, including ethnic Russians, engaged in (www.politcom.ru/8272.html).
That has led the North Caucasians, many of whom are Muslims, to feel that they are a law unto themselves and that they can continue to cultivate hostility to the Russian population, promote their “group interests at any price,” and push “religious radicalism and the ideas of, separatism,” at little risk.
The failure of the government to suppress such actions, Mikheyev continues, has radicalized ethnic Russians, contributing to the rise of xenophobia or even “neo-Nazism” and is thus “inevitably leading to the loss of strategic control over the situation in the capital” and perhaps in the country as a whole.
Mikheyev’s comments may overstate the risk at present, but there is another risk that is all too real: Those in Moscow who would like to adopt an even more authoritarian course than the Russian government has up to now may welcome the chance to invoke the threat of Islamist extremism as justification, knowing that will play well in Russia and abroad.