Russia is determined to assert itself in Central Asia and the Caucasus by using its former puppets to advance its agenda. Some republics offer better prospects than others.
Throughout history — from ancient to contemporary — the Russian State with its changing borders has been defined by its conflict with Muslims. From the late-1700s to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the more recent ongoing war in Chechnya and the larger Caucasus region, the Russian encounter with Muslims has been violent and imperialist in its essence. Today Moscow’s primary policies on Islam and Muslims can be divided into two broad categories: 1) Muslims and Islam within the Russian borders and, 2) Muslims and Islam in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Relations with Muslims in all other parts of the world are at least partly derived from these two main classifications. For Muslims, it is therefore, necessary to analyze the ongoing processes and potential future developments between Russia and Muslims.
Inside Russia’s borders, the government has to deal with the issue of separatism and the presence of a large number of Muslim migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus. In one form or another, Muslims living inside the borders of Russia have expressed a tendency toward separatism. In the case of Tatarstan this phenomenon is expressed in a mild form.
Twenty years ago (1992), 61.4% of Tatars voted for their republic’s sovereignty from Russia. In order to accommodate the separatist sentiment, Moscow in 1994 granted Tatarstan special status within the Russia federation. The Kremlin also allowed Mintemir Shaimiev, Moscow’s former regional Communist vassal, to privatize the leading political office in Tatarstan for over a decade. The 1994, the treaty between Kazan and Moscow gave Tatarstan symbolic state sovereignty. For example, Tatarstan Republic is the only region in Russia whose leader is addressed as “President of the Tatarstan Republic.” Since 2006, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gradually clawed back most autonomous features from Tatarstan through legislative or court rulings, and sometimes by direct executive order.
In the case of Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus the phenomenon of separatism has expressed itself more dramatically. Since 1994, Russia has faced a war of varying intensity. The conflict in the North Caucasus will not be resolved soon, as Moscow has no political will or credibility to launch an authentic political resolution process. According to analysts at the Russian newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta,
…in the past three to four years nearly one quarter of the Russian military budget was spent on the militarization of the North Caucasus and the adjacent areas. In 2012, ahead of all of Russia’s other military districts, the Southern Military District (Caucasus) upgraded its equipment.
According to the government’s military spending plans, nearly $30 billion will be spent for military and security improvements in the Southern Military District, which is ten times more than government funds allocated for economic development of the North Caucasus.
On the migrant workers’ front, Moscow also views harsh security and political methods as a primary policy choice. In February 2013, Moscow’s municipal authorities announced the creation of a volunteer squad to help track down illegal migrants, a move that will certainly open the door to abuse and violence against Muslim migrants.
While in purely economic terms Russia needs migrant workers, socio-politically the presence of a large number of Muslims in Moscow and other cities is a challenge to Russia due to its own rapidly declining population and growing number of Russian Muslim converts. Unfortunately in Russia the government links the demographic question to socio-political issues revolving around Muslim presence in Russia. Whenever Muslim-Russian relations are analyzed, it is always mentioned that according to the recent census (2010), “ethnic Muslims” who are Russian citizens, number approximately 16 million, excluding immigrants from Central Asia and Azerbaijan, many of whom enter Russia illegally. This approach involuntarily attaches a xenophobic aspect to Muslim-Russian relations within Russia.
In the Russian political lexicon countries of the former USSR are identified as the near abroad. Moscow views the countries of the former Soviet Union as its strategic and privileged sphere of influence. Developments in Central Asia and South Caucasus will be crucial factors in determining what happens between Muslims in Russia and the government in Moscow. That is why Russia will do its outmost to make sure that the Islamic movement in Central Asia or the Caucasus does not become powerful and if it does, it will have to seek a compromise with Moscow.
The primary strength of Russian influence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus lies in the fact that the ruling elites in these regions comprise remnants of the Soviet bureaucracy, known in Russian political vocabulary as nomenklatura. In the case of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, the connection to Soviet bureaucracy is much more direct than in the case of Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. The ruling elites in all these countries were at some point in their former careers allowed to occupy key positions by the direct vetting process overseen by the KGB. This was based on the criterion that put their loyalty to Russia as the main prerequisite.
Due to historical realities in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Muslims of these regions will always identify Russia as a bigger threat than Israel or the US, unless Moscow demonstrates through concrete actions that it will not get involved in the natural socio-political and military processes in the region. The chances of this are small. The only place where Russia could theoretically come to some agreement, albeit partially, with the Islamic movement is Azerbaijan, primarily because the takfiri armed groups fighting against Russia in the North Caucasus have a very hostile attitude toward Muslims from the Shi‘i school of thought, due to their quasi-intellectual and financial connection to the US-backed Saudi regime.
Within the Sunni orbit, Russia did come to partial agreement with the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) in 1997 after the IRPT fought a long and hard military and political battle with pro-Russian forces led by the current Tajik autocrat, Emomali Rakhmonov. The agreement with IRPT was a tactical necessity for Moscow and not a sincere non-imperialist policy move. From 1997 until today Moscow continues to support Rakhmonov’s persecution of IRPT activists.
It is unlikely that in the near future Central Asia will experience any drastic increase in Islamic activism. The most likely place would be Tajikistan where the IRPT is the only legally authorized Islamic political organization within the former USSR with some presence in the government and most importantly military and socio-political experience and credibility. The IRPT, however, has not put up strong resistance to the illegitimate persecution by the regime. Its response to such oppressive policies has been limited so far to advancing its social network of hospitals, schools, housing projects and working hard to win the hearts and minds of people. Taking into account that in October 2012 Rahmonov signed a deal that allowed Russian troops to remain at a military base in Tajikistan until 2042, IRPT will avoid direct confrontation with the regime. The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the manner in which the Tajiks there make their moves would be the only factors that could alter the existing situation in Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan, where popular revolt has become a socio-political culture, is another place where the status quo in Central Asia could potentially be shaken. The absence of a strong indigenous Islamic socio-political organization in Kyrgyzstan, however, limits this possibility. If another revolt does take place, it would be the takfiri minded groups from Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia that would initiate the so-called Islamic activism in Kyrgyzstan. The experience of the Muslim Ummah shows that the result and effectiveness of such groups is almost always counterproductive and ends up being utilized by the US and its allies against Islam and Muslims.
Among all the countries of the former Soviet Union it appears that the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan has the best chance of becoming the strategic game-changer in the long run. Taking into account the strong presence of ethnic Azeris among the most prominent revolutionary Islamic jurists in Iran, Azerbaijan’s long border with Islamic Iran, Russian-Iranian partial strategic cooperation on global issues, growing weakness of the Aliyev regime, his tactical disagreements with Russia and the rising popularity of the Islamic movement, the place to watch is the Azerbaijan Republic.
In all cases relating to Muslim-Russian relations in the near abroad, due to its simplemindedness and the influence of the Zionist lobby, Moscow will do its outmost to prevent the rise of the Islamic movement. Apart from a small possibility in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it is highly unlikely that Moscow can afford to intervene militarily to prevent the fall of existing regimes in the rest of Central Asia. If Moscow does decide to intervene militarily, a competent Islamic movement can rattle the socio-political situation inside Russia using the presence of the vast migrant Muslim population there.
Conflict with Russia, however, can and should be avoided if Russia takes steps that it will not dictate policies to Muslim countries in the near abroad. Moscow must demonstrate that a December 2012 announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that building a Eurasian Union will be Russia’s prime foreign policy goal does not mean re-occupation of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. The place to demonstrate that Russia has no imperial intentions would be the Azerbaijan Republic and Tajikistan, where Iran, Russia and various political groups within Azerbaijan and Tajikistan could come to a mutually beneficial consensus that would allow the two to transform themselves from the current autocracy to a representative form of government.