President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB boss during the Soviet era, has turned his country into an undisguisedly racist and anti-Islamic fortress since taking power in 2004: there has always been an element of discrimination (albeit disguised) against Muslims in the Soviet Union, but it is getting worse. Claiming that Russia is now a superpower – because of its vast energy-based new wealth – he has joined the US, hitherto the only political superpower in the world, in waging war on ‘terrorism' (by which they really mean Islam) worldwide. He has also turned a blind eye to the growing racist practice by Russian officials, police and the armed forces that has now been widely and enthusiastically embraced by members of the public. To his great satisfaction and triumph, Putin has not come under attack from the so-called ‘international community', Arab and Muslim governments or the former Soviet Central Asian countries in connection with this war on Islamic groups and the wave of racism against the mostly central Asian residents of his country.
The Russian government recently put seven Islamic groups – including Jordan's Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called radical – on its list of ‘terrorist organisations’. The only registered or announced protest against this outrageous step came in connection with the inclusion of the Ikhwan. Nor surprisingly, Salim Alfalahat, the secretary general of the movement in Jordan, was the first to protest, followed on the same day by the country's Council of Parliament.
In a statement on August 23, the secretary general described the inclusion of his group on the Russian list of terrorists as "contrary to logic, common sense and the facts on the ground". He called on the Russian government to revise its judgement of the Ikhwan's activities in Jordan and the rest of the world, and to reconsider its decision. Interestingly, he also called on it to "strengthen its friendly relations and cooperation with the Arab world in all fields." He then stressed the movements's moderate nature, saying that the whole world knows that it rejects violence and does not employ force to spread its beliefs and mission. He emphasised that charitable and social projects are the centre of that mission.
On whether Moscow's inclusion of the Ikhwan was due to its backing for the resistance in Chechnya, he said that "we certainly support the Chechen people's right to self-determination" but that support is not based on "our hatred of Russia". Instead, it is based on a desire to "see all nations independent and free from the imperial rule and hegemony of others."
The Jordanian council of parliament, in its statement on August 21, said that Moscow's decision to include the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in its list of terrorists "is unfair and contrary to reality", and should be revised. It added that the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in Jordan, far from being a terrorist organisation, is a charitable and highly respected movement. The statement – backed by all the 170 members of the council – also interestingly called on Moscow to withdraw the decision to entrench the already strong relations between Russia and Amman and to develop its links with the Arab and Muslim world. The Jordanian Parliament has 17 Muslim Brothers among its own members but it almost always sides with the government, which is conducting a hostile campaign against the movement. The government is a well-known contributor to the US-led war on terrorism – the latest contribution being the draft legislation on the control of terrorism it recently submitted to parliament.
But in a direct move to show its hostility to Islamic movements and an indirect indication of the hypocrisy of its statement on Moscow's attitude to the Ikhwan, the parliament approved the draft legislation without any amendments on August 27. The new law abolishes the right of those arrested on terrorism-related charges to have any access to defence lawyers before 30 days. This clearly gives the authorities enough time to persuade them to enter a guilty plea, either by torture or by other means of ‘persuasion' or coercion.
The Jordanian parliament's hypocrisy and the fact that Arab and Muslim governments have not objected must confirm Putin's conviction that whatever action he takes against Islamic groups ––will not affect Russia's relations with those governments adversely. They are, after all, fully engaged with the war on ‘international terrorism' and exchange intelligence reports not only within the US but with Moscow. As a former KGB chief, Putin must give close attention – and importance – to intelligence-gathering, reaping as a result much information on the position of Arab and Muslim rulers on the issue. Moreover, Russia's vast oil and gas resources, which have turned it into one of the richest countries of the world, have given him the self-confidence of being leader of a ‘superpower' that few other countries would want to antagonise.
One of the ploys used by Putin to highlight Russia's new wealth and superpower status is his recent decision to pay back its entire Soviet-era debt to Western countries 14 years ahead of schedule. Moscow has accordingly transferred $23.7 billion (£12.5 billion) to the so-called Paris Club of creditor-nation, which include the US and Britain. By paying off this debt Russia can save more than $12 billion in interest over the next 14 years, although it has to pay a $1 billion penalty fee for early repayment. This is a spectacular turn-around for the country that only eight years ago suffered a financial crisis when it defaulted on $40 billion of debt , sending the rouble plummeting and throwing thousands or millions of its citizens into poverty.
The early payment has proved to be a coup for Putin, who is determined to use it to emphasise how it has turned Russia into an economic giant and a superpower. In a statement released in Moscow on August 22, the Kremlin said: "The early settlement with creditor countries was possible thanks to the Russian Federation's growing financial and economic might." It added that the early payment "would strengthen Russia's international authority".
But although there is no doubt that Russia is earning spectacular wealth from its oil and gas exports, its new affluence is not being used to relieve the extreme poverty that many Russians suffer. Certainly the vast majority of people in Central Asia live in severe poverty, and many of those who have any access to work and income labour under very poor conditions and receive hardly any reward for their toil. Moreover the new wealth belongs to all members of the Russian Federation, but Chechnya does not receive its full share and its own people are very poor. In fact, many of the Chechen refugees who want to go back, despite the continuing threat of persecution, are reluctant to do so because of the poverty engulfing their country. The truth is that Putin, who is not lifting a finger to stop the racist attacks on Central Asians, will not act to ensure that the new wealth is shared fairly among members of the federation.
According to a local group monitoring the attacks, "we are seeing a 30 percent increase in xenophobic attacks every three months... which demonstrates the quick growth of ultra-right tendencies." These attacks include the blast that killed ten people in Moscow market on August 21. It was caused by home-made bombs planted by two students targeting Asians.