The notoriously well-known analyst from Tatarstan, Rais Suleimanov, has attacked the West for alleged support of Islamists in the republic. In his controversial and contradictory report, Suleimanov accuses the West of supporting Tatar nationalism and Islamism, but in the process he exposes his apparent close ties to the Russian security services. In particular, the analyst recalls the details of visits by Western journalists and diplomats to Tatarstan that could hardly be known to anyone apart from the government services that specialize in surveillance. Suleimanov’s report is useful because it reflects the mindset of the Russian security services and provides a glimpse into their substantial surveillance practices against foreign visitors (apn.ru, October 8). Rich in details of surveillance, the report, however, lacks in analytical vigor and clarity, offering little analysis and much ado.
The reason why the Russian security services are so concerned with Tatarstan and Tatar nationalism is that Tatarstan is a large, economically vibrant republic that has been capable of withstanding Moscow’s push for hyper centralization of governance. Ethnic Tatars total up to nearly six million in the Russian Federation and are the second largest ethnic group in the country. Additionally, territorially and linguistically proximate to the Tatars, Bashkirs and the Chuvash make up over three million of Russia’s population. Even though separatist conflict did not take place in Tatarstan, as in Chechnya, the republic in the Volga region has remained the stronghold of regionalism in the Russian Federation, thanks to its substantial industrial, mineral and human resources. The annexation of Crimea added political weight to Tatarstan’s leadership as the latter played some role in pacifying the Crimean Tatars that are ethnically related to the Kazan Tatars.
Rais Suleimanov asserted that the “geopolitical interests of the West” informed the policy of brewing tensions in the Volga region. Simultaneously, according to the analyst, some European countries were alarmed by the Islamic extremism in their own societies and considered adapting the Russian experience of dealing with Islamists to their countries. Suleimanov suggested that Moscow should seize on this opportunity to expand Russian influence at least among some European countries. The concept of “Euroislam” that was invented and advanced by Rafael Khakimov, the aide to the previous president of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev, did not turn out to be viable. “One must bear in mind, there is only one follower of Euroislam in Tatarstan—Khakimov himself. People may have sympathized with him, but no one shared his teaching fully,” Suleimanov argued. Instead, Islam took a distinctly extremist turn in the republic, according to the analyst, as the Islamists attacked Tatarstan’s Muslim officials in the summer of 2012, killing the deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov and injuring the mufti, Ildus Faizov. The return of Tatar Islamists from Syria to the republic, according to the analyst, will bring the situation in Tatarstan to a boiling point and be used by the West to destabilize Russia (apn.ru, October 8).
Meanwhile, estimates on the numbers of ethnic Tatars from Tatarstan fighting in Syria have never been high. The figure of 200 has been voiced, but its truthfulness is hard to verify (regnum.ru, June 13, 2013). Even the alarmist statements by Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Badr Al-Din Hassoun, who put the number of Chechen militants at a whopping 1,700, believes that that there are only 250 militants from “Central Russia,” which includes Tatarstan and other Turkic-speaking republics of the Middle Volga region, fighting in Syria (regnum.ru, January 31).
For a large republic like Tatarstan, these numbers are not significant, especially as many of these militants, even if they exist, will be killed or will not return home because of resettlement in the Middle East. What may pose a danger to the republic is the continuing erosion of republican political autonomy under Moscow’s pressure, lack of political reforms and a potential economic downturn because of the rapidly falling price of oil. Many of the Islamist movements worldwide came as violent responses to the economic and political problems of their respective countries. Tatarstan, for example, is in a favorable position to weather economic hardships, given its high level of economic development. However, Moscow’s efforts to diminish and eradicate the republican autonomy may trigger a backlash among Tatars.
The authorities continue their persecution of the banned organization Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami in Tatarstan. The Russian media in October reported the interception of “six terrorists from the banned organization” in the city of Kazan. “Substantial number of confiscated propagandist materials” were the only pieces of evidence of their “terrorist activities.” Moreover, the Russian media persistently tries to connect Tatar nationalists to terrorists to allow the government to crack down on them. Yet, it appears that the officials in Kazan possess certain power to cut short these efforts as the Tatar nationalists continue to stage public actions without the impediment of police (ng.ru, October 16). This delicate balance between Tatarstan’s authorities, Tatar nationalists and Moscow, however, may not last long; and if it is broken, the destabilization of Tatarstan could become an actual reality.