Causes of Deteriorating Situation in Tatarstan Are Likely Multidimensional
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 21
On October 24, Federal Security Service (FSB), police and Emergency Situations Ministry special forces killed two alleged Islamic radicals in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. One FSB officer was killed and several others were injured during the operation. A counter-terrorism operation regime was reportedly introduced in the city, and an apartment block was stormed in the same style by police as it is routinely done in the North Caucasus. An estimated two or three militants were killed (www.rian.ru, October 24). Other sources reported that no counter-terrorism regime was introduced in the city, but that the apartment block was still stormed in the same fashion as in operations conducted in the North Caucasus. Civilians from nearby houses were evacuated, and Tatarstan’s Interior Minister Artyom Khokhorin personally oversaw the special operation (www.regnum.ru, October 24).
The slain militants were identified as Robert Valeyev and Ruslan Kashapov. According to the FSB’s statement, Valeyev participated in the assassination of the deputy mufti of Tatarstan, Valiulla Yakupov, and also an assassination attempt on the mufti of the republic, Ildus Faizov on July 19. Officials said the militants targeted Yakupov and Faizov because of their anti-Salafi stance and support for “traditional Islam.” Following the operation, the security services claimed they found an arsenal of weapons and ammunition, including a powerful Improvised Explosive Device (IED), in the militants’ apartment. The officials concluded that the slain insurgents had been preparing a terrorist attack during the major Muslim holiday of Kurban Bairam, which started on October 26 (www.regnum.ru, October 25). It later transpired that Kashapov had been confused with a well-known Tatar activist with the same name, who made a special statement confirming his well-being (https://kazan.dkvartal.ru/news/nacionalist-rafis-kashapov-oproverg-svedeniya-o-svoej-smerti-vchera-236662393). Despite the killing of the two rebels in Kazan, the police are still actively looking for at least three other people who have been identified as extremists—Rais Mingaleyev, Albert Ismagilov and Rafis Gariev. All three are 36 years old and come from different cities in Tatarstan. Gariev originally comes from Orenburg oblast (www.regnum.ru, October 26).
In the wake of the attack on the official Islamic clergy in Tatarstan on July 19, the situation in the republic has been in the spotlight of the Russian media. Russians started to wonder whether this important region on the Volga River would follow the path of the North Caucasus republics that have seen constant insurgent attacks and reprisals by government forces. In August, the Washington-based Russian analyst Sergei Markedonov dubbed Tatarstan the “New Terrorist Battleground” in Russia (https://nationalinterest.org/commentary/new-terrorist-battleground-7277). The October special operation marked the first time a counter-terrorism operation regime was introduced in Tatarstan. “This did not happen even in the 1990s, when the republic tried to defend its sovereignty in tough political maneuvering and battles with the weak federal authorities,” the Gazeta.ru website commented. According to the commentary, as Tatarstan increasingly turns into a new “hotbed of Islamism on the Russian political map,” this trend testifies to the fact that the Kremlin is, in principle, unable to control the spread of radical Islam in the country because it is expending all of its energy on containing the Russian political opposition (https://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2012/10/24_e_4823633.shtml).
Tatar authors have a somewhat different view of the evolving situation in the republic. Abdulla Mukhametov noted several strange features of the special operation in Kazan and the events surrounding it. According to Mukhametov, police found an improvised explosive device (IED) under the car of one of the suspects in Yarlykapov’s killing. The suspect was subsequently acquitted. Mukhametov further alleged that the Tatar insurgent leader Mukhamed died suddenly of an unknown disease and that a video recording of his funeral is available on YouTube (https://kavpolit.com/shturm-kvartiry-s-boevikami-v-kazani-vpolne-mozhet-imet-kriminalnyj-sled/). Mukhamed and several other people posted a video address on YouTube after the July 19 attacks. In it, the group reaffirmed their allegiance to Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov and promised to fight alongside the North Caucasian rebels (for details, see “North Caucasus Conflict Spreads to Tatarstan,” EDM, August 2).
Mukhametov hypothesizes that the incidents were connected to criminal rather than radical Islamic activities. According to the author, Tatarstan’s authorities had until now withstood pressure from Moscow to launch a “total mop-up” operation against Muslims in the republic. Mukhametov cites notorious criminal gangs in the republic that were known across Russia for their brutality and influence. It is unclear, however, why Islamism did not became a cover for criminals back in the 1990s but has done so now. According to another theory, the crackdown on Islamists in Tatarstan is linked to the degree of political and economic autonomy that Tatarstan still enjoys compared with other republics within the Russian Federation. Moscow is reportedly still unhappy with the degree of control it has over the republic and therefore could be hyping the Islamist threat in order to crack down on the republican government in order to establish tighter control over Tatarstan (for example, see the article by Paul Goble: “The Opponents of Tatarstan Have Achieved Their Goal,” EDM, October 16). These various theories may not necessarily contradict one another. As the North Caucasus example indicates, Moscow tends to overreact to the challenges it faces and invariably distrusts the non-Russian police and local authorities.
The roots of destabilization in Tatarstan are likely to be complex. Certainly, part of it is connected with Moscow’s desire to undermine Tatarstan’s autonomy and establish fuller control over its economy and politics. The events may also be the result of what is seen by some in Moscow as preventive measures by the Russian security services, unhappy with the rise of any kind of Islam in Tatarstan, which is virtually part of central Russia. Tatarstan also is known for its very strong criminal gangs, therefore crime-related violence cannot be ruled out completely. The general cause of rising violence in Tatarstan remains the same as in the North Caucasus—the degradation of participatory democratic mechanisms, which makes it hard to resolve conflicts that arise spontaneously in every society from time to time. The fact that Tatarstan is ethnically distinct from the rest of multi-ethnic Russia also plays a role in making these spontaneous tensions more acute than in ethnically Russian regions of the country.