Experts Call for Russian Government to Develop a New Approach to Counter the Rise in Radicalism in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 57

Ismail Berdiev, Mufti of Karachaevo-Cherkessia with Russian President Medvedev.

The muftis of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and North Ossetia were elected on March 15, 16 and 17. Russian experts on Islam have started questioning the official policy on Islamic bureaucracies and are now calling for their “modernization,” while the government continues its efforts to control the Islamic communities (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 21).

In Kabardino-Balkaria, Khazretali Dzasezhev was elected for five years as the republican mufti on March 15. Dzasezhev succeeded Anas Pshikhachev, who was reportedly killed by militants on December 15. The situation in Kabardino-Balkaria became extremely volatile in 2010, which resulted in several high-profile killings and numerous other attacks by militants. Dzasezhev said in his victory speech that he saw his task as “retaining common human values [and] peaceful coexistence in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic state like Russia” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 15).

Ismail Berdiev was re-elected in Karachaevo-Cherkessia as republican mufti for another five-year term. Berdiev said 100 mosques were functioning in the republic and another 30 were under construction. Karachaevo-Cherkessia’s mufti said underfunding was the main problem of the republic’s Muslim community. Berdiev revealed that Muslims had been supported in previous years by the Russian presidential fund for the support of Islamic culture and education. The principal advisor of the Russian presidential administration’s department for internal policies, Aleksei Grishin, who is also on the board of the government fund to support Islam, stated that the fund was created to help “install a clear barrier to radicalism and the proliferation of extremism.” Grishin said much depended on imams “on the ground” and called on his audience to set up Islamic media outlets to fight extremism (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 16).

According to the Russian website Compromat.ru, which specializes in compiling dossiers on public figures, there is no information available on Aleksei Grishin prior to 2005. In a rare interview, Grishin vaguely told the website Islam.ru that he had specialized in “Oriental studies,” knew two “eastern” languages and three European ones and spent many years working abroad. The author of the article concluded Grishin was most likely a member of the Russian security services. Allegedly, Grishin was not simply a board member, but was the person who controlled the government fund for Islamic culture and education and engaged in fraudulent activities. As early as in 2008, a Moscow expert on Islamic law, Dr. Igor Ponkin, warned that Grishin and several of his associates turned the government fund into “a tool for the government’s unlawful interference in the internal affairs of Muslim religious organizations.” The web source that originally published this article deleted it, but it remains on Compromat.ru (http://www.compromat.ru/page_28968.htm).

The government fund for the support of Islamic culture, science and education was established in December 2006.  Its website is in both Russian and Arabic. Curiously, no government body is listed among the founders of the fund, although the website admits the fund was established with the Russian presidential administration’s involvement. The fund’s website does not specify where its funding comes from, saying only that it does not come from “budget sources” (www.islamfund.ru, accessed on March 22).

Holding successive electoral conferences in each of the North Caucasus republics obliquely exposed the bureaucratic nature of the official muftis in the region. It looked like the guests from Moscow wanted to accomplish their mission in one go, so the regional groups organized their elections accordingly. The chairman of the Caucasus Muslims’ administration, Allakhshukyur Pasha-zade (an enigmatic figure from Baku, Azerbaijan) played the role of deus ex machina, calling on the Muslims of the North Caucasus to preserve unity and solidarity.

On March 17, Khadzhi-Murat Gatsalov was elected as North Ossetia’s mufti. Gatsalov was born into a Muslim family, but most of his previous experience involved working in the North Ossetian government. His young and charismatic predecessor as mufti, Ali Yevteyev, who was half ethnic Russian and half ethnic Ossetian, resigned and moved to Saudi Arabia after he gave a frank interview to the Russian news agency Regnum in 2010 (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 17).

Rinat Mukhametov, a prominent expert on Islam, told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website that the election of the muftis in the North Caucasus had hardly any influence on the lives of believers in the region. According to Mukhametov, the estrangement of the official clergy from the believers is common across Russian Federation, but nowhere is it as evident as in the North Caucasus. Mukhametov said that the “modernization” of the official Islamic bodies was needed in order to overcome the gap between the Muslims and their clergy. Instead, Mukhametov pointed out that the government tried to employ controversial figures like Allakhshukyur Pasha-zade, the previously unknown chairman of the Caucasus Muslims’ administration who is from Azerbaijan, which is a Shia country, while the Muslims in the North Caucasus are Sunnis (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 21).

Ruslan Kurbanov, an expert on Islam and the Caucasus with the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Kavkazsky Uzel: “Republican governments strive to press ahead with the most convenient candidate for them for the mufti’s position. The fact that he will not have any authority with the majority of believers does not bother the government a bit.” Kurbanov said Kabardino-Balkaria is “shivering” because of the growing fighting between the militants, the police and the relatives of the victims who want to take revenge. In Kurbanov’s opinion, the situation in Karachaevo-Cherkessia was improving, while the infighting between very active Muslims, Russian Orthodox and followers of traditional religions in North Ossetia was jeopardizing the situation in that republic (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, March 21).

Outdated government’s policies to control the Muslim community in the North Caucasus seem to be not only proving ineffective, but also are contributing to further regional destabilization. Indeed, the government’s aim to have total control over all aspects of religious life itself appears to be arousing protest.