Experts Warn North Caucasus Violence Could Spread to Russia’s Volga Region

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 138

Scene of the car bomb blast in Kazan, Tatarstan, Russian Federation (Source: Reuters)

On July 19, a double attack against the official Islamic leadership of Tatarstan took place in the republic’s capital, Kazan. In the space of 15 minutes, the mufti of the republic, Ildus Faizov, and his deputy, Valiullu Yakupov, came under attack in two different locations. Yakupov was gunned down at the entrance of the apartment block where he lived. Faizov’s car was blown up, but the mufti survived as he managed to get out of the car after an initial smaller explosion. However, both of his legs were broken in the incident (http://www.gazeta.ru/social/2012/07/19/4686061.shtml).

The president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, announced a $30,000 reward for any information leading to the perpetrators of the crime (http://www.tatar-inform.ru/news/2012/07/19/324137/).

Mikhail Babich, Moscow’s envoy to the Volga federal district, which includes Tatarstan, stated that the authorities considered the double attack on the religious leaders of the republic as an act of terror (http://www.tatar-inform.ru/news/2012/07/19/324132/). President Vladimir Putin called the attack in Tatarstan a “worrying signal” and called on the Russian people to reaffirm the unity of the country (http://ria.ru/incidents/20120719/703657823.html). According to other reports, Faizov survived three explosions in his car only because he did not sit in the passenger’s seat, but drove the car. The attack took place a day before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and large antiterrorist exercises planned in Tatarstan. The brazenness of the attack likely indicated rising capabilities of the Islamic groups in this republic, who are the primary suspects behind the attack, and a corresponding failure of the security services (The Moscow Times, July 20). On July 20, five people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attack – one of the arrested was an Uzbekistani citizen (gazeta.ru, July 20).

Putin’s remark about “unity of the country” may be the key to understanding the situation in Tatarstan. This oil rich republic is one of the handful of Russian regions that are financially self-sufficient. Tatarstan has constantly sought greater political autonomy since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been able to make its voice heard because of its economic and political weight. The Tatars are the second largest ethnic group in Russia after ethnic Russians, comprising just over 50 percent of Tatarstan’s total population of 3.8 million. They are also present in large numbers in other Volga regions, especially in neighboring Bashkortostan, where over one million ethnic Tatars reside (2010 census, www.gks.ru). Tatarstan managed to retain many of its constitutional privileges that other republics of the Russian Federation were forced to abandon. For example, the republican constitution says Tatarstan is “a democratic state with rule of law” that is united with the Russian Federation through the republic’s constitution, the constitution of the Russian Federation and a bilateral agreement (http://constitution.garant.ru/region/cons_tatar/chapter/1/#100000).

Tatarstan’s traditional independent stance in Russian domestic politics makes it a likely target for the increasingly authoritarian and nationalist leadership in Moscow. At the same time, Moscow’s pressure on Tatarstan to reduce the republic’s distinctness and autonomy is causing a backlash among Tatar nationalists and political elites. In this tense environment, it is also natural for Islam to play a role. Paradoxically, the more successful Moscow is in suppressing Tatar identity and reducing Tatarstan’s autonomy, the greater the role Islam is likely to play there as a mobilizing and militant force. Whether or not Moscow is deliberately working to antagonize Tatar nationalists and breed an Islamic insurgency in the republic and then conveniently crush both is hard to say, but that is the direction in which events in the republic are moving.

Ildus Faizov became Tatarstan’s mufti in the beginning of 2011 amid a scandal. The previous mufti of Tatarstan, Gusman Iskhakov, was forced to step down in January 2011, following clashes between the security forces and the Salafis in the republic’s Nurlat district in November 2010. The republican leadership and the police stated they would not tolerate any “non-traditional” Muslim forces in the republic, referring primarily to those who followed Salafi teachings. According to some estimates, as of 2011 the number of Salafis in Tatarstan had reached up to 3,000, while 120 Tatars were studying in religious institutions in Saudi Arabia. Some experts were calling for “de-Salafization” of the republic, warning against the “Ingush-Dagestani development scenario” (http://www.ru.journal-neo.com/node/4179).

The well-known journalist and expert on Islamic organizations in Russia, Maksim Shevchenko, stated that the attack against Tatarstan’s mufti may have been purely criminal, caused by a mundane conflict over the distribution of funds (http://www.echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/910416-echo/). The chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, Geidar Jemal, said that police officers who had been fired may have taken revenge by organizing the attack. Of course, the Salafis are among the most likely suspects in the attack (http://tvrain.ru, July 19). Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center warned that if the government did not do the right thing, the situation in the Volga region, including Tatarstan, would follow the North Caucasus’ path of radicalization. Already, Malashenko said, people from Central Asia and the North Caucasus have started “to infiltrate” the Volga region. Tatar expert Rais Suleimanov stated that the republic was following the North Caucasian path, as extremists from the North Caucasus were spreading radical ideas among Tatar Muslims. Suleimanov rejected suggestions vilifying the Russian security services, saying that these theories tried to justify “Wahhabism and religious terrorism” (www.regnum.ru, July 19).

According to a report in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 10 out of 50 mosques in the city of Kazan are under the strong influence of Muslim leaders from the North Caucasus. The author of the report, Gleb Postnov, asserts that infiltrating radical Islamic teachers into the Volga regions is the policy of North Caucasus militant leader Doku Umarov. It is noteworthy that, according to Postnov, radical Tatar youth who are not necessarily Islamic are trying to mimic North Caucasian cultural features. The report tries to equate the Islamic radicals and Tatar nationalists (http://www.ng.ru/regions/2012-07-19/1_tatarstan.html).

Neither side in the emergent conflict in Tatarstan – certainly not the government – appears to be willing to engage in a dialogue with the other. This means that the conflict is likely to worsen. While Moscow might be tempted to use the presence of radical Islamists in Tatarstan as a pretext for cracking down on Tatarstan’s nationalists, this move would likely create more problems for Moscow than it would actually solve. Massive repression against “the wrong type of Islam” is still possible in the Volga region, since the Russian government often tends to overreact. Issues related to bilateral relations between Moscow and Kazan, however, will not dissipate and Islam will seek its role in this complex relationship.