Rather unexpectedly, Kaliningrad oblast—Russia’s westernmost, physically detached region on the Baltic coast—experienced a surge in inter-ethnic tensions arising from discrimination directed at the local Islamic community. On September 19, a Kaliningrad court opened a legal case initiated by the local Muslim community, which is suing the municipal administration for 100 million rubles ($1.74 million) for economic losses suffered as a result of the so-called “mosque incident” (Newkaliningrad.ru, September 19).
The infamous affair dates back to 1991, when local Muslims asked for permission to build a mosque. The Kaliningrad authorities agreed to the request only in 2005. However, this was not the end of the story. It took an additional five years before construction could start. Meanwhile, the project attracted rapidly growing anti-Muslim hysteria in local mass media; whereas the local authorities have continued to display a barely concealed unwillingness to support its actual completion (Openrussia.org, August 10). The mosque was even the target of a (thwarted) bombing attempt by a local citizen in 2011 (Rugrad.eu, December 25, 2013), causing shock among the Russian exclave’s more liberally-minded residents. Prominent political scientist Vladimir Abramov stated that such events could severely damage the reputation of the region in the eyes of Europeans.
Following years of controversy, the authorities decided to freeze construction. In 2014, a court ruled that all work had stop. This was a huge blow to Kaliningrad’s Muslim minority: by that time the building was already 80 percent complete, and as of 2010 none of the financing for the project was coming from the local authorities but from the Muslims themselves. Even advocacy in support of the mosque by such prominent politicians as Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov had no effect (Islam.ru, May 12, 2014). The Muslim community ultimately tried appealing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)—the first complaint from a Muslim community inside the Russian Federation ever registered by this international body (Rosbalt.ru, December 29, 2014).
The situation reached a boiling point later that same year, when the head of Kaliningrad’s Islamic community, Arshat Khasimov, warned that if the Russian authorities “want a Maidan in Kaliningrad like in Ukraine,” they will have one soon. He also stressed that the “exasperation among local Muslims is growing, and Muslims are filled with discontent.” He claimed that “for the time being, we [the leaders of Kaliningrad’s Muslim minority] are able to control these sentiments”; but if current injustices continue, the consequences could be severe (Club-rf.ru, October 2, 2014).
Indeed, it is difficult to believe that, given the number of Muslims currently living in Kaliningrad oblast (100,000 people, out of a total population of close to one million), to date not a single mosque has been erected there (Club-rf.ru, October 2, 2014). At the same time, there are approximately 150 Russian Orthodox churches, 30 chapels and 3 monasteries located in the oblast.
The conflict received new impetus in early 2016, when then-governor Nikolai Tsukanov, while commenting on the Kaliningrad mosque, blatantly (and without any appropriate context) pointed to “Islamic terrorism, radicalism and ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—a former name of the Islamic State organization].” His words provoked a wave of discontent among local Muslims. At the same time, the governor admitted that “all major confessions should have a right to practice [their religion]” (Newkaliningrad.ru, February 8, 2016).
Following Tsukanov’s departure in July of 2016, Kaliningrad’s Islamic community anticipated that the issues surrounding the completion of the first mosque in the oblast might finally be resolved. But these hopes turned out to be premature—the current political elites seem to be acting in the same fashion. In an interview this past summer, Imam Bekhan Suleymanov claimed that the local Muslim community was closely linked to the oblast and its history: “[local Muslims] had sacrificed their lives during the Second World War for the oblast to become a part of the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics] and now Russia.” But according to the imam, what Muslims have received in return was a lack of justice and total disregard for their requests, as “if they were not citizens of this country.” In the final analysis, he noted that, from his point of view, the main problem has nothing to do with a mosque per se; rather, the “existence of a Muslim community [in Kaliningrad] is a problem on its own” (Rugrad.eu, June 28).
Local media have repeatedly pointed out that the Slavic population of the oblast is resentful of the growing local Muslim community. Namely, various public religious celebrations are routinely attracting rising participation among Islamic adherents. And this has led to mounting concern among non-Muslim Kaliningraders (Newkaliningrad.ru, August 4).
The problem, however, appears to be much deeper and more complicated. The most recent events connected to the incomplete mosque have once again highlighted the growing rift between Muslims and non-Muslims across the Russian Federation. Unlike during the 1990s and the early 2000s, when anti-Islamic sentiment in Russia was driven by developments in the North Caucasus region, today the main root of public discontent is shaped by the rising number of guest workers coming from Central Asia (primarily Tajikistan). The most recent ugly episode, in which a Tajikistani national was severely beaten in Moscow, resulted in a wave of discontent within the guest laborer community, who took to the streets in a protest against the way Tajiks are treated by ethnic Russians (Politexpert.net, September 21).
The Kremlin’s current geopolitical grand strategy includes the pursuit of closer integration of Russia and the Eurasian territories of the former Soviet Union (see EDM, October 7, 2011; November 6, 2013). But by its very nature, this initiative will result in ever larger numbers of Muslim immigrants coming to Russia and settling in major Russian cities in search of jobs. Consequently, the level of ethnic tensions across the Russian Federation are almost certain to increase further (see EDM, February 18, 2014).