Kazan and Moscow Continue Muted Struggle for Power

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 57

Acting mufti of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin (Source: tatar-inform.ru)

On March 20, the newspaper Kommersant reported that Tatarstan has prepared a series of amendments to the Russian law on fighting extremism. The adoption of this legislation would increase the penalties for individuals involved in extremist organizations. Experts warn that the new laws could render virtually any religious activity illegal and punishable, which would produce more extremism. For example, participating in an extremist organization would be penalized by a fine of up to $33,000, while currently the maximum fine for the same crime is a little more than $1,000. The prison term as an alternative punishment for the same crime would increase from two to six years. Organizers of extremist organizations would face from 12 to 15 years in prison, depending on whether ammunition was used. Members of organizations outlawed in Russia would receive sentences of up to six years in prison, three times lengthier than specified by the current legislation. Organizers of outlawed organizations would face a maximum of ten years in prison. Alternatively, these violations could be subject to a whopping $33,000 fine.

The well-known Russian human rights activist Lev Ponamaryov commented on the proposed changes. “Such sentences are not handed down even for murders [in Russia],” he told Kommersant. “The experience of the [North] Caucasus showed that more repression does not resolve problems. People who peacefully preach their ideas will be pushed aside and forced to revert to violence” (https://kommersant.ru/doc/2150327).

On March 6, Tatarstan’s mufti, Ildus Faizov, resigned from his position along with his deputy, Abdulla Adygamov. The 28-year-old imam of the Tynychylyk mosque, Kamil Samigullin, became the acting mufti of Tatarstan until the Muslims council that will be held in April. Samigullin reportedly has good prospects to be elected Tatarstan’s mufti. Faizov was elected as Tatarstan’s mufti in 2011 and immediately began to root out “Islamic extremism” by checking out every religious leader in the republic. Those leaders who did not profess “the traditional-for-Tatarstan Hanafi” school of Islam were deprived of a license for spiritual activities in the republic (https://www.ng.ru/regions/2013-03-07/5_kazan.html). Faizov’s mission was clearly questionable when he set out to decide who should have the “license” for spiritual activities and who should not (https://www.ng.ru/regions/2013-03-07/5_kazan.html).

According to Tatarstan Deputy Interior Minister Alexei Garin, who is responsible for fighting extremism, 27 extremist events, including six terrorism-related attacks, took place in the republic in 2012. Garin said that Salafist ideas were popular among young Muslims in Tatarstan. Muslim organizations that were outlawed by federal law in Russia still function in the republic, Garin asserted. These organizations include Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, Tablighi Jamaat, Nurjular and Al Takfir Wal Hijra (https://kommersant.ru/doc/2150327).

Extremism in Tatarstan captured attention in July 2012, when an attempt was made on Faizov’s life and his deputy Valiulla Yakupov was killed. The police in the republic subsequently cracked down on Muslim organizations, which sparked public protests against the abuse of power. Some observers alleged that Moscow may have staged the killings in Tatarstan in order to reduce the republic’s autonomy within the Russian Federation. Tatarstan has been the republic in Russia most vociferous about its right to political autonomy.

During her visit to Tatarstan on February 13, the chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, raised the issue of the presidency in Tatarstan with the republican authorities. Tatarstan is one of the few republics whose governor still has the official title of president, something the Russian government in Moscow is fiercely opposed to. Some Russian politicians in Tatarstan have called for abolishing the president’s title in the republic and eagerly await the total abolishment of the republican constitution and its disbandment (https://www.apn.ru/publications/article28725.htm).

Tensions between the pro-autonomy and pro-Russian forces appear to be on the rise in Tatarstan. The chairman of the Tatar Patriotic Front Altyn Urda, Danis Safargali, reportedly called on his followers to crack down on Tatars who do not conform to the unified Tatar identity. Previously, Safargali appealed to Tatarstan’s prosecutors to punish Rais Suleimanov, the head of the Volga Center for Regional and Ethno-Religious Studies at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. Safargali accused Suleimanov of betraying the national interests of Tatarstan, claiming that “the law enforcement [officials] who protect him [Suleimanov] are executing a corrupt order from the raw commodities transnational companies to eliminate the energy complex of the Republic of Tatarstan” (https://www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1639265.html).

Known for its oil fields and refineries, Tatarstan indeed may be a target for Moscow-based energy company behemoths. However, the primary thrust of the Russian government’s attack against the republic is likely to be directed against Tatarstan’s political autonomy. In March, the republican government unveiled plans to enforce the law on knowledge of state languages of Tatarstan among members of the region’s bureaucracy. Even though Russian and Tatar are both officially the state languages of Tatarstan, the government program will practically support the Tatar language. Civil servants in the republic will receive an additional 15 percent on top of their salary for knowing the Tatar language, which will give even those who do not speak Tatar an incentive to learn it. A special center will be set up to certify Tatar language knowledge (https://www.ng.ru/regions/2013-03-12/1_kazan.html).

By increasing the penalties for extremism and by broadening extremism to include almost any religious activity, the authorities may in the end fuel more extremist activity in Tatarstan, rather than less. It is plausible to suggest that Tatarstan is under growing pressure from Moscow. Heightened tensions in Tatarstan may be seen as beneficial to some forces in Moscow, since it would allow Tatarstan’s autonomy to be reduced and the presence of the Russian law enforcement agents and the army in the republic to be increased.