Moscow Seeks to Contain Islam in Regions Adjacent to the North Caucasus
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 18
Local Muslims in Russia’s Krasnodar region say the authorities there have imposed an unofficial ban on the construction of mosques. Multiple appeals by the Muslims there remain unanswered and the experts warn that the government’s attempt to contain the spread of Islam in the region is provoking a religious conflict. The Muslim community of Krasnodar region addressed the regional authorities back in 2008, asking them to provide land for construction of a mosque and a Muslim cemetery. The government initially agreed to allot 1.2 hectares, but later revoked its decision and the issue has not been resolved ever since (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 24).
Krasnodar region is known for its widespread xenophobia, which periodically surfaces even in the official speeches of its governor. In 2012, Governor Alexander Tkachyov caused an outcry in the North Caucasian republics when he stated that his region needed Cossack police to fight the influx of North Caucasians. If the North Caucasians continued to arrive in Krasnodar region at the same pace, Tkachyov said, its ethnic balance would change and the region would repeat the fate of Kosovo. Tkachyov announced his government would support newly created Cossack paramilitary groups to the tune of $20 million per year. Even totally pro-Moscow North Caucasus politicians like Gajimet Safaraliev, chairman of the State Duma’s Committee on Nationalities Affairs, were astounded by the brazenness of Tkachyov and his supporters in the Russian government. “I was astonished by the comment of the deputy head of the Russian interior ministry, Sergei Gerasimov, who said that this experience [in Krasnodar] would be used in other regions of Russia, too,” Safaraliev said. “I do not understand, do we have different countries within our country? Or are the laws followed in some regions and ignored in others?” (gazeta.ru, August 3, 2012).
The Russian government’s strategy of containing the expansion of the country’s Muslim population manifests itself not only in Krasnodar. Authorities in Moscow and the city’s Islamic community have battled for years as Muslims have tried to receive permission to build more mosques for the Russian capital’s growing Muslim population. The problem is also apparent in other areas of Russia, but what makes the hostility between the authorities and Muslims communities in the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions especially acute is the geographic proximity of these two regions to the North Caucasus, with its predominantly Muslim population. The Russian government fears that Muslims from the North Caucasus will gradually replace the Slavic Christian Orthodox population of Stavropol and Krasnodar, and that the two regions will be “lost” to Russia. The Russian Orthodox Bishop of Stavropol and Nevinnomysk, Kirill, pointed out that there are only 600 churches for the three million ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus, while there are 6,000 mosques for the region’s six million Muslims (govorun26.ru, September 26).
Despite the fact that North Caucasians are technically Russian citizens, they are apparently treated differently by the Russian government, being considered a somewhat inferior part of the population in comparison to ethnic Russians or Slavs in general. The religious aspect may simply be a cover for Russian xenophobia, which the authorities prefer to use for their own purposes rather than counter. Ethnic Ossetians are predominantly Orthodox, although not Slavs. Yet, in Sochi, Krasnodar region, Ossetians have also complained of a “campaign of intimidation” by the police (Kavkazsky Uzel, August 2, 2009).
The 2010 census found that ethnic Russians constituted 88.3 percent of the population of Krasnodar region, up from 86.6 percent in 2002, while the region’s largest Muslim group, ethnic Circassians, accounted for less than 1 percent of its population. In Stavropol region, ethnic Russians comprised 80.1 percent of the population in 2010, down from 81.6 percent in 2002.
If the official statistics can be trusted, the demographic situation for ethnic Russians in Krasnodar and Stavropol regions is far from precarious. Nevertheless, the regional authorities are pressing ahead with holding back the spread of Islam in the region as much as they can. The imam of Krasnodar region, Najmuddin Abazi, told Kavkazsky Uzel: “They offer us to go to Adygea for prayer, but why should I, a resident of Krasnodar region, go to Adygea? I am registered here; my father, my grandfather and all others built this city with their hands, fought for it and now I have no place here to worship in my home, in my city?” (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 24).
In neighboring Stavropol region, the authorities also promised land for the construction of a mosque in the city of Kislovodsk, but then reversed their decision. Moreover, they now appear to have launched a campaign to destroy the mosques that were already built (regnum.ru, September 25). The municipal authorities allotted $100,000 for the demolition of the two existing mosques in the city—which, they said, were constructed “illegally” (govorun26.ru, September 26). The imam of Kislovodsk was charged with drug trafficking and a local Muslim businessmen who supported the Muslim community in the city was charged with illegal arms and drugs possession. That the charges in both cases are politically motivated is obvious to all local observers (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 21).
The striking similarities between the situation in Stavropol and Krasnodar regions indicate that the strategy of containing the spread of Islam in these federal entities is being implemented on Moscow’s order and is part of Russia’s official policy. Such an approach to resolving religious or other issues in the vicinity of the North Caucasus is unlikely to improve the situation in the volatile region in the near future.