During the 2000 presidential campaign, Acting President Vladimir Putin explained to journalists why he had launched a ruthless military campaign in Chechnya. Referring to the Chechen rebels who had invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan in summer 1999, Putin said they had entered Dagestan not to defend the Chechen independence, but to occupy other territories. “I never doubted that Chechnya would not limit itself to its own independence. It was clear that after Dagestan the whole North Caucasus would separate, then the Volga region, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, it would go further to the heartland of Russia” (First Person, 2000).
Five years later Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev declared: “With the mercy of Allah we established this year the Caucasian front. Next year we will open fronts in Moscow, the Volga region, and Urals. Jihad is spreading. More and more oppressed nations understand that they should unite their forces to liberate themselves from Russian imperialism” (Kavkazcenter, August 31).
The Russian authorities have taken these threats very seriously. Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the Russian Security Service (FSB), told Britain’s Guardian newspaper, “Islamic fundamentalism was spreading in Russia in the Volga region, and even Siberia. We notice their traces practically in all regions” (Guardian, September 23).
Throughout 2005, the situation has worsened in the Volga region, specifically the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, two Muslim enclaves in the middle of Russia. Acts of sabotage and explosions have become almost routine in Tatarstan. On January 8, a local gas pipeline was bombed in the town of Bugulma. On January 20, a power-transmission line was destroyed near the Kazan-Malmizh highway. Another power line was blown up on June 1. Several days later, an oil pipeline was destroyed in Tulyachen district. There have been a total of 13 instances of sabotage or “terrorist acts,” in official terminology, during the last two years in different parts of the Volga region, including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Kirov oblast, Samara oblast, and Ulyanov oblast (Gazeta, October 10).
Russian security officials have responded to the explosions with harsh measures. On October 9, Vladimir Ivanov, head of Tatarstan’s Criminal Investigation Department, announced that the three criminals responsible for the explosions had been arrested. Ivanov said that the bandits had received their instructions, weapons, and financing from Chechen terrorists (Gazeta, October 10). However, Ivanov’s statement did not mean that the police had caught the real gunmen.
The alleged terrorists have since turned out to be former detainees from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo: Timur Ishmuradov, Ravil Gumarov, and Fanis Shaikhmudinov. On September 28, the Tatar Grand Jury acquitted all of three for lack of evidence (Interfax, September 29). It became clear that when the security services failed to find the real militants among the locals, and they simply seized anyone they could lay their hands on. The Muslims captured in Afghanistan and returned from Guantanamo were the best candidates to be called terrorists. “The persons behind the terrorist acts in the region usually disappear before the police start looking for them while innocent Muslims find themselves in a prisoner’s box,” said Valilulla Yakupov, deputy chairman of the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Tatarstan (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 7).
After the acquittal of the Guantanamo prisoners, the FSB and police, who in fact have no idea about who might be involved in the sabotage acts, launched a massive campaign of repression against practicing Muslims in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. A letter by Ilyas Kadyrov, a Tatar Muslim, published on the Chechen Daymokh website is full of examples of how local Muslims are tortured during illegal detentions. Kadyrov writes in his letter that in the town of Naberezhny Chelny young men who go to mosques are forced to register at police departments and to visit police stations regularly to confirm they still remain in their hometown (Daymokh, October 3).
Tatar President Mintimir Shaimiev has taken a neutral approach toward the standoff between the Tatar Muslims and law-enforcement agencies. He admits, “There were organizations in Tatarstan connected with the Chechen rebels, but these contacts have never been on a large scale.” Nevertheless, he concedes, “We had some extremists, like several students of the Yoldiz madrassa who used to be in a terrorist camp in Chechnya” (Interfax, June 24).
Shaimiev is too cautious to openly protest human rights violations in his region, but as a shrewd leader, he clearly is aware that minor damage to transmission lines is nothing compared to what could happen in the republic if security officials continue their policy of lawlessness towards the Muslims. There are hundreds of thousands of Tatars who can be described as radical Muslims and nationalists with strong anti-Russian feelings. According to Rail Gataulin, a Tatar journalist, about 200,000 people in Tatarstan still do not want to replace their old Soviet passports with new Russian ones. These people complain that the new passports bear symbols of the Russian empire and the Orthodox Church that they, as Muslims, cannot accept (Radio Liberty, October 21). This is more than enough to organize a new anti-Russian front in Tatarstan promised by Shamil Basaev.
Increasingly, it seems that Putin’s nightmare of the year of 2000 could become a reality. If the Kremlin does not change its national policy, the war can easily come to the middle of Russia, the Volga region.