The start of hostilities against the members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network has produced a more muted reaction among Russia’s regions than the original terrorist acts of September 11. Officials in several regions seemed at a loss to know how to react. Flights to the United Arab Emirates were cancelled in Novosibirsk and Mineralnie Vody and the number of flights from Yekaterinburg to Middle East destinations was halved, but other regions refused to take any additional security measures at all. Surprisingly enough, Moscow was in the latter group (Regions.ru, October 8; Polit.ru, October 8, 11-12; Radio Ekho Moskvy, October 9).
Most regional leaders refrained from commenting on what was going on in Afghanistan: Russian society is split over the war there, and it would be dangerous for a Russian politician to publicize his view of it. The exceptions were those regional leaders who had themselves been professional soldiers. For example, Ul’yanovsk Oblast Governor Vladimir Shamanov, who in 1999-2000 was one of the commanders of military operations in Chechnya, hailed the US military campaign as “brilliant.” The former general expressed his admiration for the unity shown by the U.S. government and the American people in declaring that terrorists would be found and destroyed. “We have something to learn from the Americans in this respect,” Shamanov said. Given the technical level at which modern special services are equipped, he added, locating and destroying Bin Laden within six to twelve weeks was a “realistic and possible” objective (Regions.ru, October 19).
The opposite point of view was put forward by the president of the Republic of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev–also a former general and veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He predicted that the forthcoming landing of U.S. special forces in Afghanistan was unlikely to succeed, given that they would not have reliable logistical support. Aushev doubted it would be possible to locate bin Laden in Afghanistan’s mountains (Russian agencies, October 8). A similar view was put forward by another former general and Afghan veteran, former Vice President and regional governor Aleksandr Rutskoi, who called the U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan “rash and poorly thought through” (Radio Ekho Moskvy, October 8).
The ambivalence of Russia’s regional leaders echoes the position of Russia’s Muslims, a majority of whose leaders have come out against the bombing campaign. Nafigula Ashirov, co-chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia and head of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of the Asian part of the Russian Federation, declared the American-led action “a huge crime against a whole people” (Russian agencies, October 8). The Spiritual Board of Muslims of the Volga Region also condemned U.S. actions, saying it had not been proven that either the Taliban or bin Laden had been involved in the September 11 atrocities (Russian agencies, October 10). Not all Muslim leaders were of this view: Mufti Hurmukhamad-khazart, head of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Bashkortostan, voiced his condolences with the American people and said that everyone has the right to defend their home (Regions.ru, October 8; see also the Monitor, October 12).
Russia today is too internally split and too preoccupied with its own problems for any external event to unite its people. For the time being, Russian society would prefer to remain on the sidelines of the current crisis. The Speaker of the upper house of the Russian Parliament, Yegor Stroev, who is also governor of Oryel Oblast, captured the mood when he declared: “The main thing is to prevent our country and the world community from being dragged into a third world war” (Russian agencies, October 9; see also the Monitor, September 28).
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION APPROACHING IN YAKUTIA.