Just as a fight in a bar in the Karelian city of Kondopoga in August 2006 helped power a dramatic rise in ethnic Russian activism against immigrants from the Caucasus (see EDM, November 6, 2006), so too local media reports in recent weeks that have gone viral on the Russian Internet about an equally obscure event in Stavropol appear likely to pour gasoline on that growing conflagration.
The story itself began small: Two businessmen from Karachaevo-Cherkessia reportedly have been secretly and illegally building a mosque in the Russian city of Stavropol, their work made possible because of the machinations of the local administration and the courts. But this effort was exposed by two local newspapers (Stavropolskiye Gubernskiye Vedomosti, January 30; Stavropolsky Reporter, February 5). Those reports have exacerbated tensions in a region adjoining the ethnic republics of the North Caucasus that many there are now calling “Russia’s Kosovo” (Kommersant, October 24, 2011; ITAR-TASS, October 25, 2011). Yet, the impact of this case has broadened dramatically because a Russian blogger’s report has been picked up more than 100,000 times by Russian websites and news outlets. That in turn has heightened tensions between North Caucasians and ethnic Russians, as well as between both groups and Russian officials, in many places across the Russian Federation.
Last week, a blogger who styles himself “Vatslav Rus” started this process when he repeated on his blog, in full, two reports by local journalists about what has been happening behind the scenes in Stavropol on his blog: one by Aleksandr Emtsov, the chief editor of “Stavropolskiye Gubernskiye Vedomosti,” on January 30, and a second by Kirill Sochilov, a journalist for “Stavropolsky Reporter,” on February 5 (vatslav-rus.livejournal.com/17522.html).
As reposted on “Vatslav Rus’s” blog, Emtsov provocatively begins his newspaper article by asking “Are they secretly building a mosque in Stavropol?” The answer, he suggests, is that this is exactly what “they” are doing and that Orthodox Russians, already disturbed by the influx of North Caucasians into their region, should be concerned not only about them but equally about the way in which local administrators and judges are responding to them. Only local deputies and the media appear to provide them with any in-system defense.
The Stavropolskiye Gubernskiye Vedomosti editor reports that at the end of last month, a local deputy, Mikhail Kuzmin, told his fellow members of the krai duma that a mosque is being built in the city of Stavropol “illegally and therefore secretly.” Officials had approved plans for a business center, but it has become obvious that what is being put up, he said, is a mosque—something that was then confirmed by the local TV station, which showed that the interior of the building was perfect for a mosque but totally inappropriate for a business center. And that cast doubt both on the real plans of the two businessmen from Karachaevo-Cherkessia and on the statement of the local mufti, Muhammad-Haji Rakhimov, that “no one is building anything,” even though the 60,000 Muslims in the city need a mosque.
Paraphrasing the words of the 19th century Russian character Kozma Prutkov regarding official documents, Emtsov argues this case proves that “if in technical documentation the words ‘office center’ are used, it is not especially necessary for anyone to believe them. With us,” he continues, “they often begin to build one thing and then end up with something entirely different.” But in a place like Stavropol, where ethnic tensions are already extraordinarily high, such sleight of hand, once exposed, has infuriated Orthodox Russians who do not wish to see a minaret rise over their city or lambs slaughtered on Muslim holidays.
Construction of the illegal mosque began in 2010, and the journalist provides a brief history of the interaction of the businessmen behind it along with the decisions of administrators and the courts. Last year, officials stopped the construction when they realized the building was not going to conform to approved plans, but then the owners—who swore they were not building a mosque—went to court and won, both in the first instance and on appeal, and continued their work. Things might have remained at a low boil except for one thing: the owners then went back to court in December 2012 and sued the city for two million rubles ($65,000) for delaying the construction. That raises the possibility that Russian Orthodox taxpayer money might be used for the construction of an Islamic mosque.
In the second article disseminated by the blogger “Vatslav Rus,” journalist Sochilov draws even more explicit conclusions about this case: “the executive power [in the city] is demonstrating its cynicism”; only “the legislative [branch] is hotly speaking out on behalf of ordinary people.” Sochilov’s observation indicates that the case is contributing to anti-government attitudes in Stavropol right now. The scandal over the secret mosque construction in Stavropol appears likely to lead to similar media exposes about what Muslims may be doing in the shadows, greater cynicism about how officials are reacting, as well as greater anger among the Russian population about both Muslims and Russian officials.