Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 8

The Muslims in Russia’s Presidential Elections

By Aleksei Malashenko

Fanil Akhmadiyev, the leader of the Islamic Democratic Party, is one of the dozens of candidates in this year’s presidential elections. Neither Mr. Akhmadiyev or his associates have much of a chance of winning, but the pertinent fact is that yet another Islamic party is seeking to declare its presence on the Russian political scene.

The use of Islam for political purposes has traditionally been denounced, but it is not necessarily a harmful or negative phenomenon. Islamic teaching does not call for a clear division of secular and religious values: as far as Islam is concerned, there exist no barriers between the religion itself and its political face. Additionally, Islamic parties have long existed in nearly all the countries of the world with significant Moslem populations, including, historically, Russia where a Muslim faction, formed along religious lines, existed in the prerevolutionary Russian State Duma.

The tradition of Muslim political participation was, of course, abandoned during the Soviet era. But a political renaissance began in the 1980’s, and the tradition was restored before the end of Soviet rule.

The Islamic Revival Party was established in the USSR in 1990. This party was the first Islamic political organization of the perestroika period and it provided the initial impetus for Islam to return to politics. (A number of attempts to play the Islamic card were made during 1980’s in the Soviet republics of Central Asia, specifically in connection with the Afghan War). Although the Islamic Revival Party failed to develop as an influential political force and its activities were limited to mainly educational efforts, its Tajik branch served as a basis for the creation of the wellknown Tajik Islamic Revival Party.

The most recent activization of Islamic political activity began in 1995 and had as its catalysts the Chechen conflict and the State Duma elections.

Initially, the Chechen war did not have a religious character. But as hostilities became increasingly severe the conflict began to acquire religious overtones. First, Chechen separatist leader Djohar Dudaev has used the slogan of Jihad, a holy war of Muslims against infidels, to encourage the Chechen resistance and has made attempts to appeal to Muslim international solidarity. The idea that the Chechen war is a conflict between Islam and Christianity has spread among some radical Cossacks, especially those who live in the North Caucasus. Finally, certain Russian generals have found it useful to present the war in religious terms to give themselves the opportunity to declare that those who are opposing the federal troops in Chechnya are not ordinary bandits but Mujaheddin. Their participation in the action has therefore acquired a more "prestigious character."

As far as the Chechens are concerned, their resistance serves to raise their prestige among other Muslims who live in Russia despite the fact that they denounce the Chechens’ terrorism. Representatives of other Muslim peoples of the Russian Federation, openly declaring that this war is an allMuslim Jihad against Russia, fought for Dudaev in 1995.

When appraising the Chechen resistance and its ultimate goal of winning for Chechnya genuine sovereignty, nationalist radicals in the North Caucasus and Tatarstan recall their own efforts to win sovereignty. The war in Chechnya has provided these radical nationalists with a pretext to speculate about Russia’s imminent collapse and the restoration of an Islamic "Golden Horde," like the one defeated by Russia in the 1516th century. "Ittifak" Tatar radical nationalistic party leader Fauzia Bairamova, with supporters in Bashkortostan, in halfChristian and halfpagan Mordovia and in a number of districts of the Volga area where Muslims constitute a noticeable minority, view the situation in the same way.

In the meantime, separatist feelings have grown stronger in the North Caucasus, where some leaders have emerged who advocate a unification of the peoples along religious lines. This idea, which would have been considered absurd a year ago, has won many supporters today. The Chechen conflict, which coincided with the State Duma elections, has prompted Muslims to think about the need for political unification and has indirectly promoted the formation of a number of Islamic political organizations in Russia. Two Muslim organizations, the "Nur" Muslim popular movement and the Russian Muslim Union, were formed in Russia during the summer and fall of 1995. Simultaneously, two smaller Muslim organizations, the Islamic Democratic Party and the Islamic Committee, became more active.

During 1995 "Nur" and the Russian Muslim Union (RMU) established their branches in 47 and 50 regions, respectively, of the Russian Federation. The social bases of these organizations are rather fluid, but representatives of the Muslim intelligentsia constitute the majority of their members and activists. Representatives of the Muslim clergy also take part in the activities of these organizations. (Paradoxically, two of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s associates were initially members of the leaderships of both Islamic organizations. Former LDPR member Akhmed Khalitov was one of the founders and leaders of the Russian Muslim Union and Akhmed Yakhin, an assistant to LDPR State Duma faction member A. Mitrofanov, was at the top of the "Nur" election slate for the 1995 parliamentary elections. Shortly thereafter, Khalitov and Yakhin were expelled from the Muslim parties).

On the eve of the State Duma election campaign, the RMU appeared to be a more sound and authoritative organization than the "Nur" organization. However, the internecine squabbles that plagued RMU from the very start prevented the organization from devoting sufficient attention to the task of uniting ordinary Muslims behind it. Later, as a result of purely technical mistakes by RMU functionaries, the organization was denied registration by the Central Election Committee. Aiming to present this failure as the result of pressure exerted by the authorities, RMU coleader Sheik Nafigulla Ashirov declared that the Central Election Committee’s formalistic refusal to grant the registration to the RMU might provoke negative reactions among Russia’s Muslims. However, RMU’s attempt to stir up passions among the North Caucasus residents were without consequence.

Meanwhile, "Nur," which had not been taken seriously by its rivals, suddenly became remarkably active. "Nur" was registered by the Central Election Committee as an electoral bloc and received 0.58 percent of the overall vote in the elections. It is noteworthy that in Chechnya and Ingushetia, "Nur" received 23 percent and in Tatarstan it received 5 percent and, according to unofficial information — 17 percent.

Having failed to obtain registration and hence unable to take part in the elections, RMU at the very last moment called on its supporters to vote for Chernomyrdin’s "Russia Is Our Home" bloc.

The relatively poor showing of "Nur" and the failure of RMU in the elections should not allow us to forget that there are nearly 14 million Muslims in Russia (Muslim clergymen insist the true figure is 2021 million). During the 1980’s and 1990’s a small but active stratum of Muslims claiming the right to participate in Russia’s social and political life has crystallized in the country. These politically active representatives of the Muslim community arouse interest in Russia’s professional Muslim politicians, like Ramazan Abdulatipov, and attract the sponsorship of Muslim businessmen. It is important to remember that many speakers at the RMU congress of August and September, 1995 emphasized the need for Muslims to fill as many positions as possible in the Russian establishment so that Muslim religious and political interests could be adequately defended and this view can be seen as reflecting the longterm strategic goal of the Russian Islamic activists.

This past winter, both Muslim parties began to prepare for the upcoming presidential elections campaign. There is no possibility that the Muslims will have their own presidential candidate this time (the above mentioned appearance of Fanil Akhmadiyev on the list of presidential candidates is rather an ironical happenstance) but certain radicals remain undeterred. They maintain that only a Muslim president "acting according to the fundamental traditions of Islam can lead the country out of chaos and restore its true IslamicChristian nature."

However, at a recent conference devoted to evaluating the results of the State Duma elections and to the development of future strategies, "Nur" leaders declared their support for Grigory Yavlinsky.

Obviously, the problem of uniting for joint action remains the number one problem for Russian Muslims and attempts are being made to resolve it. The "Nur" conference was attended by RMU Secretary General Mukaddas Birbasov. Although no formal agreement on cooperation between the two organizations has thus far been signed, a possibility that the two will come to terms definitely exists.

But RMU, which continues to support Viktor Chernomyrdin, is still plagued by serious internal contradictions. In February 1996 Mukaddas Birbasov left his post as the organization’s leader. Therefore, it is possible that yet another Muslim political organization will emerge in the near future.

At first glance it might appear that the activities of the Islamic organizations and the "Islamic factor" in general have little or no influence on the political situation in Russia. However, it is precisely in the Russian Federation’s Muslim areas that particularly problematic situations have emerged. The potential for instability remains and ultimately has a dramatic effect on the activities of Russia’s ruling elite. Finally, the size of the Muslim electorate is considerable; hence their votes might dramatically effect the results of the upcoming presidential elections.

Translated by A. Kondorsky

Aleksei Malashenko is the head of the Islam Studies department of the Oriental Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences