The Moscow media have been carrying out “a campaign to discredit” the political leadership of Tatarstan and undermine investment in that Middle Volga republic over the last six months, Damir-Khazrat Mukhetdinov, deputy chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of European Russia, wrote last week. These media outlets have routinely exaggerated problems in Tatarstan, suggested that Muslim radicals enjoy support within the Kazan government, and even called for Stalinist-style repression against “the Wahhabis.” But despite what gives every appearance of being an orchestrated effort, “the opponents of Tatarstan have achieved their goal” of cutting the traditional high standing of Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov (damir-hazrat.livejournal.com/56419.html; https://islamrf.ru/news/analytics/point-of-view/24411/).
According to Mukhetdinov, this “information campaign,” which had already taken off earlier this year and especially after the assassination of Kazan Muslim leader Valiulla Yakupov, on July 19, “only intensified in September,” and the desired result has been “obtained.” According to a survey, published on October 10, that ranks Russia’s regional leaders in terms of their impact on Russian policy and politics at the federal level, “the Tatarstan President fell from second place to fifth” (www.ng.ru/regions/2012-10-10/6_rating.html). Nezavisimaya Gazeta sought to explain this decline by pointing to supposed unhappiness in Tatarstan over Minnikhanov’s recent statement that “serious social-economic and political problems are not resolved on the street” (www.president.tatarstan.ru/pub/view/14322).
But the real explanation, Mukhetdinov argued, is that “in numerous federal media outlets a campaign [seeks] to discredit the authorities of the republic and undermine [the republic’s] attractiveness as a place for investment,” a campaign about which the Muslim leader said he and his colleagues have warned about “repeatedly and in all possible venues.” Unfortunately, he continued, many have preferred to believe more dramatic statements made by writers like Rais Suleymanov and Roman Silantyev and movies like Andrey Porshkin’s “The Horde.”
Suleymanov, head of the Volga Center of Regional and Ethnic-Religious Studies at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, has not only suggested that the traditional moderate Muslim communities in the Middle Volga are becoming radicalized and thus are following the pattern of the North Caucasus (kazantimes.com/kazanmoments/pro-moscow-expert-sees-radical-islam-a-threat-to-tatarstan/), but he has insisted that the leadership of Tatarstan like that of Dagestan “does not have the political will or the ability to conduct an effective struggle with the Wahhabis,” and things are going “slowly but truly” toward “the capitulation” of Tatarstan to the radicals (www.regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/tatarstan/1578514.html). Roman Silantyev, a protégé of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, director of the human rights center of the World Russian People’s Council, and the author of numerous books and articles, has taken a similar line. According to Mukhetdinov, the two “again and again [call for] extra-judicial repression and the introduction of martial law” in portions of Tatarstan (www.rostend.su/?q=node/179). The Muslim leader says that “yes, it is necessary to struggle with extremists and radicals but not with the methods of ’37,” referring to the Stalinist repressions of the late 1930s.
Lastly, Proshkin’s film, which Tatarskaya Gazeta describes as a manifestation of “the state ideology of Tatarophobia,” has infuriated many Tatars because the Russian government provided $7 million to $12 million to fund it through the Orthodox Encyclopedia Film Studio (www.tatargazeta.ru/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=367:2012-10-15-09-54-17&catid=11:2010-11-04-15-40-54&Itemid=20).
For many outside of the Middle Volga, this back and forth may sound like a tempest in a teapot. But there are three reasons why it is anything but; and the way in which Moscow and the West view what is taking place in Tatarstan matters profoundly.
First of all, as Mukhetdinov noted, Moscow has always been concerned about the independent stance of the leaders of Tatarstan and neighboring Bashkortostan and has regularly taken steps to cut them down to size. After Vladimir Putin organized the departure of Mintimir Shaimyev of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan’s Murtaza Rakhimov in 2010, the central Russian government appeared to have assumed that it would not face challenges from that corner again. But in recent months, the economic power and geographic advantages of these two republics have helped power nationalism in both. The current campaign is the latest effort to by Moscow to limit their growing influence.
This past weekend, a group of Tatars marked the anniversary of the Russian sacking of Kazan in 1552, an event that continues to echo in the consciousness of Tatars and Russians (www.business-gazeta.ru/article/68180/; www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=48354; mariuver.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/tat-zasch-kazan/).
And last week, Bashkortostan’s President Rustem Khamitov said that “alongside Orthodoxy, Islam is a state-forming religion”—heresy for most Russians and certainly a challenge to Moscow’s current thinking (www.rus-obr.ru/days/20584). And equally heretical, at least for Putin and his regime, a demonstration in Bashkortostan called for the recovery of the republic’s sovereignty (kyk-byre.ru/847-miting-za-vozvraschenie-suvereniteta-respublike-bashkortostan.html).
By suggesting that Tatar and Bashkir nationalism is nothing more than a cover for radical Islamism, Moscow hopes to undercut the new national movements there and to deflect any criticism of a tough approach. Indeed, for the current Russian government, charging its opponents with the crime of Islamism is a “get out of jail free” card as far as many in Moscow and the West are concerned.
Second, this campaign marks a major shift in Russian thinking about the more than 20 million Muslims who live in that country. Up until recently and with justification, Moscow has treated the Islamic umma in the Russian Federation as divided between the more fundamentalist trends in the North Caucasus and the historically moderate, even modernist Islam of the Middle Volga—a view both Russian and Western experts have tended to agree with. That portrait was incomplete: there have always been moderates in the North Caucasus Muslim community, and there have always been fundamentalists in the Middle Volga.
But in its effort to blacken the reputations of the leaders of the Middle Volga republics, Russian media has suggested that the Muslims in the Middle Volga are shifting toward radicalism—and many in the West have gone along with this reframing. It is certainly true that there are some fundamentalist, even “Wahhabist” groups in the Middle Volga, but recent media claims notwithstanding, it does not appear that they have somehow suddenly become dominant. Much of the reporting has failed to acknowledge that outrages like the assassination of Yakupov in Kazan last summer did not require large numbers of people but rather was the work of a tiny cell.
If the authorities in Moscow and governments in the West decide to view the Muslims of the Middle Volga as overwhelmingly radical, that will have at least two serious consequences in addition to its falsification of the actual record. On the one hand, it will lead to the kind of repressive policies there that will produce what the authors of this campaign say they most fear. And on the other, it could lead to a confluence of religion and nationalism in the Middle Volga, with each providing new energy to the other—again an outcome Moscow cannot possibly desire.
And third—and this is the most worrisome of all—Moscow’s media campaign against the Middle Volga and its Muslims will reinforce the notion widespread among many Russians and all too many in the West that the Russian Federation’s population is divided between an ethnic Russian majority and a Muslim minority that is homogenous rather than highly differentiated. That will simultaneously help power more traditionalist Russian ethno-nationalism, provide the justification for a more repressive approach to Russia’s Muslims tout court, and generate the kind of tensions that almost certainly would prove explosive.