Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 9

by Nikolai Petrov

Russia is a country that encompasses an enormous range of socio-political and ethnic-confessional conditions. Foreign political developments, therefore, can have various–and sometimes opposing–effects on different parts of the country. Throughout Russia, anti-war and anti-American sentiments were expressed, with varying degrees of intensity, during the recent U.S. military operations in Iraq. But the protests were generally less vociferous than during the Kosovo crisis of 1999. They included statements by official authorities, as well as pickets, rallies and demonstrations. There were also other protests such as anti-war petitions, boycotts of McDonalds and American goods and anti-war stage shows. Given President Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the United States for launching the war, these protests did not take on an anti-Kremlin character.


The governors, and the regions as a whole, now seem both less independent and less politicized than they were, say, three years ago. The communist governor of Volgograd, Nikolai Maksyuta, called America a “monster-state.” But even such usually outspoken figures as Samara’s Konstantin Titov, Kemerovo’s Aman Tuleev, Perm’s Yury Trutnev and Krasnodar’s Aleksandr Tkachev were more circumspect in their public criticism of U.S. actions. They echoed Putin’s statements about the war being “a political error.”

Primorye Governor Sergei Darkin tried to force local TV and cinema to stop showings of militaristic American films, but he received a stiff reprimand from the press ministry over the unacceptability of censorship. The president of the Buddhist republic of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was unique in traveling to Baghdad and meeting with one of Saddam Hussein’s sons on the very eve of the war. The leaders of oil rich Sakhalin and Khanty-Mansi Okrugs issued statements less about the war than about its likely effects in terms of a fall in oil prices.

The reactions of the governors are interesting not only for their general “thinness”–resulting from the lack of any strong line from the Kremlin–but also for the extremely restrained and cautious tone of their statements and their display of total agreement with President Putin. Compared with Kosovo, the governors this time around have clearly been more concerned with displays of loyalty than with boosting their own popularity.

It is instructive to note that the roll-call of governors who have spoken out against the war includes none of the “rebels” whom Putin earlier tamed and corralled into United Russia: Yury Luzhkov, Mintimer Shaimiev and Murtaza Rakhimov. This club is based not on ideology but on ambition. Thus, the ‘reds,’ Maksyuta and Tkachev, are rubbing shoulders here with the populist individualist Tuleev as well as Titov and Trutnev from the right. The group includes the two governors who ran in the presidential elections–that is, Tuleev and Titov–and also the “Napoleon of Saratov,” Dmitry Ayatskov.

There was even less of a response from the regional parliaments, which generally follow the line of their respective governors and which, unlike their federal level colleagues, polish off their rhetoric most often on domestic issues. Unusually, the Tomsk Duma did adopt a resolution condemning the Iraq war. The lawmakers there linked the war to a recent Russian-American agreement to close two of three reactors that produce weapons-grade plutonium in the closed town of Seversk. “The war is very close to us,” said the Tomsk Duma speaker. “The Greens will be delighted to see the Americans insisting that we close down our nuclear reactors.”


The religious aspect of the war is important, given that as many as 20 million Moslems may be living in Russia (during the Kosovo crisis Muslims opposed Russian support for Orthodox Serbia). Russia’s Muslims feel some spiritual brotherhood with the Arab East, which is where some of their mullahs hailed from and is also a source for funds with which they have built mosques. Some may also travel there to make the hajj (pilgrimage). So for them it is a matter of “foreigners attacking our own kind.” For Russian Christians it is seen as something different: It is about “the strong attacking the weak.”

Anti-war rallies by Muslim groups took place almost every day in towns across Dagestan. Numerous rallies opposing the war were also held in Kazan and Naberezhnye Chelny, Ufa and many more towns in the national republics of the Volga region.

An examination of the question of jihad helps to shed light on the internal conflicts and rivalries among the Muslim clerics. At a meeting in Ufa on April 3, a jihad was declared against the nations that had initiated the war. The declaration was made by the Supreme Mufti, Talgat Tadjuddin, who is the head of the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims. The CSBM is one of the two main organizations claiming leadership of Russia’s Muslims. In Tadjuddin’s words, the unanimous decision to declare a jihad was taken a day earlier, following a postal ballot of the heads of the twenty-nine muftiates that form the CSBM. It was the second such jihad to be declared in Russia’s history; the first was directed against Fascist Germany in 1941. “We will set up a fund for donations and use the money to buy arms for the struggle against America, as well as provisions for the people of Iraq,” said Tadjuddin.

The declaration provoked negative reactions from the U.S. Embassy, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office and its Justice Ministry, the Council of Muftis and individual muftiates, and the authorities in Tatarstan. In response the CSBM backtracked, declaring that the opposition envisaged was of a purely spiritual nature. Expressed in this light, the call to jihad secured the support of a number of muftiates, including that of Sverdlovsk.


Rallies and demonstrations in the non-Muslim provinces were organized chiefly by Gennady Zyuganov’s Communist Party (KPRF), Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and Eduard Limonov’s National Bolsheviks. On occasion their actions were supported by local branches of the pro-Kremlin United Russia.

In Taganrog, a cafe announced that U.S. and British citizens would not be served. But tourists are few here; of greater concern to the locals is the fact that Taganrog’s “Red Boilerman” plant supplied components for Iraq’s Josifiya and Al-Musaib thermal power stations. Similarly, a spate of “Yankee go home” posters in Kstovo in Nizhny Novgorod Oblast may be connected to the fact that the nearby Avtogaz plant has lost a US$20 million contract to supply taxis for Baghdad. Similarly, the Tatneft oil company of Tatarstan fears the loss of contracts worth US$1 billion following the U.S. takeover in Iraq, while the Chelyabinsk tractor plant has reported that its contracts for the supply of road building equipment have also been terminated.

Meanwhile, anti-war protests have been organized by United Russia in Saratov and Stavropol, Barnaul, Omsk and Chelyabinsk, and Chukotka. These have generally been rallies in support of Putin’s statements condemning the military action in Iraq, and numerous community organizations joined in: Labor unions, councils of army veterans, soldiers’ mothers’ movements, Women of Russia and others. The noisiest United Russia rally took place in Ufa. There, much to the surprise of the organizers, the sword-waving Tadjuddin declared a jihad against America. The largest rally took place in Moscow on April 10, the day that Baghdad was taken, when tens of thousands of protesters blocked downtown. Earlier, soon after the beginning of the war, there was a meeting in Kursk to protest against the possibility of Russian soldiers participating in the war. Was this, perhaps, a reaction to the decision by neighboring Ukraine to send an NBC (nuclear, biological and chemical) defense battalion to Iraq?

In television reports covering the demonstrations in Russia there have been none of the crowds of students and old hippies seen in Europe and the United States. More evident have been “babushkas” and marginalized members of the public. Some of them apparently agree to participate for money–better to stand outside the U.S. Embassy waving a placard than beg on Tverskaya Street. But young people can be seen there too, and also those who are committed. On one of the first days of the war, for example, a whole column of protesting bikers filed past the American Embassy blaring their horns. Significantly, not one of the main political parties has risked incurring the displeasure of the Kremlin by organizing a truly large scale demonstration.

Those regions that have seen large-scale protests against the war in Iraq can be classified in four main categories:

1. Those having an appropriate location to hold a demonstration–a U.S. or British consulate, for example, or a branch of McDonalds;

2. Those where there are people wanting to demonstrate – regions with strong Muslim traditions such as Dagestan, Tataria, Bashkortostan; also Moscow, and Saratov and Samara Oblasts;

3. Those where people are aggrieved or suffering as a result of cancelled contracts or other financial loss–Kazan and Naberezhnye Chelny in Tatarstan, Ufa, Nizhny Novgorod and Chelyabinsk;

4. Finally, those areas where an opportunity has arisen to organize a popular protest, such as during the People’s Assembly elections in Dagestan.

In a special category are the volunteers who have declared a desire to go to Iraq to fight against the coalition forces (some have already gone). Information on these people is highly contradictory. If you ignore the more far-fetched accounts, there are reports of dozens of volunteers who have enlisted at the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow, others who were recruited months before the war, and still others desiring to fight who are part of groups coming from Tatarstan and Chechnya.


The regional repercussions of the war in Iraq, though set against a backdrop of high general levels of anti-war and anti-American feeling, still do not appear to amount to much. There are several reasons for this. There is the passive, wait-and-see stance of the Kremlin; the absence of any confident, independent politicians on the national stage; and the demise of “rebel” governors and their spontaneous populist initiatives. There is also the lack of any real pluralism in the political life of the provinces, which stifles the emergence of any dynamic movements from below.

Against this general backdrop of relative calm, there have been several local peaks of community-based political activism connected with the war in Iraq. These have tended to be associated with Muslim organizations and the left-wing opposition, but also with United Russia, as it has tried to seize the initiative. Of special note is Dagestan, which is, perhaps incidentally, the only one of the North Caucasian republics where Sunni Arabs have emerged to take the lead in the religious revival that has occurred over the past few years. There the war has also coincided with elections to the People’s Assembly. Developments in the Urals and Volga regions, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and a series of other regions with strong Tatar communities have also been noteworthy.

The war, or at least its active phase, is now drawing to a close, but its echoes will be heard again and again in Russian politics. Moreover, these “aftershocks” could grow ever more intense with the approach of the parliamentary elections in December.

Nikolai Petrov is head of the Center for Political Geographic Research and a leading research associate with the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences.