As Moscow Weakens Republics, Islamist Radicalism Spreads Into Middle Volga


Monday marks the 20th anniversary of Tatarstan’s Declaration of State Sovereignty, an action that Moscow over the last decade has done what it could to gut only to see the decline in the influence of the secular republics open the way for a rise in Islamist radicalism there.

That unintended conjunction is suggested by the appearance of two articles in the Moscow media today, one that describes how little is left of Tatarstan’s 1990 Declaration ( and a second that calls attention to the spread of Islamist terrorism into the Middle Volga (

Writing in “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Yan Gordeyev, a Kazan-based journalist, argues that “the independent Constitution of Tatarstan has passed into non-existence,” despite the hopes of Tatars 20 years ago that the then-Soviet Union “was entering into a different epoch, ‘renewed’ and democratic.”

But today, he continues, “from the former freedoms have been preserved only a few formal attributes” and now in 2010, “the future of these” – which include the post of republic president and a power-sharing agreement with Moscow – is “cloudy” and likely slated for disappearance one way or another.

That marks a major change from the 1990s. During that decade, “Tatarstan celebrated the adoption of the Declaration of State Sovereignty or simply the Day of Sovereignty. Then, the republic did not consider itself a subject of the Federation but was only ‘associated’ with Russia” on a treaty basis.

With the rise of Vladimir Putin, however, Tatarstan step by step lost the content of that declaration and hence the reason for celebrating it. Its independent constitution was changed, its special financial privileges eliminated, its special insert page in Russian passports dropped, and its Committee of State Security transformed into a regional administration of the FSB.

As a result, the holiday was “initially renamed into the apolitical Day of the Republic, and then in 2005, August 30th was combined with the massive celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of Kazan, after which the day of sovereignty was reduced to the Day of the City,” the “Nezavisimaya” journalist continues.

That does not mean that Tatarstan has not won some benefits from giving up the provisions of the 1990 declarations, Gordeyev says. It has. “Every time when it has eliminated one of the signs of its independence, the republic has received from the federal Center either participation in a multi-million ruble program or economic support of major projects.”

As a result, “today, Moscow transfers to the needs of Kazan gigantic sums, which taken together exceed by three times the budget of the entire republic.” And to secure the elimination of the remaining markers of sovereignty, Gordeyev suggests, the center is likely to be willing to pay even more.

But this reduction in the status of Tatarstan and other non-Russian republics in the Middle Volga and elsewhere may be coming with a price that Moscow will find it more difficult to pay. As secular non-Russian nationalism is crushed out of the system, its place is increasingly being filled by Islamist radicalism, often in places far from the North Caucasus.

In “Novaya versiya” today, Ruslan Gorevoy suggests that “Islamist radicalism is slowly but surely flowing out of the North Caucasus into the Middle Volga and further to the east of the country” and just as in the North Caucasus, it is infecting not just social isolates but some officials as well.
Among those recently shot during the detention of one Bashkir radical group, Gorevoy notes, there was “an official of the city administration, two militiamen, two recidivists, and a former member of an informal social group,” a pattern that suggests Islamist radicalism in these areas is spreading to new groups which had little to do with it in the past.

After Moscow forced the replacement of the longtime republic presidents in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, a series of FSB and militia operations found that “in these republics, shariat courts were operating everywhere just as they had in Chechnya in the mid-1990s” and that some local people had trained with the radicals in the North Caucasus.

While the new leaders in Kazan and Ufa have placed the blame on their predecessors for this even as they have tried to keep coverage of it to a minimum, other discoveries from these operations have been even more troubling, including the large amount of “radical Islamist literature which, characteristically,” Gordeyev points out, “is in Russian.”

Details about all these things, the “Novaya versiya” journalist continues, have surfaced s a result of the earlier arrest in Chelyabinsk of Bashir Pliyev, who had called himself the Bashkir Emir and claimed to be “the organizer and spiritual leader of the bandit underground in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan.”

Pliyev has told investigators, Gordeyev say, that there are branches of his group in more than 10 republics and oblasts of the Middle Volga and that many of the acts of violence officials have treated as independent or ordinary crimes were in fact the work of his controlling center which has links to Al-Qaeda.

All this forces one to conclude, Gordeyev says, that “the radical Islamist terrorist underground for [Tatarstan and Bashkortostan] is just as much a reality as the existence of traditional Islam and that recipes for the struggle with ideological bombs that have been placed in the heads of [some of the] young still do not exist.”

Moscow may thus be pleased that it has reined in the secular nationalist aspirations of these republics, but it can only be deeply troubled that in place of such ideologies, just as in place of the secular nationalism of Chechnya’s Dzhokhar Dudayev, the center’s own policies have opened the way for a far more dangerous and violent Islamist movement.

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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