Kremlin's pitfalls with muslims and Kadyrov

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov vehemently attacked the French president Macron for his response to the latest Muslim attack in Nice. To the embarrassment of the Kremlin. Inside Russia islamist terrorist attacks have become rare, since Putin's bloody handling of the hostage taking in a Moscow theater in 2002 and a school in the Caucasian town of Beslan in 2004. Around 20 million out of 144 million citizens of Russia consider themselves as Muslims. Russia faces four problems in its handling the Muslim population, explains our columnist Mark Galeotti: heavy-handed policing, the prevalence of Central Asian migrants, coronavirus. And Kadyrov. 

muslim kadyrovChechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov's attack on Macron is embarrassing for the Kremlin

by Mark Galeotti

Ramzan Kadyrov, Kremlin-approved warlord of Chechnya, calls France’s President Macron a ‘terrorist’ for his statements upholding freedom of speech over Muslim sensitivities, and Moscow police had to break up protests outside the French embassy. Whose side, more radical voices ask, is the Kremlin on? A Muslim teenager shot dead in Tatarstan after he tried to set fire to a police station with Molotov cocktails and stabbed an officer. What is the current state of relations between the Kremlin and the Koran?

For all the new Russian regime’s close alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church – its virtual nationalisation, some might say – it nonetheless has also put considerable effort into managing its relationship with the country’s Muslim population. After all, Islam is the country’s second-largest faith. The official figures say that, as of 2017, it accounted for some 10% of Russia’s population, with more than 14 million professing Islam.

However, these figures are an under-estimate, as for security reasons the relevant census was not run in two heavily-Muslim republics, Chechnya and Ingushetia. Furthermore, there is a large semi-permanent unregistered population of workers from Central Asia, who are also disproportionately likely to be Muslim. Although Grand Mufti Sheikh Rawil Gaynetdin is probably over-compensating when he estimates the figure as 25 million, it is likely close to 20 million, on a total of 144 million citizens of the Russian Federation.

The Kremlin’s strategy has focused on encouraging what it calls ‘traditional Islam’ – in other words, loyal and moderate – as a counter-balance to the more radical forms which have emerged in the North Caucasus and flared up elsewhere across the country.

The policy can sometimes be clumsy, especially on a local level. Last year, a court in Samara banned a translation of the Koran by Azeri theologian Elmir Kuliyev as an extremist document, something that caused considerable anger, not least as it had already been used as a teaching text in Muslim educational institutions. However, it has overall been quite successful for years, especially in maintaining heavily-Muslim regions such as Tatarstan as ‘firebreaks’ to prevent the spread of radical Islam.

Russia’s Muslim population appears no more or less happy than the rest of the population, and in October, Ali Rashid Al-Nuaimi, Chairman of the World Muslim Communities Council, praised Moscow for its commitment to demonstrating that Islam is integral to Russian society and culture.

Reasons to be uncheerful

However, four factors have contributed to undermine this situation: heavy-handed policing, the prevalence of Central Asian migrants, coronavirus and Kadyrov. The security forces’ response to the slow but perceptible spread of jihadist ideologies amongst a small minority of Muslims outside the North Caucasus has often been heavy-handed. To an extent, this reflects desperation and exasperation. Since 2015, the Kremlin has been increasingly concerned about the potential domestic threat from the Islamic State (IS). This has been responsible for a series of often small-scale plots, most of which are foiled. However, the FSB and the rest of Russia’s anti-terrorism apparatus has until relatively recently been focused almost exclusively on Muslims from the North Caucasus, although the 2017 St Petersburg metro bombing by an ethnic Uzbek born in Kyrgyzstan (but with Russian citizenship) did begin to bring about a reorientation towards the Central Asian populations.

central asian migrants from kyrgyzstan stranded in novosibirsk 30 march coronaKyrgyz migrant workers stranded in Novosibirsk in March 2020

As a result, they lack expertise and agents in other Muslim communities, and in their absence they have often relied on brute force methods including mass arrests, which tend themselves to be radicalising. They also have to depend on information from Central Asian security services whose methods, accuracy and impartiality is often questionable. An ex-FSB source once told me that a set of dossiers supplied by the Uzbek security police, the DXX, managed to confuse names and dates of birth to the point that a 53-year-old visiting university professor was almost arrested as a returning IS fighter. 

Indeed, the Central Asian factor is significant in its own right. Central Asians do the jobs Russians don’t want to (or for salaries Russians won’t accept): 2.4 million in the first half of 2019 alone, together comprising perhaps 4.5 million of the 7 million legal and unregistered migrants in the country.

The coronavirus pandemic has had a disastrous impact on their incomes and employment: according to one survey, in Moscow 75% lost their incomes  compared to 48% of Russian workers. For many, the situation at home is not better – and even if they do want to return to their native countries, travel restrictions often make that impossible.

They typically congregate in camps and informal communities where, in the worst cases, a sense of grievance can fester (as is already happening in Russia’s prisons, another hotbed of radicalisation), and the new concern is that this may produce an environment in which extremism can spread and flourish. These communities are also very hard for the FSB to penetrate: they know each other at first or second hand making it hard to place agents among them, and the use of smartphones (which can be tracked or intercepted) is often limited or shared. For years as a result the Russians have had to rely on intelligence from their Central Asian counterparts – but this is often inaccurate, misleading or politically-weighted.

A final problem is Ramzan Kadyrov’s increasingly outspoken role as an alternative and rather more carnivorous Muslim leader. Originally, this was something the Kremlin encouraged, seeing him as an informal representative abroad in countries where the traditional Russian Muslim hierarchy was less welcome. However, the way his actions, from murdering critics to criticising Macron, affect Moscow’s foreign relations, just as he is openly flouting Russia’s laws and constitution, such as by  imposing a form of Sharia law inside Chechnya, all this means that he is becoming a challenge and an embarrassment to the Kremlin, as well as undermining the more moderate tone of the ‘traditional Islam’ wing.

Chickens coming home to roost

The Kremlin’s unwillingness to tackle Kadyrov, a problem in so many policy areas, also makes it difficult to prevent this challenge. There is undoubtedly a desire on the part of the Kremlin to placate local Islamic authorities. In the wake of the renewed controversy about caricatures in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that ‘the existence of such media in our country is absolutely impossible, including in terms of current legislation,’ for example. He added, more out of optimism than accuracy, that ‘the uniqueness of our country is precisely in its multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature and all faiths live in full respect for each other.’

muslim extremists martial arts champion nurmagomedovMartial arts champion Khabib Nurmagomedov vehemently attacked Macron as 'brute': 'May God mutilate his face!'

Yet Kadyrov is characteristically confrontational. His determination to use the French case as an opportunity not only to virtue-signal his Islamic passions but also to consolidate his attempt to assume a role of spiritual leadership is striking.

This has encouraged others. When Dagestani mixed martial arts champion Khabib Nurmagomedov launched an intemperate attack on Macron – ‘may God mutilate the face of this brute and that of all his followers who offend the feelings of over 1.5 billion Muslims under the slogan of free speech’ – he was simply following his patron Kadyrov’s lead. The Mufti of Chechnya Salakh Mezhiyev called Macron ‘the number one terrorist in the world.’

Mezhiyev is not Kadyrov, so Peskov felt able to criticise him, but even then in quite weak terms. After all, when he tried indirectly to distance Moscow from Kadyrov’s comments about Macron, simply stating that it is for the president to determine foreign policy, the Chechen refused to back down, stating that he was speaking ‘as a Muslim, and not as a politician.’

While Kadyrov has had no hesitation using his own people and members of the wider Chechen diaspora to target his enemies, the irony is that the wider issue of ethnic Chechens being involved in attacks around the world – most recently in the fateful Parisian knife attack – has little directly to do with him. In some cases, they are perpetrated by fighters forced out of Chechnya and looking for new targets, and the very presence of an often impoverished and alienated Chechen refugee diaspora creates conditions in which radicalism can incubate. (Chechen insurgents in Syria, for example, tend to be second- or third-generation members of the Chechen community that once lived in the Golan Heights.) However, the impression that Chechens are a dangerous force for extremism, which Moscow has been unable or unwilling to control, is nonetheless problematic for the Russian state.

Overall, Russia’s approach to integrating, co-opting and managing its Muslim communities is broadly successful (it needs to be, given the demographics, which mean that a growing proportion of the total population will come from these regions). There is no imminent threat of any major wave of radicalisation. However, it also provides an example of the ways wider policies – heavy-handed policing, the dependence on poorly-paid Central Asian guest workers, indifferent handling of COVID-19 and the license granted Kadyrov – all have serious long-term risks and above all highlight the short-termism of so much Kremlin policy.