Accessibility links

New Muslim Problem for Moscow

  • Paul Goble

Washington, March 29 (RFE/RL) - Moscow's increasingly violent military campaign in Chechnya not only is further antagonizing the Chechen opposition but also is alienating the other Muslim peoples of the Russian Federation and Moscow's Muslim neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The Russian military's continuing struggle against the Chechen opposition, sharply criticized this week in an OSCE study as "warfare against the civilian population," has failed to bring Moscow any real victories. Instead, the very viciousness of the Russian attacks has convinced many Chechens that they have no option but to go on fighting and has prompted some Russian political leaders to form a broad coalition to oppose the war.

While the resolve of the Chechens to fight on and the willingness of Russians to speak out against the war may be serious headaches for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, another result of the Russian army's latest campaign may have even more fateful consequences for the Russian Federation in the future. That result is the increasing tendency of leaders of Muslim nationalities within the Russian Federation to condemn Moscow's handling of the war.

On Monday, Mintimir Shaimiev, the newly re-elected president of Tatarstan, publicly called on Moscow to grant an amnesty to Chechen leader Jokar Dudayev and to include him in all future peace talks. On Tuesday, leaders from Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and several north Caucasian republics met with the Russian Federation's Muslim Association to try to develop an alternative peace plan for Chechnya, one that would include all Chechens and not just the current Moscow-installed leadership. And on Wednesday and Thursday, representatives of these groups met with Western experts in The Hague to explore the same issues.

Given that Moscow has declared Dudayev an outlaw for his role in the war and that Yeltsin has shown little willingness to seek a solution other than by force, the Russian government seems unlikely to listen.

That is Moscow's mistake. Beginning in October 1993 when the Russian authorities expelled otherwise innocent "persons of Caucasian nationality" from Moscow after Yeltsin dispersed the Supreme Soviet by force and even more in past 16 months of fighting, Russian officials and journalists often have presented the conflict in Chechnya as one between Christian Russia and Muslim Chechnya. That may have helped to generate support for the fighting among some Russians and even some Western countries, but it has done nothing to endear Moscow to Muslim groups. Not surprisingly, ever more of them are speaking out, and their attitudes could spell major difficulties for Russia in the future.

By itself, Chechnya is only a tiny part of Russia, but Muslim nationalities like the Tatars and Bashkirs make up more than 10 percent of the population of the Russian Federation. If these groups decide that they can and must oppose the Yeltsin government on Chechnya, Moscow not only has a bigger immediate problem, but it has a virtually insoluble longer term one as well.

If Yeltsin continues to foster the impression that this war is part of Russia's struggle with Islam, he will find the leaders in Kazan, Ufa, and other Muslim centers within the Russian Federation less interested in talking with him and more willing to listen to those who argue that these autonomous republics need real independence.

Moreover, Moscow's increasingly anti-Muslim line in Chechnya is offending Russia's Muslim neighbors in Central Asia. Traditionally the most willing of the former Soviet republics to cooperate with Moscow, the Central Asian countries have been frightened not only by the Belarusian "union" idea but also by Moscow's attitude toward Muslims as such. Many, such as the Uzbeks, are now drawing away from further talks with Moscow. And even those such as the Kyrgyz who are pursuing closer ties now feel compelled to justify their actions by arguing that they must move now because a future Russian government might be even more hostile to its Muslim neighbors.