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As Clinton Continues Russia Tour, Many Ask: Why Kazan?

  • Brian Whitmore

President Mintimer Shaimiyev (left) welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Kazan.

President Mintimer Shaimiyev (left) welcomes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Kazan.

In what officials describe as an effort to see Russia "beyond the Moscow ring road," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will spend several hours in the city of Kazan on her second and final day of a Russia tour.

Clinton's October 14 visit, coming after meetings in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, marks the first visit by a senior U.S. official to predominantly Muslim Tatarstan.

U.S. officials say the short visit will highlight interfaith cooperation, with the secretary meeting religious leaders and young Muslims to discuss how to bridge the divide between faiths. She will also meet with Tatarstan's independent-minded president, Mintimer Shaimiyev.

Analysts say the visit is a continuation of a new White House strategy of multifaceted public diplomacy that aims to reach beyond the Kremlin.

Steven Pifer, a former State Department official specializing in Russian affairs who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the strategy began with President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow this summer when he "attended the civil society summit."

Pifer says that the trip shows that Washington "is not just negotiating with the government in Moscow, but is engaging in some outreach to the broader country." He says Clinton is "demonstrating that part of the approach to Russia is outreach to broader society."

Religious Tolerance On Display


Tatarstan is an unusual example of a Russian region where the majority of the population is Muslim, but where interethnic and interfaith strife is rare. According to the latest census, 52.9 percent of Tatarstan's 3.8 million inhabitants are predominantly Muslim Tatars; 39.5 percent are predominantly Orthodox Christian Russians.

Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, believes the visit will benefit the Obama administration's broader outreach to the Muslim world.

"I'm sure there will be some attempt to play up the Muslim-Christian coexistence of cultures in Kazan. That is always something that President Shaimiyev likes to show off and point out," Gvosdev says.

Clinton's trip is meant to demonstrate U.S. outreach to Russia "beyond Moscow."
"This is a brand of Europeanized Islam, westernized Islam, that is Islamic yet functions in a Western society. As part of the ongoing engagement of the Muslim world, there could be benefits there."

Clinton's visit has sparked a wave of civic pride in the Tatar capital Kazan, a city of 1.1 million located on the Volga River about 700 kilometers east of Moscow. Local newspapers this week ran banner headlines reading: "Hillary Is Coming" and "Welcome Hillary!"

Speaking to RFE/RL's Tartar-Bashkir Service, Mirgalim, 63, says the city's tradition of multiculturalism and interfaith tolerance was worthy of admiration.

"Kazan is a multiethnic city. Different religions live in peace here. We celebrate our holidays all together," Mirgalim says.

"I once saw the Russian patriarch, the Tatar imam, and a Jewish rabbi were walking along the street together, talking to each other."

Moscow's Heavy Hand


But despite the pride many locals take in the atmosphere of tolerance, the region is not without its problems. President Shaimiyev has sought to steer an independent course for his oil-rich republic, which has often put him at odds with the Kremlin.

Tatarstan, a Russian federal republic, enjoys relative autonomy from Moscow, maintaining its own government and constitution. But Moscow's reach has grown more insistent -- most recently in September, when the Russian Supreme Court ordered the Tatar government to make Russian an official language together with Tatar.

Local Muslims have also bristled at changes in Moscow's education policies, which require public schools to teach courses in Orthodox culture as a required course, while courses in Tatar language and culture have been made electives.

One Kazan resident who sees little to celebrate in the Clinton visit is Fawzia Bayramova, an opposition leader and chairwoman of a self-proclaimed pan-Tatar parliament, the Milli Mejlis, which advocates Tatarstan's independence from Russia.

"Does she [Clinton] know about human rights abuses in Russia? Does she know about a new law on education which deprives people of the right to get an education in their native language?" Bayramova asks.

"Does she know that Christianity has become an official religion and is obligatory in schools? Does she know that other nations' religious rights and their right to an education are being abused? If she knows these things, then what is the United States going to do about it?"

Kazan's Place In Russia

Speaking to reporters before Clinton's departure from Washington on October 8, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters that "to understand Russia and its vibrancy and its diversity, you have to get outside of Moscow."

Kelly called Kazan "a good place to go because it really shows that the Russian Federation is a multiethnic country."

A Russian reporter present at the briefing, however, suggested a more nefarious motive, asking Kelly if Clinton's presence in the Tatar capital was "an attempt to demonstrate the U.S. presence in case of the dismemberment of Russia."

A surprised Kelly laughed and flatly denied the suggestion.

Local media reports in Kazan say the Kremlin suggested that Clinton visit other cities, including Samara and Nizhny Novgorod, before agreeing on Kazan.

But Pifer explains that it is highly unlikely that Clinton would travel to Kazan without the Kremlin's blessing. "Otherwise there probably would have been a lot of quiet pressure to direct her somewhere else," he says.

In recent years, Kazan has worked to raise its international profile. The city, which has shed its grim Soviet-era image in favor of a gleaming, renovated city center, is the annual host of Golden Minbar, an international Muslim film festival. Its 16th-century kremlin was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

Shaimiyev has also sought to forge his own relations with the broader Islamic world, as Turkey and Iran have opened consulates in Kazan.

Rafael Khakimov, head of the history institute at the Tatarstan Academy of Sciences, says Kazan belongs with Moscow and St. Petersburg in the ranks of Russia's top cities.

Khakimov says that American researchers who visit Kazan are "attracted by the stability in the region, by the tolerant Islam, by its working peacefully with Moscow, and by the beauty of the city. If you sum up all these things -- Kazan is like Russia's third capital."

Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report

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