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Russia: Analysis From Washington: Moscow's Latest Muslim Problem

Washington, 3 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's continuing crackdown on Muslims in the Russian capital seems certain to provoke the 17 million Muslims living within the Russian Federation and the many Muslim countries abroad with which the Russian government hopes to have good relations.

On Tuesday, special interior ministry troops raided a Moscow mosque and briefly detained some of the worshippers. Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov, the head of the Union of Muslims in Russia, told a Moscow radio station that some of those arrested were Chechens and Ingush and had been beaten before being released.

These arrests are the latest in a series of official actions against Muslims in the Russian capital that trace their origin to an October 1993 decree by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Following the conflict between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Supreme Soviet at that time, Luzhkov ordered the expulsion from the city of Moscow of "persons of Caucasian nationality," a term many expanded to include all Muslim groups.

The decree itself, popular at the time among some Russians who were inclined to blame the Caucasians in particular and the Muslims in general for their own problems, was implemented by Moscow city militiamen and by interior ministry forces under Yeltsin's control.

The decree and its continuing implementation have had a chilling effect on Russian democracy:

First, for residents of Russia, the expression "persons of Caucasian nationality" has only one obvious analogue: Stalin's talk of "persons of Jewish nationality" during the darkest and most anti-Semitic period of Soviet history.

Second, despite Russian pretensions to be a democratic state, this measure has resulted in the punishment of individuals not because of their actions but because of their ethnicity, a clear violation of all principles of human rights and a law-based state.

And third, and perhaps most chilling of all, the international community has been largely silent about this breach of human rights. Except for a few human rights organizations, most Western governments initially refrained from direct public criticism of what Luzhzkov and Yeltsin were doing lest their comments undermine these two democratic leaders.

And the West's continuing failure to speak out forcefully on this issue has meant that official attacks on North Caucasians and on Muslims more generally have continued -- as in the case this week.

But fortunately, there are growing reasons to believe that some within the Russian government itself now have concluded that this campaign -- however politically popular it may be with some ethnic Russians -- has become counterproductive to Moscow's political goals at home and abroad.

One indication of such a development came in an article published by Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" two weeks ago. Entitled "There's Islam and Then There's Islam," the article forcefully argued that the Russian government had compelling domestic and foreign policy reasons for carefully distinguishing among various kinds of Muslim activism.

Noting that 17 million residents of the Russian Federation -- one in every nine -- is traditionally a Muslim, Primakov said that Moscow must be careful not to condemn Muslims as such. Indeed, he pointed out, their search for meaning in religion is part of a general pattern in post-Soviet Russia.

And perhaps most importantly, Primakov noted that "the rise of Islam is partly explained by the persecution of that religion," an implicit criticism perhaps of what Luzhkov and other Russian officials have been doing.

Moreover, Primakov argued, Moscow had to make clear distinctions between an enhanced commitment to Islam and extremist actions by particular Muslims and Muslim states if it was to succeed in maintaining good relations with Islamic countries.

Because Primakov has made such relations a centerpiece of Moscow's foreign policy, his argument about how to deal with Muslims at home may carry great weight.

But until it leads to the repudiation of Luzhkov's decree, Moscow's Muslim problems will only increase.