Washington, 23 April 1999 RFE/RL) -- By voting to include Yugoslavia in a "Slavic Union" with the Russian Federation and Belarus, the Russian Duma has exacerbated relations between ethnic Russians and that country's historically Islamic nations.
One measure of Muslim unhappiness within the Russian Federation about any move in that direction came on Tuesday when Sheikh Rafil Gainutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia and the spiritual leader of that country's more than 20 million followers of Islam, spoke out against such a move.
In his statement, the Muslim leader asked rhetorically: "What steps will be taken next with regard to non-Slav and non-Orthodox peoples?" And he urged Russian leaders to draw "the most serious conclusions" from what is happening in Yugoslavia in designing their own domestic nationalities and religious policies.
An even sharper reaction came from the All-Tatar Public Center, a Kazan Tatar nationalist party more widely known by its Russian acronym VTOTs. In a message to 15 autonomous formations within the Russian Federation, it suggested that all non-Russians inside the Russian Federation should declare their independence from what it called "the impending monstrous formation -- the Slav Union of Russia, Belarus, and Yugoslavia."
And VTOTs suggested further that the Assembly of Turkic Peoples, a group which united most Islamic groups within the Russian Federation, could serve as the basis for a new non-Slavic "Eastern Union." Such a group, the Tatar movement suggested, "would be the most logical and best possible decision in the future from the viewpoint of economic and political viability."
Such statements, both by the mufti and by VTOTs, are easy to overdramatize. Indeed, two Russian commentators writing in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on Wednesday do just that. Vera Postnova and Petr Akopov conclude that the call for secession "could find support among some leaders of the Muslim republics" if "the procedure of accepting Yugoslavia into the Union is begun."
While their projections may or may not ultimately prove to be true, both anger among Muslim groups in the Russian Federation about Moscow's support for Belgrade and their calls for more or less radical steps against it represent an important part of the current policy debate in Moscow over how to respond.
On the one hand, the Muslim and Turkic rejection of a Slavic Union recalls the anger many Central Asian republics felt in December 1991 after the leaders of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Beloveshchaya accords that many have seen as the death certificate of the Soviet Union.
Responding to what looked like little more than a Slavic Union, the Central Asian states met in Ashkhabad to discuss forming their own grouping. That in turn frightened many in Moscow, including Boris Yeltsin, and ultimately led to the convention of a broader group of republics in the Kazakhstan capital of Almaty where the Commonwealth of Independent States was born.
Seen in this light, the latest expressions of the Muslims of the Russian Federation might appear to presage a new and even looser arrangement between Moscow and the constituent republics of that country.
But on the other hand, the statements of the mufti and of VTOTs and the coverage they have received in the Moscow media may simply be part of the Russian policy debate over how to cope with the Yugoslav crisis. Many Russians, including former foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev, oppose Moscow's support of Slobodan Milosevic, and they may be interested in highlighting growing unhappiness of Muslims as part of an effort to modify the Russian government's current approach.
Indeed, that danger may help to explain why Russian President Boris Yeltsin and many in the Russian government seem to be less enthusiastic than the Russian parliament about moving forward with a new union that might end by costing Moscow its own federation.