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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Idel-Ural And The Future Of Russia

Washington, 3 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkic and Finno-Ugric activists in the region between the Volga and the Urals are reviving an old idea which threatens to undermine Moscow's ongoing efforts to reestablish control over Russia's farflung regions.

They seek to create Idel-Ural, the historic name for a confederation of the peoples of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia, Mordvinia, Mari El and Udmurtia and thereby establish an economically and politically powerful entity between European Russia and Siberia.

The peoples of this region have tried to do so before. Indeed, their efforts are noted by inclusion in the U.S. Captive Nations Week resolution. But precisely because such an entity would be so threatening to Russia's territorial integrity, Moscow repeatedly has taken steps to block any such move and likely will do so once again.

The latest effort was launched at a conference of non-governmental activists on April 24 in Ioshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari El. There, these groups unanimously backed the proposals of the moderate nationalist Tatar Public Center to set up an Idel-Ural Fund to push the idea via its own newspaper and to hold two more conferences later this year.

Participants in the meeting told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that they had taken this decision now because they and the people they represent are concerned by the intensification of Russian government surveillance of organizations like theirs which represent ethnic minorities inside the Russian Federation.

They are also undoubtedly worried by what even Russian scholars now refer to as the growing Islamophobia among Russians in the course of the fighting in Chechnya. According to polls, the number of Russians who view Islam as a "bad thing" has grown from 17 percent in 1992 to 80 percent now.

Indeed and in support of such concerns, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Monday said that Russia is manipulating intolerance against Muslims to fuel public support for its war effort against Chechnya.

So far, the activists who met in Ioshkar-Ola last week do not enjoy even the public support of the governments in the regions from which they come. Most of these regimes have been far more cautious in their expression of concern about Moscow's approach and even have sought to make the best deals they can with President-elect Vladimir Putin.

But the Ioshkar-Ola meeting and especially its decision to resuscitate the emotionally powerful term Idel-Ural nonetheless contain messages to three key audiences.

First, its call for the establishment of Idel-Ural serves notice to the governments in this region that their populations may be far more radical than are the officials.

On the one hand, the decision at the Ioshkar-Ola meeting may radicalize these regimes, leading them to take a tougher stand against Moscow in the expectation that such a move will win them support. And on the other hand, it may cause them to become more dependent on Moscow, thereby reducing their authority and making authoritarianism and instability more likely in the future.

Second, the Ioshkar-Ola meeting calls into question the assumptions of those in the Russian government who believe they can either attack Islamic groups with impunity or coopt the majority of them.

The Russian government has used anti-Islamic rhetoric during its Chechen campaign that has offended even those Muslims within the Russian Federation who agreed with Moscow's overall approach in Chechnya.

But more important, the decisions at Ioshkar-Ola suggest that Moscow will not be able to coopt the so-called "moderate Russian Muslims" as he and his aides have suggested. The Tatars who have been celebrated for their "moderation" in dealings with Moscow are clearly sending a message that Moscow's current approach may leave them moderate no more.

And third, the Ioshkar-Ola decisions also call into question the assumptions of many Western governments that Putin's presidency is likely to lead to more stability, even at the cost of increasing authoritarianism.

In fact, moves by Putin thus far may generate their own nemesis just as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's moves to recoup Moscow's power in 1990-91 led even those who had never thought about secession to decide to move in that direction.

The Ioshkar-Ola meeting is likely to mark yet another turning point in the development of the post-Soviet space, one that could trigger precisely the kind of instability that leaders there and elsewhere say they want to avoid.