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Russia: Putin Tells OIC That Muslims Are 'Inseparable' Part Of A Multiethnic Nation

Speaking at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Malaysia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Muslims in Russia are yearning for more cooperation with the rest of the Islamic world.

Moscow, 16 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke today at the opening of a two-day Malaysia summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Russia is seeking official observer status with the OIC.

In his brief remarks, Putin stressed that Russia's 20 million Muslims are an inalienable part of Russia and that no religion should be equated with terrorism. "Russian Muslims are an inseparable, full-fledged, and active part of the multiethnic and multidenominational nation of Russia. Russia, as a unique Eurasian power, has always played a special role in building relations between East and West. I am convinced that our actions within the framework of the OIC can today become an important element of a just and secure world," Putin said.

Putin linked Moscow's unpopular war in the Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya to the international war on terrorism, while stressing the distinction between Islam and terrorism.

Some analysts say Moscow's desire for greater integration with the OIC is largely aimed at minimizing the negative perceptions of the brutal four-year war in Chechnya, which has sparked concern among Muslims both in and outside of Russia.

Putin appeared to be addressing concerns voiced by the OIC's secretary-general, Abdelouahed Belkeziz of Morocco, during a preparatory session last week. Belkeziz said Muslims are filled with "feelings of impotence and frustration as some of their countries are occupied, others are under sanctions, a third group threatened, and a fourth group accused of sponsoring terrorism."

In his speech today, Putin insisted the conflict in breakaway Chechnya should not be seen as an expression of a minority fighting for its rights.

"I would like to point out that attempts to drag the international community into what is, in essence, an artificial conflict exist both in the West and in the East. Some, hiding behind religious slogans, are mounting what comes down to armed aggression against their own brothers and partners, fighting with the legitimate authorities, provoking separatism, [and] practicing terrorism," Putin said.

He also condemned critics of the war in Chechnya for misguided motivation: "Others use this situation, exploit it in their venal interests like an instrument of political pressure, to fulfill their own interests, having nothing in common with Islam, nor with defending human rights, nor with international law as a whole."

Putin also thanked the OIC and the Arab League for sending observers to the recent presidential election in Chechnya, which were largely disavowed by other international monitors.

In his speech, Putin did not refer to the situation in Iraq by name but repeated his call for an increased UN presence in the region.

"Like most Islamic states represented here, Russia defends the strengthening of international law, for a central coordinating role for the United Nations to solve international problems," he said.

Putin is attending the summit as a guest but repeated his hope that Russia can obtain official OIC observer status. He said Muslims in Russia are yearning for more cooperation with the rest of the Islamic world.

"Not only will Russia's presence complete the bright palette of the organization, it will also add new possibilities to its work. It will bring the weight and voice of Russia's important Muslim community," Putin said.

About 15 percent of the population of the Russian Federation is Muslim, and the figure is growing. There is nothing in the OIC charter requiring a certain proportion of a population to be Muslim before a nation can be considered for membership. The OIC charter does specify that a two-thirds majority vote is required to obtain membership, and population may be one factor that is reviewed, along with other factors.

India was rejected from membership in the OIC two years ago, although its Muslim population, the second-largest in the world, is far greater than Russia's.