Saturday, August 29, 2015

Even Putin Can’t Count on Being Quoted Accurately in Russian Federation Media

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – In Soviet times, the joke ran, the press carried three kinds of news: obituaries which were certainly true; the weather forecast which was possibly true; and everything else which was patently false. Typically, however, it was recognized that at least the words of the supreme leader would be quoted accurately, however false their content.

Now, however, the situation may have deteriorated because it appears that even Vladimir Putin cannot be certain that all news outlets in his country will quote him correctly. A case in Tatarstan 12 days ago of such misquotation of the Kremlin leader is attracting ever more attention, and one can only wonder whether this is unique or the start of a new pattern.

On August 17, Tatar-Inform carried a story about Putin’s meeting with representatives of the national social organizations of occupied Crimea. According to the news service, Putin gave as “an example of the peaceful co-existence of representatives of various confessions and various nationalities … the Republic of Tatarstan” (

            The Kazan-based outlet then ascribed the following words to Putin, albeit not in the form of a direct quote: According to Putin’s “words, Tatarstan is a strong and peace-loving region” and he “directed the attention of the participants of this meeting to this fact and propose using its priceless experience.”

            Several writers have pointed out that what Tatar-Inform reported did not perfectly correspond to Putin’s speech, but Mikhail Shcheglov, the head of the Society of Russian Culture of the Republic of Tatarstan and of the “Let us Help Novorossiya” movement, has now savaged it on the website of the World Russian Popular Assembly (

            He compared what Tatar-Inform reported with the text provided by the Kremlin itself ( and found some significant differences. Putin did say that Tatarstan was “an example of the peaceful coexistence of representatives of various confessions.” But he did not add “and various nationalities.”

            That is Shcheglov says “already a creative development of the thought of the president of the Russian Federation which hardly can be called correct.”

            In addition, he continues, “the phrase that ‘Tatarstan is a strong and peace-loving region’” is one that “could not be said by the president of the Russian Federation by definition.”  Such “epithets,” Shcheglov continues, “are appropriate for an independent state and not a subject of the Russian Federation.”

Are there perhaps “’aggressive regions’ in Russia?” Shcheglov asks. He doesn’t provide an answer, but perhaps some others can.

Two Ethnic Groups Campaign to Be Listed as Numerically Small Peoples of the North

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – Many of the two dozen peoples of the far north of the Russian Federation regularly complain that they are discriminated against and otherwise mistreated by Russian officials. But efforts by two ethnic groups to be officially listed in their category suggest that the situation of other small peoples outside of the north may be even worse.

            The two peoples in question, the Siberian Tatars and the Pomors, represent two very different situations. Both would appear to qualify as at least portions of them live in the far north and each numbers fewer than 50,000, but including them nonetheless presents problems to Moscow (

            But for either or both to be included in the list will require them to overcome skepticism and even opposition in Moscow and almost certainly prompt other numerically small groups south of the traditional homeland of numerically small indigenous peoples of the north to seek to be included as well.

            The Siberian Tatars, who in the 2010 census numbered 8,000, have perhaps the weaker claim given that only 600 of their total live in the far north and most of whom long ago gave up their traditional way of life. Protecting that is the ostensible basis for including any group into the “numerically small indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East.

            Despite that, they are working hard to be on the list. Mukhaammet Kalimullin, a Siberian Tatar from Tyumen, told a meeting there that his “people is in extremely critical situation” because it lacks such “official recognition.” And such recognition would allow the introduction of the Siberian dialect of Tatar in the schools of Tyumen.

            At present, he said, “what is taught there now is not our language,” Kalimullin said. Tyumen historian Aleksandr Yarkov said he supports the idea but questioned whether the Siberian Tatars really qualify as a people of the north because fewer than 10 percent of them live in that region.

            The Pomors certainly would appear to qualify: They number only 2,000; they maintain a traditional way of life; and their entire community is in the high north. Thus it is not surprising that they have been trying to be recognized as a numerically small people of the North for two decades.

            But their current effort, one centered on an Internet petition to the president and prime minister of the Russian Federation, highlights the problems they face: They have support in the Arkhangelsk administration but almost none in Moscow where, it appears, some are concerned that the Pomors are generally classed as a sub-ethnos of the Russian nation.

            To list them as a numerically small people of the north could lead more of them to demand census status as a separate nationality, a claim that if realized would not only cut into the total number of ethnic Russians in the country but also call into question the unity of ethnic Russians on which Vladimir Putin places so much emphasis..

            The Pomors counter that there is already a people considered to be a Russian sub-ethnos on the list: the Kamchadals, one of the more obscure ethnic communities in the Russian Federation but one that calls into question many of the ideological themes of contemporary Russian national discourse.

            On the one hand, the Kamchadal subethnos came into existence as a result of the intermarriage of ethnic Russians with local nationalities in the Far East. And on the other, despite assumptions about the inevitability of Russian assimilation in such circumstances, the Kamchadals have maintained their distinctive identity and way of life.

Moscow Needs to Expand Fight against ISIS from Battlefield to Mosques, “Vzglyad” Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 29 – Russian security services having gained certain successes over the Caucasus Emirate and other ISIS allies in the North Caucasus over the last month, Moscow is shifting its attentions to provincial mosques where the Islamic State not only seeks recruits but raises funds for its operations.

            According to Aleksandr Topalov of Moscow’s “Vzglyad” newspaper, these mosques constitute “a weak link” in Russian efforts to defeat ISIS in the Russian Federation; and the journalist suggests that Russian officials will rely more on the Muslim Spiritual Directorates MSDs) to impose order on mosques subordinate to them (

            Russian security services have had significant success in decapitating the Caucasus Emirate over the last few months, but with each new victory, new and often hitherto unknown Islamists appear to take their place. Consequently, the counter-terrorism effort in the North Caucasus will certainly continue.

            But Topalov’s article suggests that at least some in the Russian capital now appreciate that countering ISIS requires an additional step: choking off the radical Islamic State’s influence in mosques by offering an alternative Muslim narrative, something that will require the mobilization of the MSDs.

            These organizations, which have not canonical status in Islam, trace their roots to the time of Catherine the Great and have been used by Russian Imperial, Soviet and now Russian Federation officials as quasi-state, quasi-religious administrative structures to allow the government to control individual Muslim parishes.

            That task has been more complicated for the Russian Federation than its predecessors because the number of practicing Muslims and active parishes has skyrocketed and MSDs have proliferated often without any direct state involvement. Consequently, some of the MSDs themselves are a source of the problem Moscow is seeking to combat.

            The “Vzglyad” journalist says that “the problem of recruitment into radical trends and Islamist groupings via mosques and prayer houses is becoming ever more important” especially “if one considers that ISIS representatives prefer to act from the inside very quietly and in an inconspicuous way.”

            Given the nature of Islam and especially the level of religious knowledge among Russia’s Muslims, Topalov says, that means that the real fight is over who is the mullah or imam in any given mosque because if that individual is a radical that will only increase the number of cases of “recruitment into band formations.”   

                Moreover, it is becoming clear, he suggests, that ISIS now typically divides its subversive activities “into two fronts, a legal and an illegal one. For many years, Basque and Irish separatists successfully were guided by these principles; thus, this approach is not an innovation either for Islamist radicals or representatives of other extremist trends.”

            “It is not infrequently the case,” the journalist continues, “that ‘the legal wing’ turns out to be even more successful than the one directly involved in terrorism.” That is because it is the one that serves as the chief recruiter and fund raiser for such groups.  And it often happens that those who are in the legal field at one point “become leaders of the underground” at another.’

            ISIS, it is clear, “is actively using the semi-legal channel of recruitment via formal religious institutions.”  The “only counterweight to this threat,” Topalov says, is to be found in “the activation of official Islam,” that is, the MSDs, who can and must supervise “what is taking place in provincial religious organizations.”

            It is unclear how much Topralov’s article reflects official thinking or what, if it does, such thinking will lead to. Several outcomes are possible: a new campaign to unify the MSDs, something some in Moscow and Ufa have long wanted, a related effort to suppress MSDs the government doesn’t control, and a more general campaign against radical imams and mullahs.

            Whichever course Moscow chooses, relations between the Russian government and at least portions of Russia’s burgeoning Muslim population are likely to become more turbulent and possibly explosive in the coming months.