Monday, June 10, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘Islamic Factor’ Already Looms Large in Upcoming Moscow Mayoralty Race

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 10 – Even though Muscovites will cast their votes for mayor only three months from now, Sergey Sobyanin and other aspirants are already playing the Muslim card to win support among ethnic Russians, a practice that is further alienating the Russian capital’s large and growing Muslim community.

            In a commentary in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Vladislav Maltsev suggests that the recent wave of arrests of Muslim gastarbeiters and statements by Sobyanin and other Russian politicians against the construction of new mosques should be seen as very much part of the mayoralty race (

            At the end of May when police rounded up 952 immigrant workers from Tajikistan, Ubekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey, Sobyanin said that he was very much against the formation of ethnic enclaves in the Russian capital. “Moscow is a Russian city and thus it must remain. Not a Chinese one, not a Tajik one and not an Uzbek one.”

“Such rhetoric” and Sobyanin’s longstanding opposition to the construction of any new mosques in Moscow, Maltsev suggests, “is finding a response among many Muscovites who are concerned by the enormous number of migrants from Central Asia.”  Indeed, they may cast their votes precisely because of such statements.

But at the same time, comments like these are provoking anger among many Muslimm leaders. Last week, Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), suggested that Sobyanin has made anti-Islamic rhetoric a centerpiece of his election campaign effort.

And Rinat Mukhametov, one of Gainutdin’s advisors, added that Sobyanin had in fact begun his re-election effort “in the fall of last year” when he declared that Moscow had enough mosques – six – and that no more should be allowed to be built and that “the overwhelming number of visitors” to the existing mosques were “immigrants” not native Muscovites.

Sobyanin may face “’a moment of truth’” in this regard on August 8, Maltsev suggests, when Muslims in Moscow like their co-believers around the world will mark Uraza-bayram, one of the main Muslim holidays.  Last year, the authorities dispatched “hundreds of OMON” officers to control the situation. And he may have to the same, only one month before the vote.

            Playing on ethnic or religious hostilities is nothing new in Russian politics -- or indeed politics more generally -- but the approach Sobyanin appears to have adopted as Maltsev presents it could prove far more dangerous than he or those pushing him in this direction currently believe.

            That is because there are now more than two million Muslims in the Russian capital, and what happens to them, given their continuing ties with their home countries or regions, is something that many in the latter will be watching as a bellwether of what may happen to them in the future.

            Consequently, if religious and ethnic tensions rise to a boiling point in Moscow this summer because of the political calculations of those running for the leadership of that city, that development is likely to spill over into Muslim regions far from the Russian capital, sparking more violence in the North Caucasus and creating new problems for Russia in Central Asia.

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