Staunton, August 11 – In a remarkable display of the increasing political clout of Russia’s Muslim community and also of Saudi desires to regularize the number of pilgrims from the Russian Federation, Moscow has secured a 3,000 person increase in the number of haj slots for the faithful this year. Now, the number of Russian hajis will be 23,500.
Since the 1990s, the Saudis have set the annual Russian quota at 20,500, a figure that reflects Saudi estimates that there are 20.5 million Muslims in Russia. But except for brief periods after the onset of the economic crisis, Russia has sent far more hajis, in some cases as many as 40,000, on the pilgrimage ignoring the limit.
In the past, the Russian authorities have argued for additional slots because of pent-up demand from the times when Soviet Muslims were not able to make the pilgrimage required of Muslims at least once in their lifetimes if possible. Now, Moscow is saying that it needs the slots just because so many want to go (ansar.ru/rfsng/hadzh-smogut-sovershit-235-tys-rossiyan).
The Saudis have been trying to get a handle on the number of hajis. Last year, for example, they cut the quotas of all countries significantly. Russia’s quota was set at 16,000. But Russia last year as before violated that limit and sent an acknowledged 17,000. The real number may well have been higher.
Consequently, Riyadh may have agreed to the higher figure now in the hopes that the Russian authorities both civil and Islamic will work harder to keep the actual number of hajis within the Saudi limits. Another innovation this year is that the Saudis have introduced a special fee for anyone making the haj a second or third time. But remains unclear whether Moscow will help the Saudis to collect it or ignore Riyadh’s request altogether.
The Saudi-Moscow accord on the total number now sets the stage for fights over the allocation of slots among the predominantly Muslim regions of the Russian Federation. Traditionally, more than half of the hajis from Russia have come from the North Caucasus with a disproportionate number of them coming from Chechnya and Daghestan.
That is likely to remain the same. But that is not the end of the story: there will be the question of which individuals and groups will be selected in each federal subject and whether the Russians will allow hajis from the Russian Federation to accept subsidies from outside groups. They have sometimes done so and sometimes not.
Such subsidies have become critical in recent years because the price of going on the haj for Russia’s Muslims has skyrocketed. Until 15 years ago, most hajis from Russia went by bus. But the wars in Iraq and Syria put paid to that, and now most must fly. If they don’t get outside subsidies, they may not be able to afford to go especially in today’s economic climate.