Staunton, October 28 – Western analysts have picked up on the Moscow media campaign against Tatarstan, an ongoing effort that has sought to present Russia’s Middle Volga region as being at risk of going the way of the North Caucasus, with Islamist radicals overwhelming the capacity of republic officials to control the situation.
While it is certainly true that some Muslims there have been radicalized in recent years, Russian media accounts about it in many cases appear to be exaggerated and should be treated with caution, especially given a case this week when someone who reportedly was killed in an anti-terrorist effort turned about alive and issued a statement to the local media.
On Thursday, the Russian media reported that the authorities had killed three “militants who were planning a major terrorist action” in Kazan and identified two of them as Rfiz Kashapov and Robert Valeyev. But the next day, the “dead terrorist” Kashapov issued a statement denying his demise (v-chelny.ru/online/kashapov-oproverg-sluhi-o-svoej-smerti/).
Kashapov, head of the openly nationalist Tatar Social Center, said that after these Russian reports of his death appeared, “a large number of his acquaintances” had telephoned his “wife, son, daughter and other relatives to express sympathy” and said they were ready to come from “Kazan, Bashkortostan, Mari El, Moscow, Ukraine and elsewhere” to attend his funeral.
The Tatar activist, who began as a secular nationalist increasingly but has added Islamic thematics in his rhetoric, said that he wanted “to express [his] gratitude” for their messages but to say that he had not been killed and wished to greet “all Muslims on the occasion of the holy holiday of Kurban-Bayram.”
Kashapov warned that he is convinced that “such events” presumably including both attempts to discredit opponents of Moscow and Kazan and attacks on them “will be repeated until the powers that be change their policy toward the Musliims of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and the Caucasus” (tatar-centr.blogspot.com/2012/10/blog-post_4277.html).
In reporting this statement, the Tatar Center blog noted that “ever more information” is coming out “which does not correspond to reality” and ever more inventions about “who is leading the Tatars by the nose and attempting to unleash a war in the Middle Volga [and] undermine the sovereignty of Tatarstan.”
“Apparently,” the Center continued, “someone is very concerned that ever more young people are choosing not the religion of the Kremlin” with its “kowtowing to the rulers” in the Russian Federation but deciding instead to follow Islam.”
Such Islamic notes in the Tatar Center report, of course, will be sufficient for many observers to conclude that Moscow is correct that it faces an Islamist challenge in the Middle Volga exactly like the ones it faces in the North Caucasus. But in assessing the situation, three things should be kept clearly in mind.
First, in Kazan and elsewhere, the Russian anti-terrorist effort has sought to kill its opponents rather than arresting them, thus Moscow officials and the Russian media great freedom to generate a narrative that serves their ends regardless of the facts, a pattern that has been routine since at least the Nord Ost actions of a decade ago.
Second, Moscow news outlets typically rely on Moscow sources and only secondarily on those local writers whom the powers that be choose to repeat via one or another of the central outlets. Western news reporting all too often then relies on the more easily accessible Moscow sources than the far more obscure local and regional ones.
And third – and Kashapov’s return from the reported dead is only the latest – Moscow’s version of reality in the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus is often accepted without question because it is congruent with the one that has been predominant in the West since September 11, 2001.
Again, none of this is to suggest that there is not an Islamist underground in Tatarstan, although it is almost certainly smaller and less influential than is now being reported. Rather it is to insist that events like Kashapov’s death and reappearance should lead to a more skeptical and assessments of claims in this area, perhaps especially those from the Russian capital.