Thursday, January 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Seeks State Control of Haji Flow from the Russian Federation

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 16 – Ilyas Umakhanov, the deputy chairman of the Federation Council and plenipotentiary for haj affairs, says that the Russian government is working to replace the sometimes haphazard efforts of the regional Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) and 15 Russian haj tour groups with a centralized structure controlled by the Russiann government.

            He said that this group would ensure that those who have not been on the haj before would have a better chance of going than they do now, that there will not be the problems with travel there have been, and that the Saudis want such an arrangement because it is one they have with many countries (

            There indeed have been problems with hajis from Russians in recent years, but it is unclear whether the Russian government will be able to do  better than the MSDs and tour groups have. The last time the secular authorities were in control of the haj from Russia was in Soviet times when mere handfuls of the faithful were able to make the pilgrimate.

            Now, according to Saudi rules, some 20,500 Muslims from Russia make the haj each year, and perhaps as many as another 15,000 do so by flouting the rules and registering as being from some other country.  Whether Moscow can effectively control that pattern is very much an open question.

            But one thing is clear: by taking control of the haj process, the secular authorities in Moscow will have gained serious leverage against not only the MSDs but also the leaders of the predominantly Muslim republics of the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga, leverage that the Kremlin is certain to use.

            Not only will Moscow now be able to decide how many Muslims from which republic may make the haj, giving it the opportunity to reward its friends and punish its enemies, but it will also have the opportunity to undermine further the authority of the MSDs and their often independent-minded leaders.

            If everything works as planned, Moscow will thus come out of this the big winner, but if may not work that way. On the one hand, the Saudis may be interested in playing favorites within the Russian Federation. And on the other, the leaders of the MSDs may decide to ignore what Moscow is doing.

            Should they do so – and they have in the past, including this past year – then Moscow could find itself having achieved a victory on paper that is worth very little, and the Muslims of the Russian Federation may end up with more freedom of action than they had before the Kremlin made this latest change.

            That possibility may explain why Umakhanov is proceeding more cautiously than the Russian government as a whole. He told “Golos Rossii” that the whole question is quite “delicate” and that perhaps the Russian authorities would only establish “a pilot program” during this year (

            But that apparently sensible approach may backfire as well: Some MSD and republic leaders are likely to assume that this mean Moscow can be forced to back down on the idea of taking control of the haj.  That could make the run-up to this year’s October haj a time of intensified conflict between Russia’s Muslims and the Russian state.

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