Monday, January 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Will Moscow’s Use of ‘Soft Power’ in the North Caucasus Improve the Situation or Lead to that Region’s Islamization?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 28 – Moscow’s new effort to use “soft power” in the North Caucasus instead of the “hard power” it has used in the past may reduce the number of young people joining the militants and thus buy the center some time -- but only at the price of opening the way for Islamist groups to enter republic governments and promote Islamization from the inside.

            That is the implication, if not the stated conclusion, of a new analysis of Moscow’s policies in the region by Abdulla Rinat Mukhametov, a Muslim commentator, based on interviews conducted by Aleksandr Cherkasov of Memorial with leaders in the region ( and

            Over the past 15 years, Mukhametov notes, Moscow has carried out a counter-terrorist operation that because of its “indiscriminate and illegal” use of force has contributed more to mobilizing support for and membership in the underground than in bringing peace to the region by resolving its problems.

            During this period, he continues, “the North Caucasus has been transformed into a kind of governmental corporation for the production of corruption, instability and the most powerful threat to security,” with many beneficiaries both locally and in Moscow seeing the further expansion of this money flow continue.

            Only recently, Moscow has decided to see if using “soft power” via the promotion of dialogue between various trends within Islam and between them and the authorities could be more effective.  There is some indication, Mukhametov says, that this approach is working, although it continues to face opposition from the force structures and the militants.

            As Cherkasov found, Mukhametov notes, the authorities in both Ingushetia and Daghestan over the last several years have begun “a dialogue” with certain opposition figures and through them with civil society more generally.  In Ingushetia, this has led to “the legalization of moderate Salafi communities” over the objections of the republic’s mufti.

            Cherkasov concludes – and Mukhametov shares his view – that this approach meant that between 2009 and 2011 the activity of the armed underground decreased “more than seven and a half times as measured by the number of killed and wounded siloviki” andtht “over the last nine months of 2011, not one resident of Ingushetia” joined the militants.

            The situation Cherkasov found in Daghestan is similar. Makhachkala has “de facto” legalized the Ahlu Sunna val-Jamaa and allowed the Muslim community in the republic to expand its connections with Islamic organizations abroad. Thus, the Memorial researcher says, the underground, it ideolges and leaders have lost their mobilizational base.”

            And Cherkasov notes that last summer, FSB Director Aleksandr Bortnikov explicitly approved these steps during a meeting in Makhachkala. Thus, “the tactic of ‘soft power’ has in the end turned out to be more dangerous for the underground than the harshest special operations have been.”

            Expanding on this, Mukhametov says that “in general, the integration of moderate Caucasian Islamists into social-political processes is an important step on the way to the stabilization of the situation.”  And he urges that “Islamists of all stripes build” infrastructure and work with the government rather than continue to “fight with one another.”

            Such an approach, he suggests, will “teach them to respect and work with opponents and to enter into a coalition and reach agreements.”

            “The entrance of Islamists into Daghestani politics has made the entire system healthier,” Mukhametov argues, leaving “the traditional ethno-parties and clans in a crisis” because they have no ideas besides asking for more money from Moscow. At the same time, the various trends in Islam are coming to see themselves as “’simply Muslims’” and are working together.

            If that trend continues, the Muslim commentator says, those now dismissed simply as Islamists will find a way to take part in politics and realize their goals “through the existing structures” at the party and state levels. That development can “only be welcomed, for the goal of the shariat” is a stable, effective and cooperative society and polity.

            Mukhametov says that there are suggestive indications of similar trends in various Muslim countries, something he calls “an extremely important and unprecedented process of the integration of the Salafi community into contemporary politics and in general in broad social-political activity.”

            And he gives as examples, the decision of Salafi groups to end their opposition to parliamentarianism and to work in the legislatures of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Kuwait, and of sufi Muslims in Pakistan. Of course, he acknowledges, there are still “very many problems” in this trend, but it shows that soft power can produce more than its hard counterpart.

            Not everyone will agree, but the situation in the North Caucasus may now be such that Moscow has little choice but to adopt this new tactic, hoping that somehow and contrary to the experience of some of these foreign countries, the Islamists will change more over time than the republic governments they may now become a part of.

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