Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Who is Trying to Destabilize Tatarstan and Why?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 3 – Developments in Tatarstan and the way they are being reported in the Russian media raise the most troubling of questions: Who is trying to destabilize that Middle Volga republic and toward what ends?  None of the answers that have been suggested so far are reassuring.

            The most disturbing are suggestions that, as RISI’s Rais Suleymanov has long insisted, “Tatarstan is being transformed into Chechnya” (http://haqqin.az/news/13683) and that, in the words of the Society of Russian Culture of Tatarstan, “the Wahhabis have declared war on Orthodoxy” (regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/1739212.html).  

                But others reports are almost as distressing: Tatarstan’s economic situation is deteriorating, prompting questions about its leaders (regnum.ru/news/polit/1739774.html), and the situation with regard to ethnic Russian institutions there is so dire that the Cossacks have promised to guard churches (http://www.kp.ru/online/news/1600109/).

            These reports follow the firebombing of four Russian Orthodox churches in that Middle Volga republic, the latest of a series – according to RISI, whose reporting many analysts have challenged, there have been a total of nine such attacks there over the last six months (nazaccent.ru/content/9889-pravoslavnye-cerkvi-tatarstana-budut-ohranyat-kazaki.html).

            Because Tatarstan has a long history of inter-religious and inter-ethnic concord, both government officials and religious leaders moved quickly to try to quiet the situation.  The authorities opened criminal cases, labelled the attacks terrorism, and offered rewards for information about the culprits (interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=53091 and ng.ru/regions/2013-12-02/1_kazan.html).

            And the two most senior religious leaders of Tatarstan, Metropolitan Anastasii of the Russian Orthodox Church see and Mufti Samigullin of the republic Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) issued a joint statement denouncing the attacks as “a provocation” intended to undermine religious and ethnic accord (interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=53636).

                But instead of calming the situation, these actions had just the opposite effect, at least among the ethnic Russian community leadership and the Moscow media.  Aleksandr Salagayev, the head of the Society of Russian Culture of Tatarstan, complained about “the passivity” of the civil authorities and the failure of the Orthodox metropolitan to take a harder line.

Moreover and perhaps particularly important as a sign of what may be coming, Gleb Potnov of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” has played up these complaints, selecting out of Salagayev’s statement the most radical formulation of the Russian’s complaints (Cf. ng.ru/regions/2013-12-02/1_kazan.html and  regnum.ru/news/fd-volga/1739212.html).

            And the Moscow media has also featured reports about the plans of the Volga Cossack Voiska to defend Orthodox churches in Tatarstan, especially so that Tatars, historically Muslim, may convert to Orthodoxy (kp.ru/online/news/1600109/ and nazaccent.ru/content/9889-pravoslavnye-cerkvi-tatarstana-budut-ohranyat-kazaki.html).

            Many Russians are likely to take away from such reports the notion that Islamist extremists are now on the attack in the Middle Volga, that neither the Tatarstan authorities nor the local Orthodox hierarch are doing enough to stop them, and that, as a result, both political and religious institutions in Moscow need to intervene,  possibly changing both in Kazan.

            What will happen next is unclear, but one can only agree that the best description of the recent attacks on Orthodox churches in Tatarstan is, as the Orthodox Christian and Muslim leaders say, “a provocation.”  What many will be waiting to see is the answer to the questions: a provocation by whom? And to what ends?

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