Saturday, October 22, 2016

Divisions within Moscow Elites, Not Islamist Projects, Main Threat to Russia Now, Sokolov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 22 – A new uptick in repression in the North Caucasus reflects the opening of a gulf between the Russian political elite and local societies and points to the spread of similar kinds of repressions to other parts of Russia given that “the North Caucasus as usual is in the avant-garde,” according to Denis Sokolov.

            The longtime specialist who heads the RAMCOM Center for Social-Economic Research on the Regions, says the Islamic opposition doesn’t have the strength to conduct a full-blown political struggle -- despite Moscow’s efforts to link all protests there not just to Islam but to ISIS (

            And in a wide-ranging interview with Badma Byurchiyev of the Kavkazskaya politika portal, Sokolov argues that divisions within the Russian elite are a much greater threat to the country than any “Islamist project,” however much the Kremlin tries to insist otherwise. Indeed, talking about Islam as a threat is its ways of suppressing divisions within its own elite.

            There are several reasons for the uptick in anti-regime activism and regime repression in the North Caucasus in recent weeks, Sokolov says. Among them are the return to the region of those who fled abroad earlier to fight for ISIS or simply to escape repression, kidnappings by the authorities and protests against them, and a new generation that feels itself driven into a corner.

            Especially important, he continues, are the fact that there are many new Russian institutions, such as the National Guard, who want to demonstrate to the Kremlin their utility by cracking down, and that the elections showed the size of the gap between the regime and the population and the popularity of Islamic ideas among voters.

            One must not ignore the role of local and regional officials who have concluded that Islamic ideas, such as those espoused in Daghestan by the People Against Corruption Party, are ever more popular and that the only way to save themselves is to demonstrate a readiness to crack down against them.

            To everyone in the region, “it has become clear that Unite Russia has practically zero electoral support.” The votes it received were either the result of force or falsification.  North Caucasus is the most obvious case of this, and the regime’s response to it suggests that Moscow will extend what it is doing with its opponents there to other parts of the country.

            The use of force against those the authorities define as Islamist is now as it has been in the past counter-productive, Sokolov argues, because it has made the supporters of those ideas and those ideas themselves more attractive in the population given “the fall of the prestige in the authorities” and the declining trust in them.

            At the same time, he says, “it is very important” to remember that “the Islamic project up to now in no way threatens the sovereignty of the Russian Federation of the political system which exists today within it.” As long as Moscow has money and organizational resources, that will remain true.

            “Islamic leaders, as in general the Islamic opposition to the regime, does not have an understandable political program which enjoys sufficient support in the population,” he argues. “There is only a protesting social base and ‘foot soldiers’ who are prepared to die in the fire of revolution of civil war.”

            And then  Sokolov draws his conclusions: “The chief danger for the Russian political class is not to be found in a handful of Islamic preachers but in itself, in its moral degradation, unlimited cynicism and willingness for its own personal well-being and the preservation of its personal power to throw the entire country under the bus.”

            Indeed, he continues, “the spiritual poverty of Russian society is opening the way to global Islam” and Moscow’s “destruction of educated Muslims is transforming the Islamic community into a crowd of barbarians seeking revenge but not capable of creating a real state” that would “support social order.”

            The Muslim community is strong enough in the north Caucasus to “Islamicize protest as such,” taking any issue and making it a Muslim one because the Russian authorities are viewed so negatively and Islam provides the basis for a critique of their activities and approach, Sokolov says.

            The Russian authorities are so afraid of the emergence of any self-organization on the part of the society that they are now striking out not only at groups that actively oppose the regime but even at those who would like to cooperate with the regime to solve the problems of the country.  That has been the Kremlin’s policy “for the last 15 years.”

            The regime needs to change, at least “cosmetically,” to win back some popular support, but it is doing everything it can to lose real support by demonizing all socially active groups.  That has only grown worse in recent months, and it will continue to get worse until intra-elite competition breaks out in Moscow.

            The Kremlin knows this and that too is why it is so interested in demonizing Muslim activities, Sokolov says. “For the ruling hierarchy, nothing is more profitable and vitally necessary than that every protest looks toxic and marginal, that it is not simply Islamicized but linked to the black color of ‘the Islamic state.’”

            To the extent the Kremlin succeeds, Sokolov concludes, “the current powers that be will always seem to be a lesser evil to both the international community and its own citizens.”

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