Staunton, November 25 – The influx of Central Asian and Caucasian gastarbeiters into the oil and gas fields of the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District and Tyumen Oblast is creating ethnic conflicts which are proving to be the seedbeds for the growth of Islamic radicalism and even suggestions that there will be “a Siberian khalifate” in the future.
The situation is not yet out of control, Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Dmitry Steshin argues in a 5800-word three-part investigation of the situation there. But Islamist radicals have penetrated key institutions and often local officials are often at a loss as to what to do (kp.ru/daily/26760/3791033/, kp.ru/daily/26761.4/3791556/ and kp.ru/daily/26761/3792303/).
Aleksandr Petrushin, a former KGB general who now works as a local historian, told Steshin that the situation has been getting worse since the beginning of oil and gas development there in 1964 because republics like Azerbaijan adopted the new petroleum sites and encouraged people to move there.
Many thought this would lead to some kind of American-style “melting pot” in which all these non-Russians would assimilate and become Russians, Petrushin says; but that hasn’t happened. Instead, ethnic conflicts occur in daily life and that leads the non-Russian Muslims to turn ever more to their religion and its more extreme forms.
According to him, that is reflected in crime statistics. During this year alone, the former KGB general said, some 29,397 gastarbeiters across Russia have been convicted of crimes and sent to prisons and camps, something that places an enormous burden on Russian taxpayers but also leads to the radicalization of Muslims.
Not surprisingly, the general says, Muslim gastarbeiters go where the work and money is, and in the first half of 2017, 191,000 of them arrived in Tyumen and Khanty-Mansiisk. That is an increase from recent years when 120,000 to 170,000 came. And those are only “official” statistics. How many really have come is unknown, Petrushin adds.
A serving FSB officer who has experience tracking Hizb ut-Tahrir groups in the region tells the Moscow journalist that cells of this group are “operating through the entire region from the borders of Kazakhstan to the last inhabited territories in the north of the oblast” and that the Hizby are “much more horrible than the Wahhabis.”
The police and the FSB have arrested many of them, he continues, but they continue to work because they are structured in five-person cells and because they have succeeded in “penetrating the organs of state power and the apparatus of the oil and chemical industries” and are thus in a position to defend one another.
As a result, he says, efforts to root them out, by closing mosques and the like, haven’t worked. And they won’t because this isn’t a local problem: it is a regional or even countrywide one. But in the near term, “the Siberian region will be shaken by ‘the Islamic factory’ and shaken very seriously.”
In some parts of the north, the FSB officer says, up to 80 percent of the magistrates are now of Muslim nationality; and none of them can be counted on to enforce the law in a serious way. The Russians and Russian speakers who had occupied these posts have now fled to other, neighboring regions.
Islamist radicals in his telling are focusing on those industries and centers which they can exploit to attract more of their fellow Muslims and build power centers. Asked if he favored going back to ethnic quotas in these institutions, the KGB officer said that he “doesn’t know and doesn’t have any algorithm to suggest.”
Tyumen religious specialist Viktor Petrov adds that some of the Islamists are already calculating where they can blow up pipelines to inflict maximum punishment on the Russian state. And he showed Steshin a map he has prepared on “the expansion of religious Islamist extremists in Siberia.”
First, Petrov says, “Sufis, who profess traditional Islam, arrived, settled, strengthened their positions and found common group with Siberians” and even set up graves of Sufi sheikhs as pilgrimage sites. “But this was our Islam, ‘native,’ Tatar.” But it was succeeded by others, Wahhabis and other radicals who began talking about a Tyumen or even Siberian khalifate.
Local and regional officials understand the threat, he continues, and have adopted a law limiting missionary activity. But in his view, this is far from enough given the radical goals of the Islamists in the Russian North and the rapid influx of people from Central Asia and the Caucasus into that region.
According to one local resident, the number of such gastarbeiters has more than doubled since 1990 and continues to climb, pushing out local Russians. And the radicals find increasing numbers of recruits among them, according to one local imam who said they had tried to take over his mosque but so far failed.
He added, however, that “even from our little city, people are now studying in Morocco, but they don’t come back [because] they are wanted under federal warrant.” Their departure lessens the pressure in the region but highlights how many people are now listening to the radicals and seeking alternative futures.
Vasily Markhinin, a political scientist at Surgut University, says that the situation is deteriorating and that “65 percent of the residents of Surgut see the inter-ethnic and inter-religious situation as critical or close to critical” even though officials continue to promote the notion that everything is fine.
He adds that officials acknowledge that 80 local Muslims were recruited by ISIS in 2015, but there are certainly more about whom the authorities don’t know – and they are focusing on penetrating officialdom and key infrastructure objects including pipelines and highways so as to be able to attack the state in its most vulnerable places.
But back in Moscow, Steshin spoke with Roman Silantyev, a controversial Islamic specialist closely linked to the Orthodox Church. He says that if Muslims go from the North to the Middle East, it will be “simpler to liquidate them.” But he argues that the situation now is not as bad as it was because the authorities have come down hard on the radicals.
Silantyev adds that he always tells local officials and law enforcement personnel that “you must know by name every Wahhabi and fascist on your territory and use all legal means to minimize their number.” Some will find that reassuring, but others will be frightened by its suggestion that the Islamists are everywhere in Russia,including where they’d never been before.