Staunton, June 19 – Those in Moscow who think that eliminating Tatarstan’s office of president or even the republic as such are “cutting off the limb on which they sit” as far as relations with many Muslim countries and Afghanistan in particular, according to Rustam Khabibullin.
The Volga Tatar activist for the Patriotic Foundation of Muslims, a group that organizes people-to-people diplomacy for the Russian government in Muslim countries abroad, says that his group has been effective precisely because Tatars are Sunni Muslims and because their republic has the status it has (business-gazeta.ru/article/472410).
A frequent visitor to Afghanistan outside of Kabul, Khabibullin says that these two things allow him to find a common language with the Afghan tribes. Being a Sunni Muslim of the Hanafi rite is important but so too is “the independent political status” of Tatarstan with its own Constitution and president.
“Only after showing the Afghans documents confirming this sovereignty” has he been able to gain their agreement to take part in conferences and video bridges with Kazan “and this means with Russia as a whole,” the activist says. Without Tatarstan’s status, he says, it would be far harder for Russia to develop relations with Muslims and Muslim countries.
While the activities of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov in and with the Muslim world have attracted more attention, the Volga Tatars have long played a far larger role, Rustam Batyr says in recounting the case of Khabibullin in Afghanistan; and as tensions with the West increase, that role will only become more important.
Before the revolution, Tatar merchants and religious leaders played a key role in the expansion of Russian influence in Central Asia. After 1917, their role increased as representatives of the Soviet state. Early on, a Tatar official, Karim Khakimov served as a representative to several Arab countries and even became friends with the founder of the Saud dynasty.
When Khakimov was executed by Stalin, Abdelaziz ibn Saud refused to accept another Soviet ambassador and broke diplomatic relations with the USSR.
A more recent example was Fikhyrat Tabeyev, the longtime head of the Tatar Republic communist party organization, who was named Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan in 1979 a few months before the invasion. At the time of his appointment, Mikhail Suslov, the CPSU ideological secretary, told him something important.
“In the opinion of the leadership of the country, you, Fikryat Akhmedzhanovich, are the most suitable candidate [for that position]. You are first secetary of a large oblast committee of the party [and] it is very important that you are a Muslim [and] a member of the CPSU Central Committee.”
Two of the Russian Federation’s most important strategic groups which seek to expand Moscow’s influence in the Muslim world are headed by Volga Tatars: Rustam Minnikhanov, the republic president, heads the Russia-Islamic World planning group, and Khabibullin is the executive director of the Patriotic Foundation of Muslims.
The latter is especially important in organizing people-to-people activities and in providing aid to Muslims in conflict zones like Afghanistan. It also helps to track down the graves of Soviet servicemen killed in that country but who until now had been listed as missing in action.
Batyr concludes his survey of Volga Tatar support for Russian diplomacy by saying that if those who want to do away with the Tatarstan presidency or even Tatarstan succeed, they will be “cutting off the limb on which they themselves sit because then it will be much more complicated for Russia to deal in the Islamic countries … and defend its interests there.”