Islam and Partnership for Peace: Russia’s Peace Making Power in the Islamic World
Research Fellow, Cambridge Central Asia Forum, Jesus College, University of Cambridge and Centre of Development Studies, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Phone: +44-7947903333 (UK)
(Submitted for the Primakov Award 2018)
Abstract: There is a growing need to spread the idea of Islam as a peaceful religion and Muslim countries as partners for global peace. The Russian worldview which encompasses its multi-ethnic character and diversity best showcases the essential role that Russia has played and continues to play with and for the Islamic world globally. Geography and demography have given Russia a uniquely Eurasian character that lends itself to a particular understanding of the world and its various elements. Russia’s geography makes it part of “…different continents and neighbour to several civilizational zones.” In popular imagination today the world is divided between the East and West and Muslims against the rest of the world. In this increasingly divisive environment which is causing dangerous splits and ruptures around the globe, the partnership between Islam and Russia is both necessary and integral for peace and stability in the world. Russia’s historical place in Asia and closeness with the Muslim world along with its own multicultural character allows for an approach beyond othering and appeals to the greater good. As part of the fabric of the Asian and Muslim world, Russia is heir to a social and cultural milieu which is accommodating and inclusive. This gives rise to partnerships not divisions and creates proximity not distance with Muslim communities around the world. With talks of World War III, either inevitable or already taking place, Russia’s myriad relationships with Muslims around the world can help finding solutions and mitigating differences. Globalisation and multiculturalism are under threat today because of policies of exclusiveness, isolationism and protectionism especially with regard to Muslim populations around the world. These have to be addressed quickly and with alacrity in order to ensure world peace. This paper provides the background and historicity of Russia’s interactions with the Islamic world both within and without and takes a long term view of history to showcase the consistent role that Russia has played and continues to play in mitigating conflicts with the Islamic world. It specifically considers political and economic relationships with a cross-section of Muslim societies around the world, majority or otherwise. It offers instances where Russia has played the role of mediator in conflicts in the post-Soviet space and particularly in the Middle East, and gives further examples where Russia’s track record and nuanced approach through time can provide solutions and resolutions in the future.
Keywords: Russia, Islam, Muslims, Eurasia, Eurasianism, Peace, Stability, Economics, Diplomacy, Conflict resolution, Globalisation, Multiculturalism, Rus, History, Soviet Union.
Russia’s unique ethnic character and trajectory have been described as Russia’s ‘special path’, shaped by its history, which has accommodated a diverse population through centuries. Islam has been practiced in Russia for over a 1000 years and Russia is home to 10,000 mosques including the largest mosque in Europe. Russia’s oldest mosque dates back to 1467 and Muscovite rulers patronised Islamic historiography well into the 17th century. Tsarist Russia was home to over 20 million Muslims and Muslim citizens found ways to call on the state to “…defend property, honour and religion and [find spaces] where they could perform service for the tsar and the empire as Muslims.” In the late 19th and early 20th century there were mektebe which imparted primary school education to Muslim children, and medressas for older children in Arabic and other Tatar languages. In 1912 there were 6728 Muslim schools in Imperial Russia and another 7975 schools in Tsarist Central Asia. The place of Kazan Tatar and Siberian Muslims in Russia is also worth mentioning. In Bukharaev’s words, “[T]he history of Islam in central Russia… brought about not only a very special national and cultural awareness, but also laid down firm foundations for the revival and renovation of Islamic thought throughout the Muslim world.” The influence and sway of Muslim scholarship, education centres and treatises from Kazan in the 18-19th centuries were considered some of the most important in the Muslim world. Madressas in Ufa, Orenburg and parts of Kazan were some of the most innovative and far-sighted in their Islamic teachings in the day. Even today there is a sovereign policy of the cultivation of Islam which echoes Russia’s commitment to be inclusive. These internal factors represent Russia’s reality in the present day and direct its foreign policy and interactions with its external environment and especially with the Islamic world.
Russia has a federal structure of government today and is heir to centuries old diverse and disparate regions which have been successfully accommodated and maintained within the apparatus of the Russian state. Since 1991, Moscow has not put ethnicity and language as the cornerstone of its policies which “…meant that distinct identities of the North Caucasian groups continued to flourish and even get reinforced…” The inter-ethnic diversity within Russia is the keystone for its relationships abroad and its place and significance in the Islamic world is noteworthy and commendable in the international political landscape. Contrary to popular imagination then, within and without Russia, the role that Russia plays serves to promote, sustain and create peace and stability in the global arena especially in relation to the Islamic world which has long been portrayed as the other by Western Europe and the U.S. The Islamic world represents alienness and separateness in Western European imagination whether because of its Muslimness or Asianness,. This has increasingly caused rifts and fissures in the world leading to the notions of Clash of Civilizations. Russia’s history and present offer an alternative to that kind of binary thought process and appeals to similarities, parallels and counterparts so necessary for global security.
Russia is home to more than 20 million Muslims, approximately 12% of the population, and has long standing relations with the bulk of the Muslim world. Russia occupies a large portion of the landscape of Asia which is made up of a diverse group of peoples, not least of which are Muslim peoples who inhabit Central Asia, Caucasus, Middle East (Arabs and Persians), Turkey, North Africa, Afghanistan, China and India, and Indonesia which is home to the largest Muslim population in the world. In other words, Russia shares a 2500km long border with Muslim countries and communities. Furthermore, Russia as part of BRICS represents the largest population of Muslim communities in the world by far along with India and China which are home to substantial Muslim populations. Since at least 2006-2007, the idea of a Eurasian entity has gained importance for Russia, especially the place of Asia within it. There is little to argue that for Russia the “…importance of its Eastern dimension is increasing.” The idea of Russia representing a Eurasian civilization goes back to the times of Imperial Russia when “…certain general mental characteristics for all nations falling under the Russian Empire … made up a single civilization[.]” and gave birth to a supra-ethnic community in Russia. In recent years Russia has been actively working towards formalising its Eurasian status. In 2010 the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan was established to revive old links in the region, this later became the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in 2015. These new initiatives from Russia are well within the existing world economic system and have begun to bring in a Eurasian perspective to its relations. Rather than Russia serving as a bridge between the East and West, it forms a continuum flowing from the East into the West seamlessly. Looking at it from this perspective allows the possibility of diminishing distinctness and putting forth the idea of a third pole in the form of Eurasia as a distinct unit of geography. “Eurasianism thus derives the unique position of Russia between Europe and Asia from natural laws reflected in the existence of its unique culture based on its seemingly endless territory and rich resources.” Within this context it is essential to point out the importance of the Islamic world in Eurasia both historically and at present.
Historically, Eurasia is the landmass through which the ancient and historic Silk Road(s) passes. It has been home to merchants from across the Eurasian expanse from China, India, Central Asia, Arabs and Persians, Russia to the shores of Italy. The number of Muslim communities and states across Eurasia are plentiful and form a large part of the Muslim population worldwide. Muslims have long played formidable roles in the Eurasian landscape and continue to be major players in the region with both natural and human resources. The Silk Road(s) passing through Eurasia, most popularly connected to China in the east and Italy in the West, should not and cannot be imagined without the presence of Muslim merchants and communities in the heartland of Asia, the Persian Gulf, the Arab Middle East, North Africa, India and Rus(sia). Contacts between the populations of Rus and Islamic empires and states can be traced back to pre-medieval times. Numismatic and archaeological evidence points to merchants from Rus travelling the Silk Road(s) in the 6-7th centuries. Islamic sources from the 10th century onwards mention merchants from Rus and Volga Bulghars selling furs and slaves to Islamic merchants. Famous Islamic scholars like Ibn Faldun, Ibn Rusta and Gadrizi have left accounts describing merchants and commodities from Rus in Baghdad and other markets especially in the Abbasid Caliphate. There was a significant amount of international trade through North Caucasus and the Caspian which connected Russia and the Abbasid Caliphate, so much so that,”…significant changes in the Baltic, European Russia, the Caucasus and the Islamic world starting in the second half of the eighth century made possible the great trade linking these diverse regions.” Numismatic evidence of dirham coins found in Russia can be attributed to the bulk of the Islamic world: Iraq, Northern Africa, Northern Iran, Southern Caucasus, Khurasan, upper Iraq, Transoxiana, Southern Iran, Arabia and Syria. In the 13th century with the advent of the Mongols, Eurasia saw a further burgeoning of trade and connectivity under the auspices of the Chinggissid Khans. Merchants from Rus had access to all Mongol lands which stretched from the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia, and China as part of the Golden Horde. There was a constant flow of goods, peoples and ideas across Mongol Eurasia which was engineered and driven by Mongol Khans and their establishment of infrastructure across geographical Eurasia. The subsequent successor states of the Golden Horde (Astarkhan, Crimea, Kazan, Siberia, and Qazak Khanate) became part of Imperial Russia over time and defined the multicultural ethnic composition of Russia palpable even today. Trade was alive and well between Caffa and Rus through to Ottaman Turkey in the 15th century. In the 15-16th centuries, Ottoman Turkey imported furs from Muscovy and the Sultan was given favourable treatment by Muscovite princes. From “…Mehmed II’s time merchants from Muscovy were engaged in trade with Ottoman territories; and settled in Ottoman ports of Azov and Caffa.” The volume of trade is reportedly quite large and the Ottomans had access to markets in Muscovy filled with goods from others parts of Europe including metals and textiles as well as goods from the Northern forests and other parts of the Silk Road(s). Russia’s role as interlocutor in the Eurasian space is evident even in 1667 when a treaty was concluded between Tsar Mihajlovich and an Armenian commercial company to pass through Northern Russia to engage with the Iranians silk trade. By the beginning of the 20th century Tsarist Russia was able to bring Muslims within its borders in closer contact with Muslims abroad due to the growth of railway and steamship navigation. There were also special directorates and facilities prepared for Muslim subjects of Russia to go on hajj with pilgrims from Afghanistan, China, India and Persia.
Other than trade and the growth of vibrant and flourishing Muslim commercial activities in Russia, under Catherine the Great, there was also “…the formal recognition of Islamic institutions by the Imperial Russian government…” Catherine IIs policies in the 18th century led to good relations with both the ulama and the general population. One of her first legislations was to shut down the Office of New Converts’ Affairs and in 1767 she convened a Legislative Commission which had many Muslim delegates. Her reign saw imperial construction of mosques and religious institutions. In 1788 Catherine created the Muftiat, ‘Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly’, in Orenburg and by 1831 three others in Crimea. She also established Sunni and Shi’a assemblies in the Trancaucasus region which were akin to the Ilmiye in Ottoman Turkey and served as a model for later Soviet Spiritual Directorates. The Muftiat organised the ulama, standardised Muslim education, printed Islamic books which led to a rise in printing, and maintained religious buildings and institutions. All through the 19th century “…trade remained in the hands of Russia’s Muslim subjects …” and world famous centres of Islamic learning and commercial centres, madressas of Hussainiya in Orenberg, Mukhammadiya in Kazan, Galiya in Ufa, Izh Bobi, Troitsk and Kargala, among others abounded. These centres were marked for their “… prominent, innovative and far-sighted…” thought all over the Islamic world. Later, in 1905 Russia’s Decree on Religious Tolerance furthered the status of Muslims in the empire. Since that time, the Russian empire offered a promise of inclusiveness to its Muslim subjects which were based on legal and institutional changes in Imperial Russia. In general the conditions of Muslims were far more favourable in the Russian Empire than the British Empire at the time with Muslims exempt from military service, poll tax and corporal punishment in Imperial Russia. As a result of institutional and juridical structures Russian Muslims (Muslim Cossacks on the steppe, Turkmen sailors on the Caspian, merchants, Bashkirs in Urals, populations in Samarkand among others) were able to forge a relationship with the Russian state and “…reinforced the stability of the empire and shaped the possibilities of being a Russian Muslim, both within and without its borders.” Later, in the Soviet Union a no less multicultural and ethnic milieu continued along with close contacts and relations with the Islamic world, near and far. There were four spiritual directorates in the Soviet Union which represented the administration of Islam. The most significant of these were in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. In Russia today, the Volga, North Caucasus regions and Tatarstan regions represent large Muslim populations with different levels of autonomous relationships with the centre. To summarise, Russia has through its history offered a space for multiple interactions between a diverse set of people, be it the Muslims in neighbouring Central Asia, Iran, or the Arab Middle East. They have consistently stimulated the possibilities and potential within the Eurasian space and driven commercial activity with the Muslim world. By minimising perceived differences with the Islamic world, empires and states, Russia’s contribution to security and wealth is unparalleled. The next section considers Russia’s Eurasian identity.
A large part of Russian territory is in Asia making it a uniquely Eurasian state. With the exception of the period since 1991, Russia has been connected in one form or another with the rest of Asia for most of its history. Whether it was relationships with the Abbassid Caliphate, the Golden Horde (Mongol Empire), Central Asian Khanates (Khiva, Kokand, Astrakhan; later Bukhara, Khiva, Kazakh Khanates) and modern Central Asia and Caucasus, Russia has been part of or close to Muslim Asia. Muslims have been part of the very fabric of society within Russia and have played a more than substantial role in determining Russia’s external environment. Any discussion of Eurasia or Eurasianism, is incomplete without a note on Lev Gumilev, a Soviet scholar and intellectual, who put forth a theory of Eurasianism in the Soviet period in the 1960-70s. He has been variously referred to as a geographer, archaeologist, ethnologist, medievalist and an orientalist. He was not the first one to coin the term, however his views continue to influence and inform the current political leadership in Russia. Presidents Putin and Nazrarbaev have both openly acknowledged that their vision of Eurasia and the Eurasian Economic Union are influenced by Gumilev’s ideas. At least three strands of Eurasianism can be traced in Russia: one, Eurasianism of the 1920s after the civil war in Russia; two, Gumilev’s theory of ethnogenesis and Eurasia; and three, neo-Eurasianism which has been in vogue in the 1990s and some would argue has led to the establishment of the Eurasian Economic Union. They are all theories of Russian nationalism aimed to understand the history of Russia. In particular, Gumilev’s Eurasianism focuses on the multi-ethnic character of the Russian population which he calls a combination of Slavs, Finno-Ugric tribes and Tatars. He focuses on the unique geographical, climactic and topographical character of Eurasia which he considers as determining Russian history. He refers to the different characteristics of the Russian ethnos as a kind of superethnos which led to a distinct historical trajectory. These elements put together paint a vivid picture of Russia today and allow for a far more intricate depiction of the disparate elements and the ways in which they come together to comprise the population and the political thought of Russia. According to Eurasianists in the 19th century like N.S. Trubetskoii, G.V. Floro, Roman Jakobson and George Ver, “Russia belonged not to Western Europe, or Eastern Asia, but to Eurasia, the region between East and West that geographically, ethnically, linguistically and historically constituted a separate whole.” Furthermore, according to Savitsky, Russia occupies the place between east-west and north-south which he calls the ‘Eurasian Junction’. Within this context we can begin to connect the dots and inform the understanding of Russia in the past and bring into focus its Eurasianness. This understanding provides the basis of Russia’s interactions with the Islamic world and shows how they form a continuum which dates back centuries.
Russia’s Eurasian footprint is also discussed by modern scholars like David Christian who presents Russia and the Soviet Union as part of Inner Eurasia and a single, coherent historical unit. This allows us to apply a longer lens on the environment which is inhabited by Russia and present day Central Asia and bring coherence to its presence in the wider region. His argument offers an understanding of Russia as a part of political, climactic and geographical Eurasia. Historically, these lands have been the nodes through which peoples, commodities, ideas, religions and diseases have travelled and as a result “…the political history of Inner Eurasia shaped the rhythms… of the entire Eurasian region.” This places Russia at the very centre of the interactions in Eurasia and right in the middle of the Islamic world, both as a part of it and as a facilitator of contacts with it. Russia, of the past and present, endeavours to keep the region accessible for the growth and productivity of the entire region. Russia’s vision of the Eurasian Economic Union is a revival of a world sans borders which is uniquely Eurasian and part of the very fabric of Russia. It is of no surprise then to find the Silk Road in this region meandering through the heart of Eurasia. The oldest and most famous traders in the world are Muslim merchants be it Sogdian, Bukharan, Arab and Persian. It was Muslim societies and markets in the 8th century that spurred merchants from Rus and Volga Bulgars on to mercantile activity which brought prosperity and power along with it to Muscovy. A Russian worldview generated with this in mind can help inform understandings and instil meanings in relationships with the wider Islamic world the particularities of which may differ in time but the core values of interaction continue to be diplomatic and economic in nature. This is not lost on the political leadership of Russia today and is easily identifiable in Russia’s interactions abroad. A closer look at the internal processes in Russia can help determine the vectors of its foreign policy.
As mentioned above, Russia has a significant Muslim population within its borders in addition to neighbouring Muslim countries, especially in Central Asia and the Caucasus which until 1991 were part of the same political entity, the Soviet Union. Russia is home to Muslims in the Volga-Ural regions of Tatarstan and Bashkorastan; Adygeya, Karachayevo-Circassia in the North Caucasus; Kabardino-Balkaria; Ingush and Chechen Republics and the Republic of Dagestan. The Volga Tatars are the second largest region in Russia and can trace their origins back to Volga-Bulgars and the Golden Horde and continue to present themselves as a unique example of a Muslim population which has survived over centuries without being assimilated. Kazan and Volga Tatars represented a high point in Islamic teaching and thought well into the 19-20th centuries and different aspects of Russia are visually present in buildings like the Mardzhani Mosque, named after an imam from 1867, which brings together Russian provincial barocco and Bulgar motifs, constructed by master Tatar craftsmen. Russia’s influence on Islamic countries can also be found in the influence its imams and ulama and poets and writers had on larger Islamic thought especially from Kazan. These factors exert immense influence over the internal composition of Russia. As mentioned above, Catherine II’s treatment of the Tatars brought them firmly into the Imperial Russian orbit and Tatar partnership since the 17th century was essential in any Russian project, imperial or otherwise.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, free of ideological constraints, “Russia has adopted a multi-level approach to policy making.” What we see in Russia’s relations with its near abroad and the traditional third world, Middle East and Asia, are guided in large part by historical and economic motivations. After having suffered economically in the 1990s and seeing economic growth in the 2000s, the direction of Russia’s relations with the world is guided by “…desires to ensure territorial integrity and economic growth.” The Islamic world in particular represents an old partner and a new ally in the present whether as rich Arab nations for investment in Russia or markets abroad for Russian goods. Seen in the context of centuries old interactions, Russia continues to inhabit and flourish in a space inhabited by Muslim communities.
Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia faced a series of secessionist movements but its federal state structure has overcome the weaknesses of the 1990s to build a strong and coherent Russia. Much has been said about the ideologically driven relationships that Moscow had worldwide, however by 1991 the Soviet Union had good relations with Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, the Palestinian Authority, Iran and Kuwait. After a period of unrest in the 1990s, Russia managed to find its own way and make room for its national minorities especially its large Muslim population. The federative character is inclusive and “…the linguistic diversity of Russia as well as Russian approaches to the designation, representation and empowerment of its national minorities have been quite distinctive.” The former President Shaimiev of Tatarstan stressed the importance of the federation from below which helped maintain Russian integrity. Russia’s federal structure accommodates Tatarstan’s special status and incorporates a feature which requires consent from both Tatarstan and the Russian Duma for any changes to the treaty. Russia is not ignorant of the importance of its Muslim regions within and their treatment in the larger context of the Islamic world either. Russia’s response to Chechnya, Dagestan and Tataristan along with its conduct regarding Islamic radicals within its borders has an impact on its relations with the Arab Middle East, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and even North Africa. The Islamic stance of organisations like Al Qaeda, ISIS and others tend to ignore borders and the treatment of Muslims worldwide is of concern not only to Russia, U.S. and Western Europe but also to other Muslim countries around the world. This complex matrix within the Russian state dictates its relationships externally and good relationships with Muslim states abroad conversely help the situation at home.
“There is a growing understanding especially in response to world politics today that we live in an interconnected world and while a global perspective includes a much wider region, the Eurasian region is a microcosm of that same process and is inhabited by the majority of the world’s population.” Russia’s interests in wider Eurasia, home to the largest Muslim population in the world, require security and economic cooperation. Russia’s relations with difficult Islamic states speak to these aspects. Russia has continued to have relations with Iran despite its religious leanings and continues to be economically tied to the Persian Gulf. Its presence on the Caspian Sea which is shared by Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan means that this shared this space, geographically part of the Islamic world, exerts its own pressure on the Russian economy. The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent economic difficulties which spread like wildfire across the globe, and the more recent Anglo-American shifts away from globalisation have left a turbulent feeling in the world order.” Whether it is globalisation and/or multiculturalism the tide has turned towards Asia. In 2010 Merkel, Cameron and Sarkozy talked of the negative tide of multiculturalism and spoke of the problems of European cosmopolitanism, while Medvedev in 2011 tried to rehabilitate the term and bring its positive aspects to the fore. Similarly, while the Brexit vote of 2017 is leading Britain away from the European Union, the Eurasian Economic Union is expanding its membership across Eurasia. There is a definite trend away from globalisation in the U.S. and Western Europe which is limiting migration and acting more and more protectionist. Russia occupies the same space as many of the countries of the Islamic world and with its own domestic Muslim population can provide a better understanding and platform for interaction which mitigates the othering of Islamic communities. In other words Russia can create the conditions to step away from the kind of thinking which alienates the Muslims, “[T]he adjectives most closely associated with the East continue to be words like mysterious and dangerous which evoke distance and unfamiliarity even for people who inhabit the region.” In these conditions Russia’s foreign policy requires further consideration.
Russia’s foreign policy
Russia’s foreign policy like most other countries is driven from its own national interests and aims to ensure its territorial integrity and caters towards economic development. There are domestic and international factors that need to be considered to understand Russia’s relations with the Islamic world and in general as well. The first internal factor is the significant Muslim population which resides within Russia. The second is the “…growing impact of marketization… the role of economic interests in foreign policy[.]” which has brought other groups in the population in the framework of foreign policy decision making. These two factors combined played an important role in determining Russian foreign policy after 1991. One of the most important external factors was the Afghan war which Russia had been embroiled in for a decade as part of the Soviet Union. Since independence, Moscow has shown its intent in working with regional and international organisations visible from the various groupings it has initiated and led or become part of: CIS, CSTO, SCO, OIC, and EAEU among others. Russia’s multilateralism or ‘multilateral diplomacy’ in the international arena focuses on working closely with the UN and the G8. This is reminiscent of its federative structure and a response to the Soviet Union’s unilateral approach in Afghanistan in 1979.
The international environment in which Russia’s foreign policy was shaped after 1991 was the end of the Cold War along with a global recession by the end of the 1990s which has only gotten worse since 2008. In this international context it is not in the least surprising to see Russia turning East and looking towards its immediate and extended neighbourhood, particularly Eurasia. In the lead up to the 1996 election, Yeltsin declared “…Asia- China, India, Japan, the countries of the Near and Middle East and the ASEAN countries…” as important for Russia’s foreign policy relationships. As part of the BRICS countries, Russia along with India and China constitute the largest Muslim population worldwide, far surpassing the most populous Islamic country of Indonesia. The countries of BRICS have been forging their own relationships, individual and otherwise, with the Islamic world in tremendous and exciting ways. According to Mawson, “…the BRICs are taking unprecedented steps at the bilateral and multilateral levels to: support relations with new and exciting governments, show solidarity with nations through extensive private links and public diplomacy, and promote respect for the universal application of international law.” BRICS are slowly growing as an alternative pole in international understandings of relations, built largely on a policy of non-intervention, and thus are appearing as a viable option for smaller states or states which have hitherto not enjoyed Anglo-American and Western European support. Offering a different understanding of world politics adds to the vibrancy of international politics which can accommodate multiple understandings rather than continue within zero-sum games kind of paradigms. To step away from an us vs. them approach to politics requires a multilateral approach which represents multiple viewpoints to global issues and concerns. Russian foreign policy by its own admission seeks a multilateral and pragmatic approach to perceived and real problems. Essentially, the Russian approach to international politics harks back to a pre-World War II time when a multi-vector world existed, as opposed to the superpower politics of the Cold War. Going even further back, before European imperialism and colonialism, whether it was formidable Muslim Empires or old civilizations of China and Persia, the world was represented by several poles, ideas, cultures and economic systems.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War created a new environment in which Russia appeared with a clean slate and a fresh understanding of its own place in world politics. The 1990s brought both internal struggles and external threats which required leadership and a new thinking by the Russian state. Any country thrust onto the world stage after a disruptive moment like the one experienced by Russia is faced with both opportunities and challenges. One of the biggest challenges Russia had to face was the decade long conflict in Afghanistan in which the Soviet Union had played a pivotal role. The protracted war in Afghanistan had weakened Soviet Union’s political, military and economic power in the region and had caused tensions with GCC countries especially in the Middle East which led to increased American presence and power in the region and globally. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 and in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia’s role in Afghanistan receded and even caused internal tensions especially in Russian regions of Chechnya and Tatarstan. However, a break from Soviet policy, counterbalancing overtures in the Middle East and internal influences of secessionist movements all tended to galvanise the Russian state and espouse an internal and foreign policy which was cognizant of Muslims within and without Russia. In other words, Russia’s historic past was revisited to look beyond the Soviet Union, politics and ideology, to look towards a more inclusive Russia. In many ways the experience with Afghanistan in the 1980s allowed Russia to move beyond old narratives of ideology and into a place where multilateral approaches with joint decision making was preferable to expensive wars. Moscow learned a very important lesson from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, mainly that superior military might did not guarantee winning of hearts and minds.
Russia’s immediate past as part of the Soviet Union aside, Russia has a long history with the Islamic world which dates back centuries and includes old relationships and ties, all of which can be harnessed for future relationships. The closeness of Russia with the Islamic world, geographically and otherwise, exercises a natural pull. The Islamic world is part of the landscape of Eurasia and so along with the historical interactions between Russia and Muslim countries, the economic realities of the 21st century make them natural partners. Muslim countries don’t come only in the form of the Muslim Middle East but include North Africa, South Asia, South East Asia and even China which has a large Muslim population in its western regions. In order to fully appreciate Russia’s stance a note on China is essential. Seen as traditional foes and competing over influence in Eurasia and China, Russia has chosen not to confront China, but rather has even given tacit support to China’s Belt and Road initiative. While, Russia continues to promote the Eurasian Economic Union, it has not been outspoken about Chinese initiatives which in the western European and American press have been talked about in largely negative and expansionist terms. Russia continues to work with China in international organisations like the SCO and AIIB in the context of the Belt and Road Initiative. China is a market for Russian goods and hostility with China would lead to not only economic concerns but also an increase in military spending which does not benefit Russia. Under these specific circumstances, Russia has behaved admirably with China and continues to cooperate and have ties which engage with a rapidly growing China. China’s growth has been of concern to the U.S. and Western Europe and in comparison to Russia has evoked far more negative approaches tarnished by suspicion and misgivings.
American and Anglo-Saxon understandings do not engage with the other in ways other than one of mistrust. Muslims like other Asians, especially Chinese, evoke suspicions from Western Europe and the U.S. Russia and its Eurasian character has also been singled out as different and thus dangerous at the outset. As a Eurasian country Russia occupies both Europe and Asia and this places Russia in an interesting position vis-à-vis Western Europe and the U.S. Russia represents notions of east and west and in many ways this unique position causes confusion both for the rest of Europe and in the East. Geographically Russia occupies the same place as a large part of the Islamic world and this naturally brings it closer to the Middle Eastern countries (Muslim and otherwise). Particularly, for Russia, Muslims do not represent something alien and unknown but rather evoke memories of shared experiences and centuries long interactions. Russia has also for the most part consistently followed a policy driven by diplomacy and trade with the Islamic world and wider Eurasia which necessarily require political stability, internationally and domestically. As opposed to many other European powers, in general, Russia is not tarred by the same brush despite its Imperial past. If anything, Russia has been seen as a champion of the fight against terrorism and Islamism as well as a country which has suffered under U.S. sanctions which make it closer to the experience of many Muslim countries worldwide. In many respects, Russia has had a similarly complicated relationship with the ‘west’ which influences how it is perceived in the Islamic world. Whether the Soviet Union or present-day Russia, it has experienced hard line opinions from the Anglo-Saxon world, supported by Western Europe. Other than sanctions, the Russian economy with its reliance on the oil sector and the perception of its government apparatus as authoritarian gives Russia common ground with countries in the Islamic world.
However, it would be erroneous to say that Russia’s foreign policy since 1991 has followed a strictly anti-western stance, in 2001 Russia supported the U.S. in its war against Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2011, Russia did not veto UN resolution 1973 which allowed the U.S. and the European Union to get involved in the Libya crisis and agreed to sanctions against Libya which was previously seen as a close ally of Russia. This even tarnished Russia’s image among certain groups in the Middle East and Syria which began to see Russia as ineffective against the U.S. and Western Europe. In 2011 Russia was the biggest non-regional player to have suffered losses due to political turmoil in the Middle East. Similarly, Russia continues to suffer economically because of the war in Syria and the turmoil in Egypt was a setback for Russia’s grain exports. This, however, is evidence to show Russia’s outlook in the region goes beyond anti-U.S. rhetoric and actually shows a far more nuanced approach and foreign policy stance. For Russia to economically prosper it needs a stable and peaceful neighbourhood which is impossible if the countries are at war or in conflict. Russia’s position in these instances can be viewed as a means to provide security and stability in the wider region. Similarly, relations with Iran and Turkey, at odds with each other, help create stable border regions and also keeps Russia’s immediate neighbourhood, Central Asia and the Caucasus, peaceful. Russia’s efforts through the 1990s stabilised the internal and external environment which Russia is part of, and has “…raised the value of building good relations with neighbouring regions and the promotion of national economic interests.” Russia’s support for Syria in 2013 can be understood in the context of Eurasian security which has the Middle East peace process at its core and sees intervention in states as illegal and against international law. Russia is an old country but has only recently become a sovereign nation and suffered threats to its territorial integrity in the 1990s along with significant economic setbacks. This has created the framework within which Russia operates and must be considered before any real politik motivations are ascribed to its actions. Russia is not a new player in the Middle East and in many ways has inherited relations from the Soviet Union which place it firmly in the centre of any peace process. However, having broken from the shackles of the Soviet Union, both ideological and territorial, Russia embarked on a pragmatic approach to its foreign policy initiatives located in historical ties and future benefits. Within this context it is essential to locate and describe the kinds and varieties of relationships that Russia enjoys with the Islamic world.
Russia and the Islamic World
The smorgasbord of Russia’s relations, interests and interactions with the Muslim world include: economic, social and political aspects. As inhabitants of a shared physical geography in the form of Eurasia, the Islamic world is not the ‘other’ and Muslims in turn don’t represent something alien and unrecognisable. As has been described above, Muslims, within and without, have been part of the Russian worldview for many centuries. Throughout history Muslims have traversed Russian lands, have been subjects of the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union and are present as citizens and neighbours today. There is a long and expansive relationship shared between present day Russia and Muslims communities across the globe. Russia represents one of the oldest multicultural societies in the world and it is guided by internal as much as external factors when interacting with the wider Islamic world. Economic relations with the Islamic world have formed a large part of Russia’s relationship with the countries of the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, South-East Asia and beyond.
There has been a concerted effort from the Russian government to solidify its relations with the Islamic world since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The plurality of Russia’s relations with the Islamic world signifies its commitment to be inclusive and reflects its attempts at engaging with the wider international arena. Since the 1990s it has consistently become part of a number of organisations and signed treaties with a number of Muslim countries around the world. The Soviet period has left its footprint on the larger theoretical framework and particular experience of Russia’s external policies, be it Afghanistan or relations with Pakistan, Syria and Arab countries. They serve as examples of lost opportunity and lessons in international behaviour. This paper considers the quality and quantity of Russia’s relations with the Islamic world and juxtaposes it with the current global environment and the particularities of Eurasia. The following sections lay out Russia’s relations with a number of Islamic countries around the world.
Central Asia and Caucasus
Russia’s immediate neighbourhood, Central Asia and the Caucasus are predominantly Muslim countries, and until recently were part of the same country, the Soviet Union. As part of the Soviet Union, these countries have a shared political and administrative legacy which continues to have influence in all the countries in the post-Soviet space. The continuity in Russia’s relations with CIS countries and its immediate neighbourhood remain important for the economies of the whole region. The shared physical and institutional infrastructure of the Soviet period continues to dictate the bulk of relations in the region. There have been various attempts since 1991 to regularise relations in this space which have taken the shape of regional organisations. The latest and most successful of these endeavours is the Eurasian Economic Union which was established in 2015 with Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, the Kyrgyz Republic and Armenia as members. The EAEU started as a customs union (2010) and has eased restrictions of movements of goods and peoples in this space. President Putin and President Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan) see the union as an economic union first but there is room for expanded relations especially in the spheres of technology and knowledge production as well improvement in the human index of all the countries concerned.
Other than being members of regional organisations, the volume of bilateral trade with Central Asian countries and the Caucasus is very high. Russia is a huge market for goods from the region and it also serves as a transit country for the mostly land-locked Central Asian countries. Most of the Central Asian trade is with Russia due to Soviet infrastructure which still links Central Asia most intimately with Russia. For the most part natural gas, oil, grain and other Central Asian commodities find their way to markets abroad through Russia. Kazakhstan continues to be the closest to Russia among the Central Asian states. Other than sharing a long border with Russia, Kazakhstan still has a substantial ethnic Russian population within its borders and Russian remains an official language with equal status for administrative and international purposes. Kazakhstan has also grown in stature as a regional power with its substantial oil and natural resource reserves and has increasingly played an important role in the Islamic world with the Chairmanship of the Organisation of Islamic Countries in 2011. Nazarbayev’s commitment to being good neighbours with Russia continues to play a positive role in Russia-Kazakhstan relations and bodes well for the rest of Central Asia. According to Rubinstein, Kazakhstan acts as a buffer for the rest of Central Asia and Middle East with Russia and continued good relations are good for the wider region.
With the countries of the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijan, Russia has a long standing relationship especially in the energy sector and it continues to be a dominant player in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions which also bring it closer to countries like Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan. For all the predictions of Turkish, Iranian, and Arab influence displacing Russia’s influence in the region in the early 1990s and more recently with China’s extensive investment in the region with its Belt and Road Initiative, Russia’s role has in no way diminished and it continues to be an important partner, political and economic, in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. Historically and in modern times Central Asian countries continue to be seen as the arena where the Great Game between Imperial Russia and the British Empire played out and where Russia, the U.S. and the Islamic world were to battle it out for precious resources and for strategic reasons. However, other than the fact that the newly independent Central Asian nations have shown incredible agency and astute leadership in their interaction with the so-called great powers, Russia has exercised great political acumen in its relationship with its perceived backyard. The end of the Soviet Union did not lead to land grabs and territorial expansion on the part of Russia or Central Asian countries, and any borer disputes continue to be sorted through regional organisations like the SCO.
Arab Gulf States and North Africa
According to Naumkin, at the end of 1992 Russia developed a balanced and pragmatic attitude towards all Middle East countries with a revived focus on Russia’s Eurasian character, relations with Arab moderates, diplomatic and trade activity and Russia’s role as a possible mediator. The main thrust of its foreign policy with the Islamic world has been diplomatic and economic in nature. Russia’s main interests have been to stabilise the region to ensure stability in economic relations. Russia has close relationships in the Middle East and continues to play an important role both politically and economically. In 1992 Moscow was the co-chair of the Moscow Organisational Meeting for Multilateral Negotiations on the Middle East. Russia’s main interests have been to stabilise the region to ensure stability in economic relations.
Between 2003 and 2008 there were official visits to Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and UAE. In 2003 Russia signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the League of Arab States. Russia has observer status in the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) since 2005 which is the second largest intergovernmental organisation after the UN and is a collective Muslim organisation to safeguard and promote Muslim voices. The OIC was founded in 1965 and has 57 members and Moscow’s bid was supported by Malaysia. After 1991, Russia has enlarged its relations with the Islamic world with the inclusion of relations with Saudi Arabia, “Putin’s unprecedented visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia in early 2007, the first ever by a Russian or Soviet leader, was part of a readjustment of Russia’s behaviour in the region.” On the same visit, Putin was awarded Saudi Arabia’s highest award, the Abdul-Aziz Order for Service to Islam. Russia enjoys long standing business and strategic partnerships with Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Egypt.
Russia has improved relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in real terms and a concerted effort has been made with diplomatic visits, business and the widening scope of economic cooperation include financial aid from Gulf Arab countries. There are at least three important aspects of Russia-GCC relations, one, the market and resources represented by the GCC countries is immense; maintain a balanced approach with the Islamic world; and to be part of the larger network of countries that represent Eurasia. The GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia has close ties with Russia’s neighbours, especially Uzbekistan with Uzbek and Central Asian Diasporas in Saudi Arabia and vice a versa. These communities link Eurasia with the GCC countries and provide a further impetus to good neighbourly interactions. A federal agency called Rossotrudnichestvo in 2008 was established to develop Russian cultural and humanitarian presence abroad especially in Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. In 2011 at a Russia-GCC strategic summit the issues of the Palestinian state, an open door policy, and the support for peace and stability in the Middle East were seen to be of equal importance to both sides. In order to change the Soviet era perception of Russia in the Middle East and Europe, Russia launched ‘Russia Today’, a TV channel which attracted 350 million viewers in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe in 2013.
Since 2000, Russia has launched fourteen telecommunications and distance sensing satellites for Saudi Arabia from Baikonur. Saudi Arabia and Russia represent two oil-producing giants and in this context in 2007 after Putin’s visit there was a desire by both parties to “…improve coordination in this area and this opportunity was studied during Putin’s visit.” Following the visit, LUKOIL was given a concession in Saudi Arabia and a joint project called Luksaw between LUKOIL and the Saudi Aramco Corp was initiated. The countries of the Middle East are seen as a source of investment by Russia, not just markets for Russian goods, with companies from the UAE investing in Russia since 2010-2011. In addition to oil-rich countries, Russia extended a hand of cooperation to countries like Jordan with the aim of widening economic cooperation as well which have remained cordial since at least 2007. Russia exports a variety of things to Islamic countries, for example, it exports precious metals, metallurgical goods and machinery, transport vehicles to the UAE; and oil, petrochemical products, sulfur, coal and chemical industrial goods to Morocco; and trade with Algeria in 2013 amounted to $2.7 billion USD with Russian companies Gazprom, Rosneft, and Stroytransgaz all operating in Algeria. The wide array of diplomatic, economic and military interactions shows Russia’s commitment to this part of the Islamic world.
Russia and Turkey relations have seen a positive trend since 1991 despite Turkey’s place in NATO, a historic dispute over the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles (settled in 2003) and competition in Caucasus and Central Asia. Immediately following 1991, there were a number of high level visits between Russia and Turkey which became the foundation for cooperation and good relations between the two countries. There were up to 15 diplomatic visits between Russia and Turkey and more than 15 agreements were signed on political, economic, military, and cultural matters. Russia supported Turkey’s initiative in the Black Sea in 1992 for the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) which became an organisation in 1998 and includes Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania and 9 observer states – Tunisia, Egypt, Poland, Egypt, Slovakia, Austria, Italy, Germany and France. In 2001 the Foreign Ministers of Turkey and Russia agreed on expanding relations based on trade and tourism. The settlement of the dispute in the Straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles in 2003 increased Russia’s exports through the Black Sea. Putin’s visit in 2004 led to an increase in bi-lateral trade, tourism and other relations. Trade in 2007 reached £20 billion USD, five times that of Iran in the same time period, which has continued to grow making Russia Turkey’s largest trade partner in 2012. Turkey imports most of its gas from Russia and Turkey’s position in pipelines makes it an essential player in Russia’s energy market.
Russia continued its relations with Turkey throughout the 1990s when there was an obvious rise in Turkish influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Russia’s immediate neighbours; and competition in the Caspian Sea region. Despite this, trade between Russia and Turkey continued to be high and the Caspian Sea Pipeline was inaugurated in 2001, the only pipeline not controlled by the Russian state which represents a joint stock company. By 2012 Russia and Turkey had managed to iron out tensions in order to capitalise on their economic relationship which have tended to be lucrative and essential for both countries. The importance of these two players in the wider region was seen recently in the 2015 jet debacle which was quickly settled with the help of neighbouring Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan who are party to the gas pipeline projects along with other transit routes through Turkey and Russia. Russia’s good relations with Turkey facilitate a further expanding of bringing the divisions within the Muslim world to naught especially in the international arena. “As a result of the pragmatism shown by both leaderships, bilateral cooperation adopted an approach that focused on shared national security interests based on stabilisation rather than conflict.”
Russia has diplomatic, economic and military relationships with Iran. Russia’s exports to Iran include ferrous metals, wood, pulp, paper, fuel, fertilisers and energy resources. In 2000, Russia signed the Treaty on the Basic Principles of Cooperation between Russia and Iran. Despite perceived competition of Russian and Iranian influence in Central Asia and Caucasus after 1991, the two countries have maintained cordial relations. Iran’s role in Tajikistan’s civil war and the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict were seen as positive by Moscow. Iran’s respect for Russia’s territorial integrity in the face of tensions with Chechnya which were caged in Islamic terms was evidence that the Islamic power was not going to interfere in domestic conflicts. Their interests in the Caspian Sea region and a significant shared coastline mean that Russia and Iran inhabit a shared space. To reiterate here, Russia’s Eurasian mind-set brings it closer to Iran and good relations with their neighbours are essential for economic activity to flourish. Iran and Russia have worked together in the Middle East process which threatens the whole region. In 2007, the Russian government came out with a paper entitled, ‘The Concept for Ensuring Security in the region of the Persian Gulf,’ which focused on aspects of negotiations, peacekeeping, and the participation of all parties in any decision making process specially to do with the Middle East peace process.
The rise of oil prices in the 1990s made Iran a profitable market for Russia. Between 2003 and 2004 the volume of trade between Iran and Russia rose by 43%, and subsequently there was talk of unifying the power grids of the two countries and the relationship saw increased technology cooperation as well. In 2010, Russia-Iran trade stood at $4.2 billion USD. There are even talks of opening an Iranian-Russian-Turkmenistan-Qatari gas pipeline which in effect would have monopolised the international gas market. Russia continues to call for a collective security organisation in the Gulf with the inclusion of Iran which it sees as a guarantor of regional security. Iran has long been seen as a pariah state by the U.S. and the Anglo-Saxon world which has led to its isolation and alienation in the international arena. However, Iran has had longer relations with the countries in Eurasia, be it Russia or India. The policy of isolation and sanctions has been detrimental and spurred tensions in the Middle East. This needs to be addressed by the global community and once again Russia’s historical relationship with Iran which continues to have sway in the region today can be helpful in finding solutions. There are a number of issues where Russian and Iranian interests coincide and Russia’s multi-vector foreign policy means that Russia will continue to find areas where they can cooperate.
All through the 1990s Russia maintained diplomatic relations with Iraq. Russia revived economic relations with Iraq in 1993 with a diplomatic visit from the then Deputy Minister for External Economic Relations, Oleg Davydov. In 1996 Iraq signed deals with Russia in the energy sector; however Russia did not break the sanctions in place against Iraq. In 1998 Russia mediated between Iraq and the UN. By 2002 Russia was among the biggest trade partners for Iraq. Russia along with other European powers like Germany and France was against the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003, and remained against sanctions against Iraq. In 2004 Russia endorsed the Iraqi Interim Government (IIG) and deals with Russia for Iraq’s economic rejuvenation were given priority. Primakov in 2008 warned against deterioration of U.S. relations with the Shi’a militias and Russia has called for a region wide conference to tackle reconciliation in Iraq. Joint decision making with the participation of all interested parties in the region has been the cornerstone of Russia’s foreign policy in the face of U.S. unilateralism. Since 2012 there have been further deals struck between Iraq and Russia. There has been a consistent approach to Iraq which has focused on diplomacy and economic cooperation without antagonising the U.S. throughout this period on the part of Russia.
Asia and South-East Asia
While the Western viewpoint locates the Islamic world firmly in the Middle East, Russia’s relations with the Muslim world encompass larger populations of Muslims in countries which are not necessarily identified as Muslim countries like India and China. South East Asia is yet another important part of the Islamic world which often gets overlooked. Whether as part of BRICS or relations with ASEAN countries, Russia engages with the Islamic world in multiple ways. In 1993, Primakov declared the importance of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in world politics and Russia’s interest in trading with the ASEAN countries. In 1994, Russia joined the Asean Regional Forum from its inception, and became a Dialogue Partner to ASEAN in 1996. Putin attended the APEC (Asian and Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) meeting solidifying Russia’s interest in relationships with Asian countries in 1997 and became a member in 1998. Trade between Russia and ASEAN countries tripled in the period between 1994 and 1995, it went from $1.6 to $4 billion USD. In 2006 Putin visited the largest Muslim populated country, Indonesia, he was the first Russian president to do so in 50 years and his visit led to the signing of agreements worth $4 billion. Break from the Soviet Union revitalised two partnerships in Asia which are important for Russia in Asia, namely Pakistan and China. In the 1990s Russia tried to rectify its relations with Pakistan which had hitherto been tense because of Soviet presence in Afghanistan and Indo-Soviet closeness. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was able to embark on official visits and diplomatic missions in order to normalise relations with Pakistan while still enjoying a close relationship with India. Having at least one of the major obstacles thus removed, i.e. exiting Afghanistan, Russia could expand its foreign policy initiatives to include Pakistan. In a similar vein, Russia is engaged with China in Central Asia and Eurasia, and in the broader Asia-Pacific both economically and politically. Experts predicted competition between China and Russia; however, up till now there has been a growth of economic ties rather than tensions. China and Russia enjoy most favoured nation status and there was a Russo-Chinese governmental committee established as early as 1992. There has also been groundwork laid for the creation of a special economic zone in the border area between Russia, China and Korea under the auspices of the UN. Russia’s role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative show a far more nuanced understanding of China’s actions in Eurasia which helps maintain stability in the wider region. Viewed from a perspective of Russian foreign policy and through the lens of history, Russia has always interacted with its neighbours, near and far, especially in Eurasia. As has been mentioned above, Eurasia offers multiple opportunities and a closely interconnected Eurasia can bring benefit to all the countries. The natural condition for Eurasia has been connectedness and this is possible again.
The place of Russia in the Islamic world was recently made even more poignant, in the 2015 Turkey-Russia jet debacle, it was neighbouring Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan which quickly helped mitigate the situation to minimise tensions in the region. Russia’s close relationship with the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus helped mitigate regional tensions in this case. Furthermore, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia were all touted as competitions to Russian influence and interest in Central Asia and the Caucasus, however this has proven otherwise and diplomatic relations with all countries have led to easing of tensions rather than escalation. Russia’s relationship with the Orient and the Islamic world are far more varied than its western European counterparts. Russia’s past includes being part of the East as well as being an imperial power. As mentioned above, the ethnic composition of Russia reflects its past contacts and interactions with the people of the East and the Muslim world. Not only can Russia help mitigate problems with Europe but even within the Muslim world there are divisions between Saudi-led Muslim countries and countries that fall under the purview of Iran. These divisions can be minimised with an active role of Russia which enjoys diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Putin’s trip to Saudi Arabia in 2007 was a clear signal to Saudi Arabia that Russia was not partnering with Iran against the Sunni kingdom. According to Saikal, Russia’s foreign policy in Central Asia and the Middle East has “… a clear eye on the need to lay the foundations for a long-term…policy.” Within this context, Russia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov has put forth ‘network diplomacy’ which focuses on the lack of ideological constraints on Russian foreign policy and allows for flexible alliances.
The challenges that the Islamic countries face are similar to the ones faced by Russia. The curse of energy resources or the Dutch disease common to a lot of countries in the Islamic world is applicable to Russia as well. There is more in common between Russia and oil-rich countries of the Middle East and farther afield Indonesia and Malaysia as well. In 2007 Saudi Arabia and Russia as major oil exporters considered maintaining oil prices as a common interest especially in light of the highly unstable region they inhabit. “Whereas energy has been the central pillar in Russian economic growth for the last ten years, it over-dependency on this sectoral dimension has rendered Moscow hostage to international market prices and to its assessments of its engagement as a producer, consumer and transit country.” In addition, radical Islamists within their borders, a strong state and a strong leader, along with having suffered under U.S. led sanctions; all allow Russia a far better understanding of the Muslim world than its other western counterparts. Russia’s role in many ways amounts to being an insider and an outsider simultaneously, echoing its Eurasian character and its geographical location, which imbues its actions.
Russia as Mediator
The wealth of relations that Russia enjoys with the Islamic world allows it to be able to have long standing relations with the Arabs, Turks and the Persians in the Middle East, as well as Muslims around the world be it Malaysia, Indonesia, Central Asia or countries with significant Muslim populations like India. Russia offers a panoramic view on the Muslim world which includes not only centuries of relations but also experiences which serve as red flags for other countries. Russia’s experience in Afghanistan as part of the Soviet Union, or even in Tsarist times, provides an account replete with hard earned lessons. The place of Afghanistan in the list of conflicts around the world continues to attract political and scholarly work on possible resolutions. Russia’s role in the wider region and direct experience of the war in Afghanistan is invaluable in which case. Russia’s national and international presence has long offered an alternative to that which is proffered by the west, American and European (Union). Along with political aspects, its development model is also attractive to many countries around the world. Russia emphasises the key role of government and a non-interventionist and non-interference approach outside its borders. In 2000, Putin spoke to a meeting in the Middle East about the importance of territorial integrity and the preservation of national sovereignty. The divisions that exist in Russia’s actions and role to that of the U.S. or other European countries are not static as seen in the 1990s when Russia made attempts to look west after the end of the Cold War. However, over time Russia has developed its own ideas of an international order which signifies multi-polarity and within that framework Russia continues to become part of international political and economic organisations diversifying its relations with countries around the world irrespective of religious, ideological and other Soviet era kind of constraints. Even on the issue of Islamists, Russia has had a consistent policy of talking to the state irrespective of its Islamist background, be it Iran or Egypt after the change in leadership following the Arab Spring. Russia’s choice of working towards its national priorities and ensuring stability is often spoken of in terms of being anti-western because of the American and Western European insistence on “with us or against us” attitude which is misleading and denies legitimacy to anyone but the U.S. and western Europe. While, Russia might not be supported by the U.S. or parts of Europe, there is no lack of support for Russia’s initiatives. Russia’s stance on Syria was supported by India and China in 2013 and Russia has brought up Syria in G-8 and G-20 summits to bring international attention to their position repeatedly. Russia has suffered from Soviet era unilateral behaviour and this necessarily influences its actions today.
The growth of Islamist radicals, the upheaval in Syria and the continuing problems in Afghanistan point to a world increasingly being understood in us vs. them terms and Muslims are quite solidly the them. In this climate which posits the western world against the rest, be it the Islamic world or Russia, this is the time to understand the other. In this case, Russia’s relationship with Islam and Muslim communities becomes even more essential to study. The historical, social, cultural and political remit of interactions shows a multifaceted and complex fabric of relations. The Islamic world as has been shown is not one single entity and in dealing with its different members a number of approaches are necessary. There cannot be one strategy which applies to all the countries that constitute the Muslim world. Russia then is one of the strongest contenders for solving the Middle East problem. The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to recognise Israel, and over the years continued to be a friend and supporter to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In 1992 Moscow was the co-chair of the Moscow Organisational Meeting for Multilateral Negotiations on the Middle East. Russia has openly advocated for a solution which involves both parties and has expressed its desire for peace and stability in the region. Russia has been a key player in the Middle East process from the beginning, even cooperating with the U.S., even after 1996 when Russian-Israeli and Russian-American interests were strained. In 2007 Primakov, Putin’s special envoy to the Middle East, offered a well-balanced and articulate scenario of the Palestinian position and Russia’s role in it which included the defeat of Hamas, seen as an ally of Russia, by describing how the sanctions of the U.S. and Israel would turn the Palestinian people against Hamas. In all this Primakov declared that any scenario would be acceptable to Russia for the sake of peace in the region. Russia has in the past called for an all-region meeting which includes Iran in any Middle East peace process. This is evidence enough of Russia’s pragmatic and even flexible approach which prioritises stability over Cold War type ideological or geostrategic preferences. The kinds and varieties of interactions Russia has with the Muslim world: Sunni, Shi’a and otherwise, portend the ways in which a common platform has to be located in order for each side to be heard. It is time to step away from a zero-sum game approach which benefits archaic western Europe and America and appeal for a multi-vector policy which can accommodate the range of exchanges which are necessary today. The growing tensions in the world along religious lines require a far more nuanced approach than what is being applied by leaders worldwide today.
In a final evaluation of Russia’s relations with and actions in the Islamic world there are certain aspects that grab attention. Whether historically in the times of Rus and the Golden Horde or in Tsarist Russia and in the Soviet Union, Russian Muslims which are varied and diverse (merchants, Ural peasants, Cossacks, Bashkirs, Turkmen sailors in Tsarist Russia; Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Turkmen, Azeris, Volga and Kazan Tatars in the Soviet Union) all forged relationships with the state in multiple ways. These relationships helped shape external interactions of the Russian state which accommodated and maintained relationships with the Islamic world. The importance of finding institutional and bureaucratic solutions for coexistence of Christians and Muslims is not new to Russia. While it cannot be argued that the Soviets acted unilaterally in places like Afghanistan, this serves as a lesson and forms the breadth of experiences that Russia can utilise in order to locate solutions. Flexibility and accommodation have been the cornerstones of these interactions through the centuries which require revisiting in order to find ways and means to move forward. The multiple ways that Muslim communities found to exercise agency within the Russian empire and in the Soviet Union speak to the possibilities for engagement in today’s world. This is in direct contradiction to the idea that Islam is a monolithic and inflexible religion which does not account for changing times. History says otherwise and by using Russia-Muslim relations through time it is possible to view the constantly evolving adaptations made by Muslim subjects and the Russian state.
Since 1991 there has been a concerted effort towards a multi-vector Russian foreign policy. Russia has shown a consistent approach toward the Islamic world which has focused on expanding, reviving and resuming centuries old interactions mostly through trade and diplomatic visits. Post-1991 Russia suffered economic setbacks which made it vulnerable and over the next decade there were moves towards stabilising its place both internally and internationally. With its unique place geographically, as a Eurasian entity, Russia saw opportunities everywhere. While Russia’s foreign policy differed from the Soviet Union, Russia’s internal Muslim population and historical interaction with neighbouring countries in Central Asia, Middle East and beyond, give it a real sense of continuity as well. It is that continuity of interactions that dictates Russia’s approach to the Islamic world today. It not only defines the expansive remit of Russia’s role with the bulk of the Muslim world but also highlights the fundamental similarity and common interests that are shared.
Relationships across the Muslim world are crucial for Russia’s security and economic concerns. The eastward trend in Russian foreign policy with “…a growing emphasis on and investment in Russia’s relations with Asia…” is noteworthy. In international relations a relationship which mutually benefits all parties is more attractive and stable. Looking beyond realpolitik, Eurasia offers a formidable example of the advantages of cooperation above competition. The natural connectedness of the Eurasian space brings to the fore centuries long interactions which have allowed for disparate cultures and peoples to live together and is a model for development which dates back to a time before European colonialism and imperialism. Russia’s unique position and array of relationships, past and present, with the bulk of the Muslim world is in tune with the rhythms of globalisation today. A Eurasian perspective is essential in order to “…navigate across this vast geographical space with diverse populations, ethnicities, religious affiliations, customs and traditions.”
The Cold War has ended but it continues to cast a long shadow on international relations in the present day. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came the end of communism but also a number of sovereign Muslim countries – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan – which has changed the landscape of global politics. An increase in the number of Muslim countries in the world in the 1990s led to a number of new possible coalitions and alliances (pan-Turkism, Iran-Tajikistan, Arabs-Central Asia) but also competition for influence along divisions within the Islamic world. Russia’s debacle in Afghanistan as part of the Soviet Union is a lesson worth heeding for the rest of the world community. Russia still occupies an important place in the post-Soviet space and has a deep understanding of many of the conflicts which exist within these newly independent countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus region. The shared Soviet legacy and historical experience of the seventy years give Russia, more than any other country either in the Muslim world or beyond, the tools to be able to play mediator for conflict resolution. In many ways some of the religious tensions in the post-Soviet space were engineered by Soviet nationalist policies, something which Russia has personal experience of as well. There is no denying the number of trouble spots in international conflicts which exist along the faultlines of the Islamic world. Tensions with the European Union and the U.S. are also on the rise with the Muslims within and without being perceived as threats and viewed with suspicion. The rifts arising out of these conflicts are turning into far larger military engagements than was previously seen. Russia’s longstanding and continued political, economic and military relationship with the bulk of the Islamic world can help direct, coordinate and construct modes of reconciliation and “…help in preventing differences between the Islamic and Western worlds from evolving into major international crises.”
Russia, China, and the Islamic world, continue to be viewed in much the same way and the old Orientalist attitudes of Western Europe remain part of the lexicon. Eurasia revisited through its unique trajectory over centuries offers an opportunity to move away from the old dichotomies of us vs them, Muslims vs Christians and so on. Russia with its unique place in Eurasia can serve as an example and model for what can be achieved when faced with the opportunity to transform. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia shed its ideological constraints and moved into a new world order where it extended itself to view the world in fundamentally different ways. Russia’s response to its external environment has been guided by its internal composition and history which informs its interactions abroad and at home. The Muslim world is both inside and outside Russia and it navigates the differences and multiplicities accordingly. Islam is not a single entity and Muslims do not have one voice, this above all is accepted and understood by Russia because of its extensive and expansive interactions with this part of the world. Russia has been “…neighbours, partners in trading, occasional collaborators in raids, and spouses” with Muslims through the ages. This informs and guides the roles and interactions of Russians and Muslims in Eurasia.
Processes of globalisation have seen a sea change in the last decade and continue to inform and influence the world order. Russia is part of the international arena and within it represents an integral part of a rapidly growing Eurasia which is poised to change the balance of world powers and exercise centuries old cyclical patterns of progress. Russia seeks to accommodate multiple cultures, ideas and aspirations within and without its borders by promoting multilateral decision making. Both Russia and the Islamic world represent the other in popular imagination which requires rethinking in order to ensure global security. Russia can help provide the solutions to the increased perceived divisiveness of the Muslim other. For too long, the U.S. and its allies have used divisions within the Islamic world and in Asia for their own benefits creating a world of mistrust and distance. Russia’s multi-ethnic population and close relations with the Islamic world and other powers in Asia give it the tools and the understanding to propel a far better understanding on both sides and apply a salve on the fissures which are fast enveloping global politics. This level of conflict and suspicion with Islam is to nobody’s benefit and needs to be addressed objectively and with forethought. Russia can serve in this endeavour and prove a valuable partner and leader.
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