Russia's Islamist Quandary

5 MINS READFeb 28, 2013 | 11:16 GMT
Russia's Islamist Quandary
Russian Federal Security Service Director Alexander Bortnikov (L) talks with Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov on Feb. 10

Russia is finding it difficult to balance its growing domestic concerns about Islamism with the potential for an opening with an important Islamist group abroad. On Feb. 26, Russia's Federal Security Service Director Alexander Bortnikov said that radical Islam is a growing problem in Russia and is spreading in the region. A week earlier, the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Muhiddin Kabiri, said Russia should strengthen its ties with the Islamist party and reconsider its negative attitude toward the party and other Islamist groups.

The Islamic Renaissance Party is a key party to watch in the run-up to Tajikistan's presidential election in November. Russia previously distanced itself from parties like the Islamic Renaissance Party because of its own problems with Islamist groups, and establishing ties with the party would complicate Moscow's relationship with the current Tajik regime. However, the upcoming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Islamic Renaissance Party's relatively moderate stance could give Russia reason to consider closer ties with the party — though it will do so cautiously.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has dominated Tajikistan's political system ever since his faction prevailed in the country's civil war, which lasted from 1992 to 1997. Rakhmon easily won the two presidential elections held since then, gaining 97 percent of the vote in 1999 and nearly 80 percent of the vote in 2006 (with numerous irregularities reported in both elections).

The 2013 presidential vote comes after indications of instability in Tajikistan — first in the Rasht Valley following a high-profile prison break in 2010, and most recently in violence between Pamiris and security forces in Gorno-Badakhshan in July 2012. Both of these regions were hotbeds for rebels who fought against Rakhmon during the civil war. While the government said it was targeting Islamist militants in the crackdowns that followed the unrest, the security operations more likely were politically motivated, meant to contain groups that were never fully consolidated under Rakhmon's rule. Both regions appear to have been relatively calm since these incidents (though this is never a certainty, given that communication lines to these regions are often cut and most independent media are not allowed there), but they have the potential to reignite internal divisions left over from the civil war.

Islamism in Tajikistan

Another more general risk for instability in Tajikistan is a growing Islamist movement within the country. This trend was spurred by the government's crackdown on religion, including closures of mosques, the regulation of hijabs and beards and bans on some religious activities. One byproduct of the religious resurgence and subsequent crackdowns has been the re-emergence of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the only legally registered Islamist party in Central Asia.

Map of Tajikistan

Map of Tajikistan

The Islamic Renaissance Party, which has been around since the Tajik civil war, has been growing in popularity in recent years. It is the largest opposition party in Tajikistan, with around 40,000 official members, but is believed to have many more supporters who do not wish to declare formal membership out of concern that the government will target them. The Islamic Renaissance Party did not participate in the 2006 presidential elections, as the party was going through a leadership transition after the death of its former leader Said Abdullo Nuri. Since then, Nuri's successor Kabiri has steadily grown the party, and in 2012 Kabiri announced that the party would participate formally in the upcoming presidential elections though it would not choose an official candidate until August or September 2013.

The Islamic Renaissance Party has continued to build support via grassroots campaigning across the country and abroad, and Kabiri has said that a runoff election would be inevitable if the polls are held transparently. Amid this growth in campaigning and support, several officials from the party have been killed or detained over the past year, indicating that the Rakhmon government considers the party to be a serious challenger in the elections.

The Potential for Cooperation with Moscow

In this context, Kabiri's call for better relations with Russia can be seen as an attempt to make the party appear more mainstream and to expand its support base. However, there are many obstacles to building stronger ties between the Islamic Renaissance Party and Moscow.

Given its problems with Islamist militancy, particularly in North Caucasus republics like Chechnya and Dagestan, Russia traditionally has had a negative attitude toward Islamist parties and groups like the Islamic Renaissance Party. Moreover, if Russia attempts to get closer to the party, Rakhmon could see it as Moscow undermining his political position if Russia does not act in close coordination with his regime. While Moscow has had diplomatic disputes with Rakhmon's government, for the most part the governments have been closely aligned on strategic issues, as shown by the recent lease extension on Russia's military base in Tajikistan and Moscow's granting duty-free oil exports to Dushanbe.

But this does not mean Russia has no interest in cooperating with the Islamic Renaissance Party. Kabiri's Islamist views are seen as more moderate than those of his predecessor, and he has been well received by both Russian and U.S. diplomats, meeting with both countries' ambassadors in Dushanbe in April 2012. Also, with the upcoming U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 and the growing radicalization of Islamist groups within Russia and Central Asia, Moscow could find closer cooperation with groups like the Islamic Renaissance Party useful in managing social tensions and security in the region. It is not clear how much Russia could rely on the party toward this end, but Kabiri's statement that the Russian political elite are becoming more "pragmatic in their views on Islam" could indicate that the group is opening up toward Moscow.

Establishing ties with the Islamic Renaissance Party comes with risks, and Russia will not want to compromise the already tenuous domestic security situation in Tajikistan ahead of elections. However, Moscow could find that it is worth establishing ties with the party — though it will proceed cautiously in following this strategy.

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