A Unique “Islamic Project” Fails to Stem Radicalization of Russia’s Heartland

Russian president Vladimir Putin is clearly engaged in a fundamental policy review which is deeply perplexing Moscow watchers in Washington. They are coming to believe that the shifting grounds of Russia’s internal Islamic predicament are the real key to his changing attitudes on the global war on terror, the Middle East and the Arab world, Central Asia – and most particularly his yo-yo approach to Iran’s nuclear activities.

This new direction was clearly signposted only in late November, 2005, when the Russian president fired Alexander Rumyantsev, after four years as energy minister at the head of the Russian Agency for Atomic Energy, Rosatom, and replaced him with the enigmatic Sergey Kirienko.

(On Dec. 2, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 232 reported great concern in Washington and Jerusalem at this shakeup, which Israel regards as a death blow to the drive to keep a nuclear weapon out of Iran’s hands)

The anxiety with which the Bush administration is following events in Moscow is shared by certain circles in the Russian political, army and intelligence elite, whose views DEBKANet-Weekly has canvassed in recent weeks.

They see the contours emerging of a new type of Cold War prompted by a Russian bid for symbiosis with Islam.

A certain disillusion sent Putin on this go-it-alone path. He had viewed Moscow’s collaboration with Washington in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan as the beginning of a partnership in Central Asia, not a contest for influence, bases and oil. He was further alienated by the West’s insistence on treating the Chechen breakaway movement as a human rights issue rather than a radical Islamic terror threat to the federation.

But above all, the Kremlin cannot ignore the hard demographic, ethnic and sociological decline overtaking the core of Russia and the winds of radical Islamic threat blowing through the federation’s center. Russian leaders see a menacing seam line running down the middle of the Volga basin. An open crack would sunder the federation into Asian Russia and European Russia.


Putin brings out his Muslim line-up


Putin did not pick Sergey Kirienko’s name as energy minister out of a hat. Neither were his other appoints at the same time. Alongside Kirienko, he made Piotr Schedrovitsky, Director of Rosatom, which supervises the production and maintenance of fissile materials including atomic power stations and nuclear weapons: Maxim Schevchenko, a senior political commentator on Russian TV-ORT, and Itshakov, Mayor Of Kazan City, presidential representative in the Far East and member of the Russian National Security Council.

The latter two are Muslims.

These appointments capped a plan that originated in May 2000, when Kirienko, briefly prime minister from April to August 1998, became the president’s plenipotentiary representative in the Privolzhsky (Volga) federal district.

This was part of a deep redistribution of power.

Already concerned then to strike a balance between the pro-Islam and anti-Islam circles of the ruling elite, Putin set up seven districts alongside the 89 Federation regions: Northwestern, Central, Southern, Privolzhsky, Urals, Siberian, Far-Eastern ones.

Kirienko was the odd man out. Rather than the typical conservative Russian general appointed to the other districts, he was a young civilian intellectual, a well-known liberal of Jewish descent.

Soon after Kirienko took over the Volga district in 2000, the Center for Strategic Research of the district was set up as a sort of support group for government. This is where we first meet Piotr Schedrovitsky, who founded the center with a close associate Efim Ostrovsky.

The pair elbowed their way into becoming Kirienko’s strategic and religious advisers, supplanting his circle of trusties and colleagues. Schedrovitsky’s next move was to attach to the presidential team two men who became key players in what was to emerge as the Islamic Project – Sergey Gradirovsky and Maxim Shevchenko. The former was soon writing Kirienko’s speeches and charting his programs on religious issues, to the dismay of his old friends.


The Islamic Group takes over the Volga District


The latter, who figured on Putin’s November, 2005, appointment list, was attached to Kirienko in the Volga region for the specific purpose of developing the Russian Islamic Project. An Arabic speaker, he met Taliban leaders in Kabul in 1996, as a journalist, worked in Sudan in 1998, where he was in contact with Osama bin Laden’s base there, and visited Kosovo and Belgrade twice during the Yugoslav war.

Shevchenko did not conceal his closeness to radical Islam or to the ideologue of the Russian group aspiring to establish a Muslim caliphate in Russia, Geidar Jemal. He was often seen with Saudi representatives.

After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Schevchenko addressed public meetings in Moscow in defense of the Taliban. Many people believe he is not only sympathetic to radical Islam but has converted to the faith, although he claims he is a Russian Orthodox.

Moscow intellectuals describe him as a fascist and an anti-Semite in sympathy with Geidar Jemal.

He argues that only Islam can solve the “Jewish problem.”

Having taken root in Kirienko’s apparatus, the Islamic group of Gradirovsky and Shevchenko quickly gained control of the apparatus and demoralized it. Several of Kirienko’s old friends were fired, others pushed to the sidelines.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Russian sources stress that Kirienko had always been completely loyal to his circle of supporters. That he offered practically no resistance to the “Islam group” and did not stand by his people indicated that it was backed by a secret faction operating deep inside the KGB-FSB for some years.

In 2001, the Russian Islam Project developed by Gradirovsky and Shevchenko was presented to the Kremlin by Sergey Kirienko’s team.

The Volga federal district applied for the status of testing ground for the model of “correct” relations with Islam to be first tried out. In the future, “the accumulated positive experience” was to be applied to other regions of Russia with Muslim populations.


The Islamic Project for Saving Russia from Radical Islam


These were the arguments put forward by the authors of the Islamic Project:

The situation in Povolzhye is dangerous and pivotal for all Russia. Radical Islam has already penetrated the territory and is active there. Local Moslems are too ideologically weak to withstand the incursion. Young Muslims travel to Saudi Arabia or the Persian Gulf for their schooling or else attend establishments founded by foreigners. They are influenced mainly by books, movies and other materials produced outside Russia and are becoming alienated to Russian culture.

Taking into account the drastic drop in the ethnic Russian birth rate and the relatively high reproduction rate among Muslims, the Volga region is heading for a Muslim majority which does not identify with Russian statehood and is therefore more susceptible to extremist influence.

Therefore, to counteract these negative trends, the authors of the Russian Islamic Project propose establishing a national Russian Muslim Religious School and theological seminaries that ought to appeal more to indigenous Russian Muslims than foreign institutions. Sermons in the mosques and teaching should moreover take place in the Russian language to avert the danger of Russian Muslims communicating which each other across the federation in Arabic.

These arguments carried weight with the Kremlin and it was decided to go forward with the Islamic Project experiment.

However, the project’s authors often took a less moderate and reasonable tone in their speeches and articles and seemed to predict nothing but doom for the Russian people as a nation.


The Russian elite must convert to Islam to save the country


One typical claim: the disintegration of the Soviet Union left the Russian people weak and disoriented, their numbers depreciating constantly. They lack the nation-building energy for embracing the non-Russian peoples and preserving their own identity.

According to Gradirovsky, the Muslims in contrast are full of vigor and may well replace non-Muslim Russians as the dominant force of society. He focuses on Moscow as a megapolis that is part of the world system of major cities, but no longer belongs to Russia or plays the role of central hub of the nation.

The authors of the Islamic Project declare that it is possible to convert to Islam and preserve one’s national identity.

If the Volga federal district is to be reborn as the watershed of the different Russian groups, the genesis of Russia’s future, the entire population need not convert to Islam – but the Russian elite must do so.

Much of this rhetoric has the same ring as the philosophies of the radical pro-caliphate Geidar Jemal, Maxim Shevchenko’s mentor.

Jemal is blatantly anti-American, saying the Russian state has no future as long as it is a helpless satellite of Washington.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Russian sources report that the Islamic Project is already in practice – mosque services are held in the Russian language, as are religious studies at schools and Islamic religious books are being mass-produced in Russian.

The removal of the language barrier has not led to large numbers of Russian conversions to Islam – estimates range between 10,000 and 30,000 tops.

Neither has the Islamic Project now in full swing borne out the pledge of its authors to prevent the rapid spread of religious extremism in this Russian heartland. Quite simply, it was too late, as its authors knew very well. President Putin is thus faced with an unsolvable dilemma.

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