Tatarstan is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, located 497 miles east of Moscow. Tatars are an ethnically Turkic people, and the majority are Muslims, though many are also Russian Orthodox. Tatneft, one of Russia's top oil producers, is based in the region, and this mineral wealth combined with the region's strong manufacturing base have made it one of the most prosperous oblasts in Russia. In addition to petrochemical and wood product processing, Tatarstan is home to the major Russian truck manufacturer JSC KamAz. Many ethnic Tatars are also prominent in Moscow where they run successful businesses.
If Tatarstan is doing well thanks in part to the worldwide oil boom, what about Russia's other regions, especially near the Caucuses, where Islam is growing rapidly? With Russia's Orthodox Christian population shrinking while the Muslim population increases, what are the implications of these current demographic trends for the future of the country?
Location of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation
With so many global conflicts, from Nigeria to the Phillipines, fueled by enmity between Christians and Muslims, Russia still has something to teach the world about peaceful coexistence and tolerance between the world's two largest religions. During the Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons controversy last year, even as some British Islamic clerics publicly called for the beheading of the offending cartoonist, the reaction of Russian Muslims was much more restrained. The Chechen Prime Minister (and later President) Ramzan Kadyrov expelled Danish NGOs from Chechnya, but his decision was later overruled by the Kremlin. At the height of the worldwide controversy, the Mohammed cartoons were published by a secular humanist newspaper in Moscow and were viewed by millions of Russians over the Internet.
Tatar music shows many influences, from Turkish to Finno-Ugric
The recent bombing of a train between Moscow and St. Petersburg and attacks on Russian police in Ingushetia have reminded Russians that the terrorists have been defeated, but not eliminated. The bombing of a Moscow market last year by skinheads demonstrated that homegrown neo-fascists may pose as much a threat to public order in Russia as the jihadists.
What should give Westerners some hope that terrorism can be decisively defeated is the decisive change that has taken place in the past few years in Chechnya. Since the break up of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of civilians and thousands of Russian soldiers have died in two separate wars - the first instigated in 1994 when Chechen leaders attempted to breakaway from the Russian Federation, and the second in 2000 when Shamil Basayev launched a series of attacks from Chechnya into the neighboring Republic of Ingushetia.
Last year Russian security forces finally caught up with Mr. Basayev, killing the mastermind behind the Beslan school massacre with a truck bomb. Most of Mr. Basayev's foreign radical supporters, who were importing the extremist doctrines of Wahhabism into Chechnya, have been killed or expelled by Chechen security forces. Although theft of reconstruction funds is still a problem, portions of downtown Grozny are slowly being rebuilt, and there is even some night life in the city now. Last summer Evangelical Christian missionary groups from the U.S. were permitted to run youth camps for kids in the Muslim-majority republic - something that is not likely to happen in Saudi Arabia anytime soon - but the human rights situation in Russia is seldom compared to anywhere else, or to where it was in the 1990s, when Russian soldiers and innocent civilians were being killed every day.
A Russia Today TV clip about dairy farming in Chechnya
Several Russian and European human rights groups argue this stabilization has come at a high cost. As anyone who regularly reads Johnson's Russia List or other translations of original Russian media sources knows, there is a significant debate going on in Moscow today about the government of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. Several Russian NGOs regularly accuse Chechen security forces of committing human rights abuses against civilians and suspected insurgents, while many newspapers have questioned Mr. Kadyrov's experience and maturity. Perhaps in response to these criticisms, Kadryov's personal fan club "Ramzan" and his more scathing public statements have been toned down. In the past year, the 30 year-old Kadyrov has ditched sportswear and combat fatigues for wearing a suit and tie in public, although he wore casual wear when addressing the pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi earlier this year.
Whatever one thinks of Kadyrov's government, when American NGOs criticize Russia's human rights record in Chechnya, saavy spokesmen from the Russian Foreign Ministry increasingly point to Iraq, where Shi'a militias have infiltrated U.S.-trained Iraqi units and are stoking ethnic hatred by committing atrocities against the Sunni minority. Granted, the two conflicts are not the same - Chechnya was a part of the Russian Federation and had been a part of Russia since the 19th century, and mostly Sunni Chechnya is not as divided along sectarian lines as Iraq - but Moscow and Washington both have paid and will continue to pay a price for trying to end the conflicts by establishing local autonomy. Yet for both countries, it does not appear that there was any other viable alternative, short of maintaining a costly military occupation for decades.
Night life in Grozny - bowling (with the consumption of alcohol allowed) and motorbike stunts in the streets
Just like the Chechens a few years ago, most ordinary Iraqis appear to be getting fed up with Al-Qaeda and its vicious brand of sharia law. Both the Bush Administration and several key U.S. Senators from the Democratic Party opposition recognize that the path to peace in Iraq is increasing local autonomy, so that a foreign occupier is not doing most of the fighting, but instead local forces are freed to take back their own neighborhoods, villages, and towns, block by block.
The real disagreement over the Iraq War remains over how and when to draw down the U.S. presence, not if America will do so. Every honest debate about the war concedes that there is a high cost to staying, and a cost to leaving, and some of those costs come from Iraqi units abusing their authority and victimizing the Sunni Arab minority. Yet other Iraqi units with mixed Sunni Kurds and Shi'a and Sunni Arabs have performed very well alongside U.S. troops. When fighting on their own turf, many Iraqi units have proven effective with American support, but when Iraqis are asked to fight for a government in Baghdad that they distrust, unit cohesion has often broken down.
As many top U.S. military commanders on the ground have told Congress, America was never going to win the war in Iraq, only the Iraqis can win it, by taking back their country from the terrorists, just as the Chechens have done. Whether America (and the greater Middle East) will be satisfied with any possible partition and future leadership of Iraq remains to be seen, but ultimately, the example of Chechnya shows that even the most vicious insurgencies can be decisively defeated.
Back in Russia, Chechnya is certainly not going to be, as the young Chechen Prime Minister promised last year, "the most prosperous region on Earth" anytime soon. But the bottom line for the rest of the world is that with the support of the Kremlin, Mr. Kadyrov has made sure that Chechnya longer a playground for global terrorists.
Healing the wounds of war - a team of German plastic surgeons treating patients in Chechnya
Insuring that more tolerant forms of Islam prevail across Eurasia by creating prosperity in historically disadvantaged regions would go a long way towards preventing any future Chechnyas. This is the approach the Kremlin is pursuing, and by expanding trade and investment, America, Europe, India, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization can do their best to insure that religious and ethnic hatred does not become a catalyst for additional conflict in 21st century Russia.