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Islamic Extremism in Southern Russia

<ong>Could you give us a little background on the history of ethnic conflict in southern Russia? Has Islamic extremism taken root in southern Russia? If so, why and in what form has it manifested itself?

Islamic extremism in the Caucasus region does exist. However, it is important to note that Islamic extremism in Caucasus is fundamentally connected to ethnic conflict. There is plenty of ethnic conflict in Caucasus. Recently, it has taken an Islamic form.

The basic root of this ethnic conflict is Russian imperialism. The Caucasus was conquered by Russia in the 19th century. People in this region are not Russian. What many people do not realize is that there are geographic/ethnic Russians and conquered/non-ethnic Russians. Russia was and remains an empire. Ethnic conflict in Caucasus is part of that legacy.

Could you elaborate? Under what political framework does Russia currently operate, and where does the Caucasus region fit within it?

During the Soviet period, the Soviet state recognized the political rights of southern nations (read: ethnic groups). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian empire turned into a federal state with ethno-territorial principles. This meant the birth of autonomous regions in Russia. Each region had different levels of autonomy.

Those with the highest level of autonomy, like Ukraine, eventually split from  the Soviet Union. Those with lower levels of autonomy remained in Russia. Various national identities are still very strong in these regions, and many have grievances with the Russian state. Questions over who has the right to collect taxes, write laws, etc. remain central to these ethnic groups’ complaints. It is important to remember, however, that there is a spectrum of opinions. Some of these nationalists are happy to be a part of Russia; others want to be totally separate.

At the crux of ethnic conflict in Russia is Chechnya. There was a strong secessionist movement in Chechnya during the Soviet era. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Chechnya was de facto independent. Some years later, the Russian army went in and brought them to heel using military force. The conflict festered, resulting in two wars: one from 1994-5 and a second from 1999-2000. After those wars, Russia forcibly removed “insurgents”, put strategic partners into power, and pumped money into the region to rebuild it. In a sense, Chechnya has remained a distant, poorly controlled borderland. In this context, Islamic extremism has taken root.

How do nationalist sentiments or calls for secession relation to Islamic extremism and terrorism in the Caucasus region?

In the last three decades or so, nationalism in Caucasus has taken on a form of Islam and Islamic extremism. The fundamental problem, however, is nationalist. One brand of that is also Islamic. Islamic extremism doesn’t have a long history in region, though. It was really born of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was highly non-religious. In fact, the Soviet government practically outlawed religion. As a result, religion made a big comeback. Levels of religiousness also exist on a spectrum; even though religion has made a comeback, not all Muslims in the Caucasus region are extremists.

Sochi is over 200 miles from the Caucasus region and part of Russia proper. Why do you think people are so concerned about Islamic extremism in Caucasus spreading to Sochi? Is the threat real?

I think people are focusing on the possibility of something going wrong at the Olympics because they’re being held in Russia. There is a tendency to see everything that happens in Russia in a negative light. [Americans] don’t like Putin. Everything is being drowned out. I’ve been looking at the coverage. There is a tendency to drag out all the negative connotations of everything Russia does. Americans have this tendency whenever they’re talking about states that do not have liberal capitalist systems. Political issues, like Russia’s stance on gay marriage, have also influenced our perspective on Russia, and not to their benefit.

Additionally, there were two explosions in the city of Volgograd after Christmas that were linked to Islamic extremists. But both of those happened far away from Sochi. That is not to say these issues don’t exist; some regions are more violent. Chechnya is one of them. However, there is a certain relentlessness in the negativity with which Russia is viewed.

There haven’t been any massive attacks recently, but because the Olympics are being held in Russia, all the “what ifs” are coming out.

The Boston marathon bombing also makes Islamic extremism in Caucasus especially relevant to Americans. The immigrants responsible for those bombings came from the Caucasus. That, more than anything else has put terrorism in Russia on American minds. The international Islamic connection was not a fundamental part of the Boston bombing, but because they were Chechens, it was brought to light.

What does Putin have to say about all this?

The official Russian position is that Russia is a federation with autonomous regions. All these regions have constitutional rights. The major point of contention has to do with balance: who should take control of what? Putin recognizes Russia as a multinational state, and as such respects the autonomy of these republics, but he has no patience with secessionists.

How does the Russian population feel?

There has been a growing sense of xenophobic nationalism in Russia; many Russians don’t like Caucasians. The government does not necessarily reflect this. An unhealthy sort of Russian chauvinism has taken root in the last 10 years, at the expense of non-Russians in the south. Such chauvinism also exists on a spectrum, but that’s the trend as I see it.

What is the most important thing for Carleton students to know about Islamic extremism in the Caucasus?

I think it’s important to keep things into perspective. Yes, ethnic conflict and Islamic extremism are issues in Caucasus, and the Russian government isn’t necessarily all that nice, but when we think about countries we don’t like, there is a tendency to focus on the negative. This is especially true with Russia. The suspicion is always there. Try not to be consumed by it.

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