THE ANTI-TERRORIST OPERATION, "ISLAM REARRANGING THE WORLD", AND RUSSIA’S FOREIGN POLICY: THE RUSSIAN ELITE CAN’T KEEP UP WITH ITS LEADER

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“After a month’s hiatus, some analysis is once again appearing in the Western media,” commented Novaya Gazeta the other day. “Political opinion essays are gaining popularity as a genre.”

The situation is similar in the Russian media – which, as Leonid Parfenov put it in an interview with Itogi magazine, had been “totally like the Sovinformburo” ever since September 11.

In the first weeks after the terrorist attacks, when readers and viewers were trembling in anticipation of “end of the world” announcements on television, it was no time for analysis. But now people aren’t greatly concerned by the military dispatches from the Afghanistan front – nothing much is happening there apart from the air strikes, which give the Americans a pretext for optimistic reports (quite Russian-style, indeed) and the Taliban a pretext for loud accusations against the enemy. This is almost like the war in Chechnya, to which people have grown accustomed, in spite of everything. Now the analysts’ hour has come: especially since no matter how many answers are provided, the number of questions shows no sign of decreasing.

One of the most popular media topics is “Islam rearranging the world”.

Argumenty i Fakty weekly says: “Europeans already make up only 21% of the world’s population, and their numbers are falling. Demographers predict that Europeans will be down to 10-15% of the world’s population by the end of this century.” And “Islam is advancing” on Europe, America, and Russia. Yet when Muslims enter the zone of European civilization, they don’t adapt to the countries which take them in; they continue to live according to their own laws and customs. These laws are radically different from European laws. Argumenty i Fakty says: “The Arab and Christian worlds give completely different answers to Pontius Pilate’s question of ‘What is truth?'” Some Muslim customs are viewed as exotic, others as barbaric and horrible anachronisms.

Argumenty i Fakty emphasizes that it would be incorrect to assume the problem is rooted in social inequality: “Islamic radicals don’t care about securing their fair share of modern civilization. They simply don’t accept modern civilization as such.” Even those Islamic nations who have joined the US crusade against their fellow Muslims have only done so out of fear that the US might bring oil prices crashing down or add them to its list of rogue states: “In reality, these nations secretly hate America too.”

As yet, the Islamic world is incapable of openly opposing the West; but the economic resources of Arab states are growing rapidly. So the situation will continue to deteriorate. At present, the Arab world only has the resources for scare tactics. “This disparity between ambitions and capabilities is what generates Islamic terrorism,” says Argumenty i Fakty. “But what will happen when capabilities are enhanced – for example, by weapons of mass destruction?” This is unlikely to remain a rhetorical question for very long.

Izvestia has run a special feature on “Islam in Russia”. It notes: “After the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the start of America’s retaliatory strikes, splits between Muslims and Christians were observed in many nations. But not in Russia. Neither the New York tragedy nor air strikes against the Taliban have split Russian society.”

According to Izvestia, the only rejoicing in the Russian Federation when the New York skyscrapers fell was among the Chechen guerrillas. All other ethnic groups in Russia – including Muslim peoples – have been understanding about the war against terrorism, just as ethnic Russians have.

Izvestia also decided to clarify the data behind the significance of the “Muslim factor” in Russia. Official statistics say there are 20 million Muslims in Russia. However, some Islamic leaders claim a figure of 20% rather than 20 million; in other words, 30 million people.

Izvestia says this figure is taken from Soviet-era statistical handbooks: 20% of the Soviet Union’s population was indeed Muslim. But in Russia this figure is significantly smaller – ethnic Russians make up 83% of the population, and according to Izvestia’s approximate calculations there are around 13 million Muslims, or about 9%.

Muslims make up a majority in seven regions of the Russian Federation: Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkesia. President Mintimer Shaimiev of Tatartsan said in an interview with Izvestia that Russian Islam has co-existed with Russian Orthodoxy and other religions for centuries, and has a tradition of loyalty to the state.

According to Shaimiev, the key feature of Russian Islam is that “it’s not alien to Russia, but one of the foundations of Russian society, just like Orthodoxy”, since “Islam has been established in the Volga region since at least 922 A.D.”

Shaimiev considers that stressing the priority of Orthodoxy in contemporary Russia indicates a lack of foresight: “The Patriarch or other senior clerics of the Russian Orthodox Church are always present at official functions, but Muslim clerics are seen much less frequently. People notice this. It wouldn’t hurt to have some balance in these very sensitive matters.”

Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of the Russian Mufti Council, adds: “On the whole, we have managed to restrain the Islamic community in Russia from various forms of extremism and terrorism. We can take pride in that.” All the same, the North Caucasus remains a danger zone for Russia, since “all the dangerous components are in place there: from external religious expansionism to very difficult social conditions”. Some problems may also be encountered in the Trans-Volga area of Russia, “where many strategists have secretly focused their gaze”.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta turned to General Leonid Shebarshin, former chief of the KGB First Main Directorate – and an orientalist – for comments on the prospects of relations between Russia and Islam.

In his interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Shebarshin expresses the hope that the Russian government and media will “have enough wisdom not to present Islam and Muslims as separate from the rest of society”. He points out that it’s fairly easy to convince the man in the street that everything unfamiliar is hostile. “In principle, it benefits the West to stir up trouble between Russia and Islam. But we mustn’t fall into that trap. Muslims make up a substantial part of our population. It’s quite unacceptable to treat them as a priori enemies.”

Shebarshin describes the response of the United States to September 11 as strange and dangerous: he doesn’t think the Americans should have blamed everything on Muslim groups and Islam as a whole, a priori, before any investigation had been carried out.

So the solidarity in the Islamic world isn’t surprising: “We can see a kind of line being drawn between nations with a Muslim population and the rest of the world. This is not a good thing. And it’s hard to predict what the consequences might be.” According to Shebarshin, while Russia ought to take advantage of the situation in order to draw closer to the US and the rest of the West, it’s also important for Russia to avoid being drawn into another war in Afghanistan. Russia should take action which is appropriate to the circumstances, while never forgetting about its own strategic interests.

Shebarshin concludes: “I hope that the period of state nihilism – neglecting Russia’s interests, being ready to concede whatever the West demands – has ended once and for all.”

It was no coincidence that this topic was raised during the interview with this former KGB general (who resigned “due to differences of opinion with former KGB chief Bakatin”, a man accused of betraying Russia’s national interests).

In the same issue, Nezavisimaya Gazeta comments on a decision made by President Putin which has drawn varied responses from Russian politicians, diplomats, economists, and the military. This is the decision to close Russia’s electronic intelligence-gathering stations in Cuba and Vietnam.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin “gave Bush another gift” on the eve of the APEC summit in Shanghai.

It has to be said that while the Russian government has attributed the decision to purely financial considerations – the high cost of maintaining those bases – it has been interpreted in America as a political move. The Russian media has also viewed the Kremlin’s decision as political, with a range of opinions on its significance and the results of the Shanghai summit.

According to Vremya Novostei, both of the military facilities which are being abandoned were symbols, in a sense, of Moscow’s interests extending worldwide. Pulling out of them “means that Russia is finally saying farewell to its ambitions of ruling over continents and oceans”.

In Russia, this decision has been welcomed by everyone who considers that attempts to hold on to superpower status only distract Russia from tackling its real problems. However, says Vremya Novostei, the turnaround from Primakov’s concept of the “multipolar world” (the foundation of Russia’s foreign policy in recent years) to the American model of “if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists” has been so sudden that a significant part of Russia’s political elite hasn’t yet managed to reorient itself. Vremya Novostei says: “They’re supporting the president’s moves, out of habit; but many are already wondering why we’re doing all this. If Putin pulls too far ahead, after a while the unity in the ranks of the bureaucracy and the military could waver, and some real opposition may emerge.”

Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment, is quoted in Vremya Novostei as saying that this split is somewhat reminiscent of the late Gorbachev era, when “the president was moving toward a new way of thinking, while the former elite clung to the old Soviet views”. And as we all know, this situation had some very serious political consequences for Gorbachev.

Mikhail Gorbachev himself has told Obshchaya Gazeta: “During his short time in power, Vladimir Putin has done what would have taken me many years to do.” Gorbachev considers that Putin “has a lot of good sense”, and his policies are very goal-directed. “I believe that Russia has now been given another chance – Putin’s chance,” says Gorbachev.

Mikhail Khodarenok, the military observer for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, writes: “There are matters which are much more important than current expenditure.” Khodarenok notes that it takes a lot of time and resources to set up military infrastructure. What’s more, when conflict does break out, it often comes from an unexpected direction. It’s unlikely that the Americans ever planned to use their base in the Indian Ocean for air strikes against Afghanistan; “but when this became necessary, the base was there – in the right place, at the right time, well-stocked with the resources required”.

Many of Russia’s military facilities now seem unnecessary and too expensive. “But who can guarantee that defense of the state’s interests seven years from now, for example, might not require a fully-equipped naval base and airfield somewhere in South-East Asia?”

Soviet leaders were “incredibly short-sighted in political, economic, and military terms” with regard to Soviet military facilities – in Germany, for example. It’s now clear that the Russian government has failed to learn this lesson. Does Russia need to maintain military bases abroad? Khodarenok answers: “They are absolutely essential if our state aims to claim its share of participation in global affairs. Gunboat diplomacy is not a thing of the past; it remains a real tool for resolving international disputes and defending national interests.”

However, Khodarenok concludes, there is no longer any talk of this: pulling out of the bases in Cuba and Vietnam is evidence of the implementation of “a concept developed by someone other than ourselves, a concept of transforming a military superpower into a regional state whose ambitions do not extend beyond its own state borders”.

The Novye Izvestia newspaper stresses that the outcome of talks between President Bush and President Putin in Shanghai confirmed that “Moscow is backing away from strong opposition to US plans for dismantling the old world order”. The forms of strategic partnership in the future have not yet been determined; Russia is once again using the tactic of making political advances to the West, and it’s hard to say to what extent such tactics are justified.

“There is no widespread support among the public or the political elite for voluntarily handing over the remnants of the Soviet heritage to yesterday’s opponent; the only way this can be justified is if we get some reciprocity, fast,” says Novye Izvestia. However, the most Russia can hope for is that Bush won’t formally announce that the US is withdrawing from the ABM treaty. This is possible if an agreement is signed to expand the framework of the ABM treaty and permit tests of missile defense system components to continue. There would then be some chance of declaring missile defense a closed topic in the near future.

Meanwhile, says Novye Izvestia, Moscow is prepared to make further concessions to the United States. Putin “has conveyed the impression to the Americans that he doesn’t consider Central Asia to be Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence”. This opens up opportunities for Washington to “make its military presence in Uzbekistan official”. Moreover, it makes withdrawal of the Russian military base in Tajikistan only a matter of time.

Novye Izvestia says it’s naive to hope that “the West will be so touched by this sudden civilized compatibility with Russia that it will sign the payment check without looking at the figures”. Of course, it is said that in Shanghai President Bush was given “an updated list of Russia’s requests, mostly to do with well-known measures to ease access for Russian goods to the US market”. However, examination of this issue will probably be left until “after Afghanistan”.

Vremya Novostei takes a different view of the situation. “Russia used to demand respect, using threats, blackmail, and persuasion; now it can permit itself to demand virtually nothing.” Vremya Novostei considers that Putin can’t lose: he has conveyed the impression to the West that Russia has been fighting Islamic terrorists and radicals for a long time, and would be glad to have other countries join the battle.

What’s more, the Russian president “virtually takes offense” whenever anyone asks him what Moscow expects to gain in exchange for “moving toward the West” and steadfastly supporting the American “crusade”. The Russian government emphasizes that it does not expect any reward, although it hopes the West will reciprocate. If this doesn’t happen, Western leaders will once again be demonstrating their lack of foresight – but justice will triumph anyway.

Vremya Novostei notes: “The Americans, the leaders of the West, seem to be taken aback by Moscow’s high-minded approach. Americans are a practical people. In their view, the present situation calls for bargaining – in the best sense of the word, of course.” So if the Americans hear Russia saying that bargaining is inappropriate, they take this to mean that the stakes are being raised.

Therefore, according to Vremya Novostei, the US administration is concerned about whether Putin will manage to handle any possible domestic opposition – “from his conservatives and the military” – if the Americans don’t make some substantial, convincing moves in Russia’s favor.

In any case, informed sources say that rumors of possible domestic political complications are greatly exaggerated. Vremya Novostei says: “The president feels more confident than ever before: he considers that success in foreign affairs is dependent on successful progress with domestic economic and political reforms.”

“Having the Americans in Uzbekistan is better than having the Taliban in the Krasnodar territory,” says Izvestia. “Let the independent post-Soviet states decide for themselves which side they’re on – that’s what independence is all about; NATO will be up against Russia’s borders within a year anyway, so why should we waste effort and scream ourselves hoarse about it?”

Izvestia considers that there’s no point in talking about making concessions to the West too rapidly; all these decisions are purely a matter of pragmatism, and none of them has hurt Russia’s interests: “It’s simply that these interests themselves have changed.”

According to Izvestia, “Russia has grown tired of being the exception, spraddled between Europe and Asia.” Russia’s leaders have made a firm decision that Russia must become part of the civilized world. Izvestia concludes: “It would appear that the option of a Third Path has been rejected.”

Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinsky says in an interview with Moskovskii Komsomolets: “We’ll do everything our own way, with all of Russia’s peculiarities taken into account. But we must move in the same direction as the European nations.” Yavlinsky believes that Putin’s actions during this global crisis inspire hope: “I support all the steps the president has taken since September 11.”

But there’s one problem – it still isn’t clear to what extent all this is serious: “I don’t know what the motives for these steps have been, I can’t be sure that it won’t all be reversed within days.”

In general, Yavlinsky has the impression that “Putin himself sometimes turns out to be far more progressive than his entire team”.

Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces, also considers that Putin has made the strategically correct choice: “We should be in coalition with the developed nations. This benefits Russia.”

In Nemtsov’s view, Russia should coordinate its actions with the West, but also clearly state that Central Asia is Russia’s zone of interests; Russia needs to reach an agreement with the United States on this point. “We can do this now, at a time when we have common goals and a common enemy. Nothing unites like having a common enemy.”

Of course, there have also been some comments from Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, politician and showman. In his interview with Sobesednik weekly, Zhirinovsky expressed regret that Russia hasn’t taken full advantage of its currently favorable position: “We ought to have finished off Chechnya on September 13! Completely! Wiped them out!”

Zhirinovsky is sure that the Americans will get bogged down in Afghanistan, as they did in Vietnam. And, of course, he has made a prediction about further developments (in the Rossiia newspaper): The United States will meet the same fate as the USSR – it will disintegrate into many nations, former states of the USA. The reasons are obvious: the war in Afghanistan and the consequent economic crisis. Moreover, Zhirinovsky maintains that America “is losing political authority in the international community”.

Ekspert magazine quotes leading Chechen separatist ideologue Movladi Udugov on the events of September 11: “There is no longer one superpower which can permit itself to punish others without being punished itself. The United States has been dealt a colossal psychological blow. The place of global leader is once again vacant.”

Ekspert considers that the terrorist attacks in the United States weren’t the start of the war, as far as the ideologues of terrorism are concerned; the attacks were only punishment for America. The war started later, in Afghanistan.

Ekspert notes that one superpower, the USSR, disintegrated after “the weapon of Arab oil” was brought into play in the course of the war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

The story is well known: at President Reagan’s personal request, Saudi Arabia cut the price of oil from $30 to $10 a barrel between November 1985 and April 1986. The Soviet economy couldn’t cope with the loss of revenue; the “Star Wars” program was cancelled, perestroika began, and as a result the Soviet Union was compelled to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

Ekspert considers that something similar might well happen today. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have recently tried to quell anti-American sentiments in their countries by declaring that “the US will not attack other Muslim countries in retaliation for September 11”. But this means that if there are any further terrorist attacks, the US military operation will inevitably be expanded – and then the Arabs will inevitably use their “oil weapon”. Osama bin Laden does have some chance of catching the United States in the “Afghanistan trap”.

Many informed observers are convinced that further terrorist attacks are inevitable. Efim Rezvan, deputy director of the Eastern Studies Institute, told Obshchaya Gazeta: “Osama bin Laden constantly needs to create more ‘news story pretexts’ – he needs Muslims suffering, otherwise he won’t have any soldiers.” It seems that further upheavals lie ahead of us.

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