Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume Issue 18 Issue 3
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
The North Caucasus emerges as a critical asset in the Kremlin’s strategic arsenal in the ongoing contest between Russia and Ukraine for endorsement from the Islamic world, . It serves as a linchpin for Moscow’s domestic political efforts in managing a diverse, multireligious, and multiethnic society, while also underpinning Russia’s foreign policy activities directed towards the Arab-Muslim world.
The recent event convened in Moscow, which assembled Russian Muslim leaders, has underscored this favourable trajectory for the Russian Federation. Notably, the Muslims of the North Caucasus have proven to be among the most proactive in advocating and bolstering the position of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Ukraine conflict. This aligns closely with the Kremlin’s domestic strategy, aimed at cultivating a Russian multicultural society founded on enduring social and spiritual values.
This report seeks to evaluate the potential role that the North Caucasus may play in supporting the Kremlin’s stance throughout the Ukraine conflict, a conflict which triggered Western sanctions against Moscow and spurred the Russian Federation to broaden its foreign policy scope towards the Islamic world.
Russian Muslim Leaders’ Support to Vladimir Putin: Background Information
On August 28th, 2023, muftis and leaders of centralised Muslim religious organisations in Russia gathered to attend the All-Russian Scientific and Practical Conference ‘Modern Challenges to Traditional Values’.
The organisation Mezhdunarodnaja Islamskaja Missija (International Islamic Mission) organised the conference in Moscow with the participation of the Koordinacionnyj centr musul’man Severnogo Kavkaza (KCMSK – Coordination Centre for Muslims of the North Caucasus) and the Fond podderzhki islamskoj kul’tury, nauki i obrazovanija (Foundation for Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education).
Muftis, chairmen of centralised and regional spiritual administrations of Muslims of Russia, representatives of the Presidential Administration, the State Duma, the Federal Agency for Nationalities, public and religious figures of Russia, experts, and foreign guests attended the event.
Leaders and representatives of the spiritual administrations of Muslims of the Russian Federation ended the conference by adopting of several documents, considering the voiced amendments.
The first document adopted was the Muftis’ appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Russian Muslim leaders expressed their support to the head of state for protecting traditional spiritual and moral values. The second document was an appeal to Muslim leaders of other countries, in which Russian confirmed support for a special military operation.
Finally, the Conference Resolution and the Approximate Action Plan for Muslim organisations implemented the fundamentals of state policy for the preservation of traditional spiritual and moral values, approved by Decree of the President of the Russian Federation No. 809 on November 9th, 2022.
Competition Between Moscow-Kyiv and the Arab-Muslim World
The Russian Muslim umma, comprising approximately 15-20 million adherents, assumes a pivotal role within contemporary Russia, as Islam stands as the country’s second-most professed religion. The Kremlin places significant emphasis on garnering support from leaders within the Russian Muslim community, given the presence of Muslim soldiers of diverse ethnic backgrounds among those engaged in the conflict in Ukraine.
The conference organised at the end of August 2023 in Moscow is not an isolated instance of collaboration between Russian Muslims and the government in such matters. In March of 2022, KCMSK, in conjunction with the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, organised an event where the participants issued a statement expressing their support for the leadership of the nation in the fight against Ukraine and the threat coming from NATO biological weapons and laboratory dislocated in the Ukrainian territory.
Looking at the broader geopolitical landscape, it becomes evident that both Russia and Ukraine are vying for the trust and backing of the Arab-Muslim world. In May 2023, the Kazan Summit and Zelensky’s visit to Jeddah confirmed this trend.
From the 18th to the 20th of May, 2023, Kazan hosted the Russia-Islamic World Kazan Summit, an event which attracted participants from across the Islamic World. The Kazan Summit served as a testament to the pivotal role that the Islamic world assumes in Russian foreign policy, a significance further underscored in the wake of sanctions levied by Brussels and Washington against Moscow.
Framed within the broader context of Russian foreign and economic policy, the Kazan Forum 2023 was as a crucial opportunity to bolster the Russian presence in burgeoning markets and attract foreign investment.
In a parallel development, on May 19th, 2023, during the Arab League Summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held the distinguished position of an honoured guest. Addressing the Arab nations, Zelensky sought their support in what he characterised as the ‘Russian aggression’ in the ongoing conflict.
Significantly, Zelensky accorded paramount importance to the Islamic dimension in his discourse, asserting that the Muslims of Crimea stand as the primary victims of Russian aggression within Ukraine.
Within the context of the ongoing competition between Russia and Ukraine for influence within the Islamic world, there is a noteworthy development that deserves attention. The Kremlin has green-lit a project aimed at assessing the feasibility of implementing Islamic banking practices in Russia.
Moscow adopted this strategic move to bolstering the national economy, enticing foreign investments from the Arab-Muslim world, and mitigating the repercussions of Western sanctions imposed on Moscow in light of the Ukraine conflict.
The introduction of Islamic banking in Russia holds the potential to not only attract investments from the Arab-Muslim world but also draw in business leaders keen on contributing to local infrastructural ventures across Russian territory.
Since the onset of the Ukraine conflict, the Russian Federation has pursued a foreign policy agenda focused on broadening diplomatic and economic ties with the Middle East and the Arab-Muslim world.
The adoption of Islamic banking practices in Russia could serve as a catalyst for economic growth, particularly in those regions and federal territories where a significant portion of the Russian Muslim population lives, especially in the North Caucasus. This strategic alignment has the capacity to fortify the economic landscape in these areas, fostering a more robust and self-sustaining local economy.
North Caucasus’s Role in Strengthening the Russian Presence in the Islamic World
The North Caucasus occupies a pivotal position on the geopolitical landscape of Eurasia. Functioning as a natural conduit between Europe and Asia, and a juncture between the Muslim and Christian realms, the region’s geostrategic importance is undeniable.
Within the Kremlin’s overarching domestic and foreign policy framework, the North Caucasus assumes a central role. Given its substantial Muslim population, Moscow has strategically leveraged the region to forge connections with the Arab-Muslim world.
Furthermore, exerting control and ensuring stability in the North Caucasus affords Moscow the capacity to extend its sphere of influence into pivotal areas, such as the South Caucasus, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Middle East, and Central Asia.
Among the constituent republics of the North Caucasus, the Kremlin selected Dagestan and Chechnya for the project of implementation of the Islamic banking. This endeavour is geared towards enticing investments from the Arab-Muslim world, focusing specifically on countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and capitalising on the diverse range of Islamic financial instruments available.
In the realm of international diplomacy, Chechnya’s engagement with Middle Eastern and Gulf Arab monarchies serves to bolster its influential standing in global politics. Because of its strategically advantageous location and the development of the Makhachkala Sea Trade Port, Dagestan is able to enhance Russia’s connectivity with Iran and Central Asia to a significant extent. This development not only supports the International North-South Transport Corridor but also augments Russia’s trade relations with these burgeoning markets.
Furthermore, the first Caucasian Investment Exhibition and the forum “Severnyj Kavkaz v menjajushhemsja mire” (The North Caucasus in a Changing World) underscored the Kremlin’s strategy, leveraging the North Caucasus to counter Western sanctions and establish ties with emerging markets in the Arab-Muslim world.
Also, education and culture fields might become a key area for the Russian goal to extend its links and relations to the Islamic world: for instance, in June 2023, a delegation from the North Caucasian Federal University (NCFU) visited Iraq to fostering cooperation, particularly in the humanitarian sector, joint scientific research in oil and gas, engineering, and the promotion of the Russian language.
In summation, the North Caucasus has emerged as a key player in Moscow’s intricate web of foreign and domestic policies. Reflecting on its turbulent past, once deemed the most challenging region within the Russian Federation, particularly after the First Chechen Conflict and the looming threat of terrorist activities, the North Caucasus has made remarkable strides in terms of both socioeconomic advancement and security.
Since the initiation of the Kremlin’s ambitious Strategy 2025, with its central aim of bolstering socioeconomic progress and generating over 400 thousand employment opportunities, coupled with targeted military operations to eradicate local militancy and extremist groups such as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) and Vilayat Kavkaz (Caucasus Province) affiliated with the Islamic State, the region has witnessed substantial achievements.
While the North Caucasus still grapples with challenges related to jihadist propaganda, sporadic acts of terrorism, and lingering economic disparities, it is undeniable that Moscow has effectively transformed an erstwhile volatile and precarious area into one of its most pivotal assets in both domestic and foreign policy realms.
Should the Russian Federation maintain its investment in the North Caucasus and successfully realise its objective of enticing foreign investors and tourists, the region harbours immense potential to serve as a dynamic nexus for Muslims from the wider Islamic world.
Keeping a vigilant eye on the progress of initiatives like the Islamic banking project, the augmentation of tourist infrastructure, and the prevailing local security situation will be crucial in gauging whether the region can attain the requisite levels of development, ultimately reducing reliance on the Russian state budget and establishing itself as a self-sustained economic powerhouse.
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