Ethnic Russians protest construction of a mosque in Stavropol region

Eurasia Daily Monitor
June 18, 2014 — Volume 11, Issue 110

Mosque Construction in Stavropol Sparks Debate Over Role of Islam in Region

On June 8, residents of the village of Vinsady in Stavropol region’s Predgorny district rallied against government plans to allow the construction of a mosque. Six hundred people joined the protest against the authorities’ decision, but went home after a local official reassured them that public hearings would be held on the issue. Stavropol regional authorities allotted a piece of land to the Muslim community for the mosque’s construction after a court in Pyatigorsk ordered the demolition of the existing mosque in the city. The Muslim leader in Stavropol, Muhammad Rakhimov, appealed to President Vladimir Putin, saying that one-third of Pyatigorsk’s population was Muslim and they needed their mosque. Now, having encountered stiff opposition from the locals, Rakhimov said that Muslims would retract their plans to build a mosque in the village if it produced such a conflict (Kavkazsky Uzel, June 10).

The head of the village’s administration, Sergei Gorban, explained the decision to protest the plans to build the mosque by the absence of Muslims in the village, which has a population of 9,500 and is located 10 kilometers from Pyatigorsk (Kavkazskaya Politika, June 12).

Xenophobic attitudes toward Muslims and, in general, toward North Caucasians have been widespread among ethnic Russians in Stavropol region. The region is the only territory in the North Caucasian Federal District that has a predominantly ethnic-Russian population. However, given its proximity to the North Caucasian republics, it has been experiencing a large influx of ethnically non-Russian North Caucasians, raising fears among ethnic Russians that they might eventually become a minority. The eastern part of Stavropol region has experienced a large influx of Dagestanis and Chechens, while ethnic Russians have been on the move, seeking better prospects elsewhere in Stavropol region or in other parts of Russia. The southern part of Stavropol region, known as Kavkazskie Mineralnye Vody or KavMinVody, has been known as a resort hub with substantial employment opportunities. It has traditionally been a desirable destination for ethnic Circassians, Karachays and other North Caucasians. In fact, Circassians and Turkic peoples historically owned this land prior to the Russian conquest in the 19th century, but they now have to defend their civil right to free movement. The acting governor of Stavropol region, Vladimir Vladimirov, who is facing elections in September 2014, spoke against allowing free migration into the region of KavMinVody to avoid putting excessive pressure on its infrastructure and employment market (Yuga, May 6).

Pursuing the agenda of ethnic-Russian nationalists in Stavropol region, the governor rejected plans for expanding government construction programs in KavMinVody. An official from the Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS), Vladimir Kirichenko, spoke against the governor’s proposal. “I understand this: that even the governor of a region has no right to break the constitution. The constitution guarantees our rights. We can live where we want and move in unlimited numbers” (Yuga, June 9).

Against the backdrop of Russia’s gamble in Ukraine, another type of Russian internationalism has sprung to life. The new ideological line emphasizes the external enemy’s strength and calls for ethnic Russians and non-Russians to close ranks against it. While there is nothing new in this approach, it is interesting that some forces in Russia see the Russian-Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity for increasing the unity of Russian citizens. The political party National Security of Russia unexpectedly spoke in defense of building the mosque in Pyatigorsk, something that has not happened in many years in the region. The leader of the party, Alexander Fedulov, told the Kavkazskaya Politika website that Western security services were pitting Russian Orthodox against Muslims and called on Christians and Muslims to unite to defend Russia. Fedulov praised Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for helping to protect Russians in Crimea. Further, North Caucasians are helping Russia fight the “junta” in eastern Ukraine, Fedulov said, adding that Russians should therefore show greater understanding for their Muslim fellow citizens (Kavkazskaya Politika, June 13).

The latest spin in Russian domestic policies reflects the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, in which ethnic Ukrainians have all of a sudden turned into “enemies” of Russia. The Russian government may hope this conflict will provide a firm ideological foundation for the new Russian state, with ethnic-Russian nationalism uniting with other ethnic nationalisms to form some sort of civil nationalism. Trying to build a national identity on a common foreign enemy is not uncommon. However, in Russia’s case, such a move will encounter a number of difficulties, the primary one being that Russia is not under attack and hardly expects to be attacked. Moreover, apart from declarations about the unity of all Russian citizens, there has been little practical action. The very fact that predominantly ethnic-Russian Stavropol region is holding gubernatorial elections in September, while Moscow has deprived the North Caucasian republics of the chance to hold popular gubernatorial elections, indicates that treating Russia’s ethnic Russian and ethnic non-Russian regions differently is deeply ingrained in the government’s thinking.

–Valery Dzutsev

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