This week, Vladimir Putin of Russia paid the first state visit to Iran since the arrival there of his predecessor Josef Stalin in 1943. It’s not the first time the Putin and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have met, though: they’ve been prominently photographed smiling and shaking hands on at least two prior occasions. What is the dastardly duo up to?
It would be misleading not to refer to Putin now as a dictator, since he’s announced his plan to remain in power after his second term as president ends, even though doing so is banned by the spirit of the Russian Constitution. His scheme is to simply assume the role of prime minister, apparently with a figurehead president and all the real authority remaining in his hands; out of the official spotlight, this would give Putin the perfect cover to launch a major escalation in his crackdown on civil liberties without getting the blame, returning to power relatively “clean” after it was concluded. And this neo-Soviet dictatorship is not merely aimed at oppressing the people of Russia, but may have consequences for the West: Meeting with despised Western foe Ahmadinejad this week, along with other leaders of nations bordering the Caspian Sea, Putin appeared to threaten NATO regarding any effort to move against Iran’s burgeoning nuclear capacity, stating on behalf of the duo: “We are saying that no Caspian nation should offer its territory to third powers for use of force or military aggression against any Caspian state.”
Russia’s affinity for Iran isn’t news, of course, since it’s Russia that has supplied Ahmadinejad not only with the disputed nuclear technology itself but with a missile system to protect it from NATO strikes and repeated use of Russia’s UN veto to block economic sanctions. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Ahmadinejad having quite so much bluster without Russia’s backing. But it’s quite remarkable that, knowing that the world would view the mere fact of his visiting Iran as an outrage, Putin would go even further down the road to confrontation. And to make things even more unsettling, the statements come on the heels of Putin harshly snubbing Condi Rice and Bob Gates on their visit to Moscow last week to discuss the U.S. plans to install a defensive missile system in Eastern Europe, keeping them waiting in the hall for nearly an hour and then appearing to scold and lecture them in front of the press before sitting down to talk. Afterwards, Rice issued a stern critique of Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and held a meeting with various opposition leaders. How Russia can feel it has the right to both supply defensive missiles to Iran and block their installation in Eastern Europe is anyone’s guess.
What would make Putin go this far, this fast?
One reason Russia is taking these belligerent actions, alienating virtually the entire world and seeming to provoke a renewed cold-war style conflict which Russia is ill-equipped either terms of allies or economy to wage, is surely the blind latent hatred of a proud career KGB spy like Putin for all things Western. But that’s just as surely not the only reason.
Scholar Paul Goble, formerly vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu, has reported recent statements of Russia’s Ambassador to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Veniamin Popov, indicating that owing to the rapidly increasing death rate among Russia’s Slavic population and the concomitant rise of Russia’s Muslim birthrate, Popov expects Russia to become a majority-Islamic state within the course of the next few decades. A month ago, Goble reported similar statements by Putin advisor Vladimir Dergachyov, who predicted that “differences in growth rates of Christian and Muslim groups in Russia along with the arrival of Muslim immigrants from abroad will boost the percentage of Muslims there from 10 percent now to 50 percent by 2050″ and “told the Russian Orthodox online journal Stoletiye that many Russian political figures still fail to appreciate that increasingly important reality and thus fail to support or even openly question the efforts Putin and the Russian foreign ministry have made to develop ties with Muslim countries.”
Examples of the tension created by this situation with Russia are already appearing.
Goble states that Muslim groups in Russia’s Moscow Region have written an open letter of protest to Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov “demanding that he back the opening of more mosques” an and complaining that “the governor’s administration has been ignoring the will of the Russian president and the Muslim residents of his region by allowing his staff to ‘slow or at times simply forbid the construction of Muslim houses of worship which are needed’ for their religious duties.” The letter threatened action: “Mr. Governor, if you think Muslims of our country will quietly react to this and vote for the party on whose regional list you are, a party which is taking part in the elections under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, you are very much mistaken!”
More recently, Goble reported that “confronted with what commanders see as a disastrous demographic situation, the Russian defense ministry has been manipulating this fall’s draft in an effort to secure a more ethnically Russian and less culturally Muslim military, according to an analysis published in a Moscow newspaper today.” Russia faces a difficult bind, according to Gobel’s sources: “If the army drafts more ethnic Russians, it will likely harm the economy by removing from the workforce some of the most qualified professionals. But if the army drafts men in equal proportions across the Russian Federation, Mukhin writes, then the military will increasingly consist of men from historically Muslim nationalities, something that commanders fear could undermine discipline among those in uniform.”
Finally, Goble observes that any plans by the Kremlin to take aggressive policy action to halt Russia’s demographic crisis, resulting in an annual population decline of over half a million despite record waves of immigration as Russians return from former Soviet colonial areas, will create another difficult paradox: “If it treats these groups the same as many expect, that could increase the demographic divergence to which Ambassador Popov points and about which many ethnic Russians are worried. But if it attempts to treat them differently, that could spark protests from the growing and in that case outraged Muslim community itself.”
Muslim outrage combined with growing Slavic nationalism is an incendiary mixture. Goble points to a recent statement by Sergei Arutyunov, the head of the sector on the Caucasus at the Institute of Ethnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, indicating that, in Goble’s words: “Contemporary Russia resembles Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise in Germany, with a population increasingly dominated by ‘the ideology of revaunchism,’ according to a leading Russian specialist on ethnicity. And as a result, fascism is rapidly gaining ground.” Arutyunov is concerned, Goble writes, with “the increasingly negative attitudes of that country’s ethnic Russians toward other groups and especially toward migrants” and his concerns are justified when one considers that, according to Aleksandr Brod, director of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau: “Since the beginning of 2007, he said, there had been more than 170 cases of inter-ethnic violence, which had led to 51 deaths and 230 major injuries. Most of these crimes, he noted, had occurred in the Russian capital, Moscow oblast, Nizhniy Novgorod oblast and St. Petersburg.”
In light of all this, it’s not too surprising that Putin would be thinking appeasement where Iran is concerned. Situated so close to Russia and as flush with oil revenues as Russia itself, Iran is ominously positioned to throw a lighted match into Russia’s Islamic tinder box.
Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the PJ Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin’s Russia.