SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH RUSSIA'S EYES

Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- As we quibble with the Russians over the destruction of chemical weapons in the world, virtually never is it mentioned how events inside Mother Russia are doubtless affecting Moscow's outlook on cooperation with Washington.

In article after article in the Russian press and from the mouths of the wiser analysts of the Russian scene have come the warnings: The Islamists are closing in on Russia; the Chechen and Daghestani "criminals" are the real culprits behind the crime waves in Moscow and the other big cities.

One respected analyst, Igor Rotar, wrote in his blog recently that the Kremlin has made so many concessions to the Chechnya area of the Caucasus, after the two bitter wars fought there in the '90s, that the region is now establishing what is a "de facto Islamic state with clear signs of an eastern despotism."

As always in this region, which has more history than it can possibly digest, the writer compares the Kremlin's relations with Chechnya today to those of tsarist Russia with the Emirate of Bukhara. In that time, the emir was allowed by Moscow to do what he wanted within that territory so long as he showed his loyalty to then Imperial Russia.

Much of this information, which is hard to find in the American press, comes from the meticulous reading of Russian papers and journals by Paul Goble, formerly leading Sovietologist from Radio Free Europe and the State Department, who now resides in Virginia and is one of the world's greatest specialists on the Soviet Union and Russia.

Back to the area. Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov is an admittedly odd fellow whose pictures on the Web show him riding a "lone wolf," which tellingly is the official animal of his land, cuddling a young tiger in his lap and pointing a gun at his own head. Somehow the money sent to Chechnya to rebuild has ended up in beautiful horses that he loves to race in Dubai.

He came to power after his father, a Russian implant, was assassinated, and he still has supposedly good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it is an ambiguous friendship, as he has pushed the Islamist Grozny mosque as a symbol of the Orthodox Russian Federation and sought to spread his Muslim faith to other parts of the Russian federation.

But while Russia's fear of the peoples of the Caucasus is extreme -- Moscow has fought war after war with them, and sent many into bitter exile farther to the east under Stalin -- that fear, especially of Islam, is growing.

Some thoughtful analysts, like foreign policy specialist Ilan Berman, point out, as he does in his new book "Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America," that the Slavic population of Russia could be down to only 25 percent by 2020. And others say that Muslims will be the dominant group, if only because of their huge birth rate, by 2050. But on the other side, some argue that today's 7 million to 9 million observant Muslims (not counting the numbers of nonobservant, which is not available) could hardly reproduce that quickly. This is compared to the Russian population of 143 million.

Another group, the Norwegian Research Council, surveyed 1,600 people in the Russian Federation last spring, 90 percent of them ethnic Russians. A third said that interethnic relations were "poor or very poor," but in Moscow, 47 percent said so. As for intermarriage, respondents identified those most unacceptable as family members to be gypsies, Chechens, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, Tajiks and Chinese.

It is worth noting that Chinese interventions across its long border with Russia or the former Soviet Union is also causing fear in the Russian soul -- fear of land being stolen by Beijing, with its ever-present overpopulation.

In order to understand the deep feelings that Russia, with its glorious Orthodox past, has against this new (and real) ascendant Islam, one has to see the effects it is having on everyday life.

As did the French, who outlawed the wearing of the hijab or hair-covering among girls and women in public in general, the Russians have now banned hijabs in schools. Paul Goble's take on this:

"The Russian government's ban on the wearing of the hijab in schools not only has led to widespread civil disobedience with local officials looking the other way at violations, but has cut school attendance in some regions and led some regional officials to tell Russian citizens that if they don't like the ban, they should leave the country."

Finally, the Russians are frantically preparing for the Winter Olympics, and to strengthen their own policing in the Sochi area, they have again enlisted the Cossacks, those whip-wielding horsemen from Southeastern Europe and the Caucasus who once protected the tsars. This has evoked considerable fear among the immigrants to Sochi from the South.

None of these developments will, in themselves, destroy the possibility of Russian and American cooperation on Syria and its weapons. But fear within a nation and movements of distrusted minorities to positions of power always affect foreign policy events.

When Vladimir Putin looks at Muslims in Syria and then at Muslims in Chechnya, he sees something we do not see. It would be good for us to put on his glasses.

(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)

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