If current demographic trends continue, within the next half-century Muslims will constitute a sizable part, perhaps even a plurality, of Russia’s population; indeed, Moscow currently has more Muslim inhabitants than any other European city. And unlike those in Amsterdam or Paris, most of Moscow’s Muslims are citizens, not immigrants — products of the Russian Empire’s 19th century southward expansion. In the coming decades, Muslim peoples from Russia’s North Caucasus and Volga regions, together with migrants from neighboring Central Asia and Azerbaijan, will continue to displace Russia’s Slavic core and reshape how the country defines itself.
These shifts pose new challenges to Russia’s stability. Last December, following the slaying of an ethnic Russian in Moscow, allegedly by a man from the North Caucasus, mobs of chanting youths took to the streets, arms raised in Nazi salutes. “Moscow for Muscovites,” read one of their tamer bits of graffiti. Photos and video showed other young men — pummeled, bloodied and dark-haired — cowering behind a thin phalanx of police officers.
Russia has an undeniable terrorism problem emanating from its restive North Caucasus, a region featuring authoritarian politics and a growing Islamist insurgency. But it also has a xenophobia problem. Xenophobic mob attacks on Muslim minorities in the national capital and other major cities could make terrorism attacks occasions for additional bloodshed. This deadly tit-for-tat threatens, especially in the context of an economic crisis, to stoke ethnic and religious conflict, empowering Russia’s increasingly visible ultranationalist forces.
The people targeted in the violent episodes exemplified by Moscow’s December demonstrations were primarily from the North Caucasus, a mountainous stretch along Russia’s southern border with Georgia and Azerbaijan. In the wake of two wars in Chechnya, an insurgency has gained ground across the area. That, along with poverty, joblessness and the indiscriminate roundups of young men by state security services, has spurred out-migration from the area since the 1990s.
The more chaotic the North Caucasus becomes, the larger the exodus of people to Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities, and in turn the greater the likelihood of violence between far-right hooligans and Russian Muslims.
Russia’s leaders understand the stakes. President Dmitry Medvedev has labeled the North Caucasus his country’s greatest internal problem. After the December riots, he denounced the fanatics for sowing disorder. Likewise, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned against extremism of all sorts.
Moscow has also tried to stabilize the North Caucasus. It has increased investment in Chechnya, seeking to rebuild the republic after the weakening of the insurgency there. Still, the other North Caucasus republics — unfamiliar places such as Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria — remain mired in poverty and unemployment. The Kremlin has sought to buy off power brokers in the region, hoping to rely on the local strongmen to keep order and crack down on suspected insurgents.
But this is not the kind of thoroughgoing reform that is needed. And the indiscriminate dragnets deployed against Muslim men in the region have driven even more young people to leave or to join the insurgency’s ranks.
In the meantime, anti-migrant chauvinists in major cities farther north have made life even more miserable for those fleeing the North Caucasus. Politicians have inflamed the situation by painting all Muslim migrants as criminals and aliens. And the Russian media tend to denounce the chaos while ignoring the victims — unless they are ethnic Russians.
Russia has seen all this before. The eruptions of violence against neighbors who were also perceived as insidious outsiders marked Russia’s early 20th century. Anti-Jewish pogroms in then-Russian cities such as Kishinev and Odessa assaulted one of the Russian Empire’s most vibrant communities. But they also hurt Russia: by increasing emigration, staining the country’s international reputation and creating a repertoire of violence against Jews that was reprised during the Bolshevik revolution and Russian civil war.
Then, as now, the thugs were a tiny part of the population. Neither today’s extreme nationalists nor the Islamist terrorists are representative of the communities they claim to speak for — a point Medvedev, who has praised Islam as a vital part of Russian history, has been at pains to make.
It is a fine line the Russian government must walk. In responding to terrorism, the government must be careful to separate the terrorists from the rest of Russia’s large Muslim community. Medvedev’s use of the term “pogrom” to describe last December’s riots is a step in the right direction. Without such clear signals from Moscow, Muslims in and from the North Caucasus — who, after all, have been the main victims of Islamist terrorism for years — will wonder whether the country they now call home is big enough to embrace them.
The Domodedovo Airport bombing points to the need for better intelligence and policing to protect all of Russia’s citizens. Russia’s creaking security services, often heavy handed and inefficient, have scored some remarkable successes against insurgents, and the airport attack will be another opportunity to reexamine the performance of state institutions. But the larger challenge for Russian citizens and their government involves coming to terms with a future in which the Muslim periphery is no longer so peripheral.
Charles King, a professor at Georgetown University and the author of Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams and Rajan Menon, a professor of political science at City College of New York/City University of New York and the author of The End of Alliance.