Outside observers typically consider Russia’s large Muslim population to be a great challenge for the country and its leadership. In the United States and Europe, many focus overwhelmingly on Russia’s violent Islamic extremists — a small minority among the country’s Muslims — and on Moscow’s wars in Chechyna and its ongoing domestic terrorism problem. Nevertheless, President Vladimir Putin appears to have a different view and may see not only challenges but opportunities, including in Russia’s diplomacy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
When thinking about the world’s largest Muslim countries, few people would consider Russia to be among them. Nevertheless, in 2010 the Russian Federation had more than 16 million Muslim residents, making its Muslim population the 13th-largest. Outside the greater Middle East and South and Southeast Asia, only China has a bigger Muslim population; however, because China’s overall population is so large, it represents only 1.8% of the total, compared with 11.7% in Russia. Thus, while Beijing can afford to marginalize its Muslim population, Moscow cannot.
Though the Kremlin has clearly granted a privileged place to Russia’s Orthodox Church among the country’s religions and religious institutions, Putin often acknowledges the country’s significant Muslim minority, including during a major 2013 speech focusing on Russia’s national identity, during which he said that “Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and other religions are an integral part of Russia’s identity, its historical heritage and the present-day lives of its citizens.” Importantly, Putin went on to argue, “It is clearly impossible to identify oneself only through one’s ethnicity or religion in such a large nation with a multi-ethnic population. … People must develop a civic identity on the basis of shared values, a patriotic consciousness, civic responsibility and solidarity, respect for the law and a sense of responsibility for their homeland’s fate, without losing touch with their ethnic or religious roots.”
Apparently responding in no small part to controversy in the West, in the months prior to the Olympic Games in Sochi, over Russia’s law imposing fines on individuals or organizations that present “propaganda” about homosexuality to minors, Putin has increasingly emphasized Russians’ shared moral values and to connect Russia’s “traditional” values to those in the Middle Eastern, Asian and other non-Western societies. “We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization … and people are aggressively trying to export this model all over the world. I am convinced that this opens a direct path to degradation and primitivism, resulting in a profound demographic and moral crisis. … We consider it natural and right to defend these values.” While clearly identifying Russia as a largely Christian country, Putin is attempting to establish a dividing line between the shared values of believers in many religious traditions and those of the decadent secular West.
Putin was explicit about his foreign policy objectives, saying, “Russia agrees with those who believe that key decisions should be worked out on a collective basis, rather than at the discretion of and in the interests of certain countries or groups of countries. Russia believes that international law, not the right of the strong, must apply. And we believe that every country, every nation is not exceptional, but unique, original and benefits from equal rights, including the right to independently choose their own development path.” Thus, Putin is attempting to exploit huge differences in social values between the West and predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa to make Western values into a liability rather than an asset for Western governments. If consistently implemented over time, this may become Russia’s most significant effort to date to develop a soft power strategy to combat Western influence in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world.
On the surface, this approach appears to have many strengths. Many in the Middle East — in both government and society — are indeed disturbed by the encroachment of liberal Western social mores that has accompanied globalization. Moreover, as Putin stated, it is not simply a passive process because Washington, Brussels and Europe’s national governments regularly raise issues such as women’s rights and gay rights (among others) in meetings with their counterparts in the Middle East, and at times apply political pressure. Where they have had input into constitutional processes, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States and other Western governments have pushed for formal legal guarantees that depart significantly from established practices. Western countries have also made known where their sympathies lie in elections and other political processes across much of the region.
Nevertheless, Russia will face many challenges in pursuing such an approach. Most immediately, extensive public opinion polling on these issues — particularly by the Pew Research Center — demonstrates clearly that Russian public attitudes are not as similar to attitudes in the Middle East as Putin might hope. Russians are indeed closer to the Middle East than Europe in their views of homosexuality: 74% of Russians believe that society “should not accept homosexuality” compared with 78% of Turks, 80% of Lebanese, 95% of Egyptians and just 11% in Germany and 22% in France.
But in many other areas, Russians look much more like Americans and Europeans, including in their attitudes toward premarital sex. Russians are in fact much more liberal than Americans in their views toward extramarital affairs and somewhat more liberal than Americans with respect to abortion. (Contrary to stereotypes, many more Russians than Americans or Europeans view alcohol use as morally unacceptable — 44% of Russians have this view as opposed to just 9% in the United Kingdom and 27% in Italy. Japanese have the most permissive attitude toward alcohol.)
On a fundamental level, the conservative social values Putin wants to defend have in many respects eroded within Russia during the Soviet and post-Soviet period — so he would need to build this new value system inside Russia even as he attempted to promote it as a bridge between Russia and the Middle East. Perhaps ironically, the Obama administration is facing a related problem in that its foreign policy seeks to advance some social values that do not yet enjoy consensus support within the United States.
Russia faces another uncomfortable if inexact parallel with America’s wars in the Middle East in the form of its two wars in Chechnya, where Muslim Chechen separatists were quite successful in mobilizing financial support and recruiting fighters from the Middle East and particularly the Persian Gulf. There also was Russia’s support for pro-Serbian forces against Bosnian Muslims as Yugoslavia disintegrated and against Albanian Muslims in Kosovo. All this will complicate any effort to strengthen sociocultural ties and sympathies.
A final obstacle for the Kremlin is that while many in the Middle East have unfavorable views of the United States — 79% in the Palestinian territories, 81% in Egypt and 85% in Jordan — large majorities continue to support democracy and to want economic growth and jobs. This requires sophisticated messaging from Moscow that acknowledges regional political and economic aspirations — something that will not be easy for Russian officials who instinctively support existing governments as guarantors of stability, reject outside pressure and do not have (or claim to have) an alternative economic or political development model of their own.
It is too soon to say whether Russia’s emerging values-based diplomacy is here to stay, much less whether it can succeed. Nevertheless, it is important, as a clear and self-conscious effort to shape a national identity that incorporates and leverages Russia’s diversity — due primarily to its former imperial possessions — to build strong ties based on shared opposition to the West.