Turning away from the West, Russia seeks to strengthen economic ties with the Muslim world
by Etienne Bouche
The Russia-Islamic World Forum will begin in Kazan, southwest Russia, on Thursday. The two-day event was first held in 2009 and aims to strengthen economic ties between Russia and Muslim countries. In the wake of a rupture between Russia and the West, these ties are now part of a shifting world order.
The decision to hold the 2023 edition of the Russia-Islamic World forum in Kazan is symbolic: the capital of Tatarstan, located some 800km east of Moscow, is seen by the Russian state as a successful example of multiculturalism and peaceful religious coexistence.
Russia is home to some 15 million Muslim citizens “in the sense that they belong to ethnic groups with cultural foundations linked to Islam. Not all are believers or practising Muslims,” according to a report from the French Institute for International Relations.
As a whole, Muslims make up 10% of the Russian population, with most living in the Caucasas – the area of land that separates the Caspian and Black Seas – and the Volga-Ural region.
Muslims have lived in Tatarstan, in the Volga district, for centuries and the Tatar population (descended from largely Muslim Turkic ethnic groups) is Russia’s largest ethnic minority group.
“Tatarstan is one of the richest regions in Russia so also serves as an economic showcase,” says Ivan Ulises Kentros Klyszcz, researcher at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Tallinn, Estonia. “As Tatarstan attracts investments and is a hub for industries it has an image that corresponds very well with Russia’s pragmatic economic approach.”
The forum in Kazan aims to strengthen economic, cultural and intellectual ties between Russia and the 57 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an organisation founded in 1969 to represent the “collective voice of the Muslim world” and jointly protect member states’ interests.
Although Russia is not a full member of the OIC, in 2003, President Vladimir Putin was the first head of state from a non-majority Muslim country to be invited to speak at an OIC summit. Just three years into his first presidency Putin aimed to improve Russia’s image in the Islamic world after wars against Muslim populations in Chechnya (located in the Caucasas) and Afghanistan.
Two years later, Putin scored a diplomatic victory when Russia was admitted to the OIC as an observer state.
“The integration of Russia into the organisation came in the context of new tensions with the US, notably concerning Iraq, and was also a response to Saudi Arabia’s desire to recalibrate its relationship with the US,” says Igor Delanoë, Deputy Head of the French-Russian Analytical Center Observo (CCI France-Russia) in Moscow.
It also allowed Russia to claim a sense of belonging in the Muslim world, a position Putin has always been keen to emphasise. The president has historically promoted Russia’s religious and ethnic diversity as a foreign relations tool in order to position the country as a key mediator between West and East.
In order to maintain influence within Muslim countries, Russia created a “strategic vision group” in 2006, led today by Rustam Minnikhanov, head of Tatarstan. The Arab spring uprisings in the early 2010s saw the group’s work take a backseat but it has increased activities since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the sanctions from the West that followed.
This initial rupture with the West sparked an increase in economic activity between Russia and the Middle East that both parties welcomed. “Generational shifts among the monarchies in the Gulf States allowed for closer ties – for younger heads of state the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya belong in the history books,” says Delanoë.
Russian leaders with Muslim backgrounds are often used as diplomatic “messengers” to foster relationships, adds Delanoë. In March 2022, for instance, Minnikhanov met with President Macky Sall on a visit to Senegal.
“This parallel diplomacy is done in a coordinated way, in line with the Kremlin’s political agenda,” says Klyszcz.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has also taken an active role in building relationships with Gulf states in which shared religious identity plays a key role. In 2018 and 2022, he performed the Haj in Saudi Arabia, meeting with Saudi leadership during both visits.
As the war in Ukraine is reshaping international relations around the globe, it is sure to influence the coming summit in Kazan. In Moscow there is a clear intention to refocus strategic and economic partnerships away from the West. In March, the Kremlin released a new foreign policy outlook featuring the word “Islamic” for the first time and stating an intention to deepen ties with Muslim countries, along with countries in Africa and South America.
After the Russia-Islamic World Forum in May, the second ever Russia-Africa summit will take place in St Petersburg in July.
This evolution in foreign policy is part of “a narrative that these countries are important in rearranging the world order” says Klyszcz.
To further drive home the message, Russia has been taking pains to differentiate its foreign policy approach from that of the West. Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov has spoken repeatedly about Western “colonial” attitudes towards the rest of the world, tapping into an undercurrent of discontent with the US, in particular.
“Within the Muslim world, Russia is certainly better perceived than the West, but this positive impression has been exaggerated by propaganda,” says Klyszcz.
Anti-Western sentiment is also contributing to misconceptions about realities in Ukraine, he says. And the presence of a significant number of soldiers from the Caucasas on the ground has helped to create an online narrative of Russia fighting “side-by-side with Muslims”.
As many countries around the world have been outspoken in their support for Ukraine, others have remained silent, wary of making economic and diplomatic sacrifices in the name of a distant, “imperial” conflict.
Some Muslim countries refused to vote to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in April 2022, and the Global South has largely opted out of sanctions against Russia decided on by the US and Europe.
It is the Global South that Russia now seems intent on winning over – and the feeling may be mutual.
“The break with Russia may be considered a Western victory in Europe, but in the Global South there is no Western victory. On the contrary, the war is accelerating fragmentation, undoing globalisation and causing regionalisation of strategic blocs and economic ties,” says the French Institute for International Relations report.
“Regional powers are learning from how the West is waging economic war against Russia and are reinforcing their own independence from Western institutions.”
This article has been translated from the original in French.