Islam Tests Federation

The head of the State Tax Service, Alexander Pochinok, recently met in Kazan with Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev to discuss tax collection and which revenues should go to the federal coffers and which should remain in Kazan. The debates were difficult, but in the end both sides said they were satisfied with the agreement they had reached. Understandably, most television viewers took little interest in this routine event.

Another scene in the Islamic world -- the second televised broadcast of public executions on Grozny's central square -- shocked Russian society. Russia's main newspapers all reacted in unison to the incident: This was medieval barbarity, a gross violation of federal law and a call for Russia and the Kremlin to deal with savages who have shown their disdain for the values of civilization.

The Chechen leadership had made it clear that Islam and Shariah law would continue to be established in Chechnya, despite Russia's membership in the Council of Europe, which requires suspension of the death penalty. The Kremlin first reacted to the execution by insisting on continued dialogue with Grozny. In response to the Kremlin's appeal to the Chechen leadership to cease such acts of brutality, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov awarded each of the 113 fighters who participated directly in the terrorist acts committed in Budyonnovsk with the National Hero Order and 1 million rubles.

The situation is, of course, ambiguous: The same people who sent troops into Chechnya killing innocent people and destroying cities and villages are now calling on those who defended them to act humanely. But there is a larger issue involved. Several political analysts in Moscow have referred to Samuel Huntington's work on the clash of Islamic and Christian civilizations. In Russia, where Christianity and Islam have coexisted for at least four or five centuries, this question is particularly acute.

The desire for national self-expression on the part of Tatars and Chechens is quite understandable. But many did not expect that people who never had any government experience would speak of themselves as nations with their own states.

It is becoming clear that assimilating the Moslems of Tatarstan into the Russian Federation is quite unlike the Moslems of the Caucasus. Kazan and Grozny interpret Islam in different ways. This was shown by the stubborn opposition of Moslem parents to the recent attempts by Tatar nationalists to establish Islamic public education in Tatarstan. The parents understood that a graduate with a Moslem Tatar diploma might not be able to find work in Tatarstan, where there are few jobs, but that with a Russian diploma it would be completely possible in Russia.

The situation is different in Chechnya. The feeling that Islam is a way of life, as well as a religion, is much stronger in Chechnya than in other Moslem regions.

The executions in Grozny serve as confirmation of this. They have made it clear that the senseless search for a general national ideology is bound to fail because the interests of Islamic peoples are not taken into account. Several politicians believe that this new ideology should be based on Orthodoxy, but their understanding of a national idea is nothing more than a mechanical replacement for Marxist ideology.

The relations between the federal government and the regions today are being worked out on an economic level. And this is all to the better. Many Tatar nationalists now laugh at the unreasonable demands their radical leaders once made of the Kremlin. Therefore, a meeting between the Federal Tax Service chief and the Tatarstan president is truly welcome -- and, fortunately, already routine. Money, not blood, is what characterizes these relationships. Perhaps Russians and Tatars will find other possibilities for rapprochement. The relations between Pochinok and Shaimiyev should serve as a model for Yeltsin and Maskhadov.

Alexei Malashenko, a prominent specialist of Islam, believes Chechnya will have to follow the path of Islamic self-identity to the end. This is the choice Grozny has made. And it is something that cannot be ignored. The Kremlin can speak with Grozny in Russian, but Grozny will speak with the Kremlin in Chechen. This is neither good nor bad; it's simply a fact of modern politics.

Naturally, along this path there are real constitutional threats awaiting Russia. If Chechnya is to be treated as a "standard" subject of the federation, then the executions in Grozny have to be regarded as a challenge to the Russian Constitution -- something that Russian Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov has stated openly -- as well as to Russia's criminal code and to the international standards of human rights that Russia has adopted.

But if Russia acknowledges that the establishment of Islam in Chechnya is inevitable, then the Kremlin and the Council of Europe will have to look for nonstandard responses to this new Islamic challenge. Introducing Chechnya into the so-called Russian economic territory, as it has done with Tatarstan, is clearly not enough. Recognizing the inevitable Islamization of Chechnya entails a special legal relationship between the federal center and the republic. This raises the possibility of the Shariah court being recognized as a component -- an autonomous one -- of the Russian judicial system. Other federation subjects might also demand such rights. Russia has, however, no other way out if it wants to be a prosperous united state whose citizens' quality of life means no less than the protection of their right to national identity.

Yury Buyda is a staff writer for Znamya and Novoye Vremya. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.