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Russia and the Islamic world

A meeting entitled “Russia and the Islamic world” was held recently in Russia, with participants from some 20 Muslim-majority countries. Unlike other European countries, Islam is an indigenous religion in Russia, which is home to about 17 million Muslims, 12 percent of the total population. Russia has observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which brings together 57 Muslim-majority states.

Moscow was eager to show these facts to the participants. The meeting was organized by a Russian think tank, the Group of Strategic Vision, created in 2006 by late Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

The first part of the meeting was held in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, the second in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, another autonomous republic in Russia, with a population that is about 50 percent Muslim. This gave participants a clear idea about Islam’s deep-rooted presence in Russia.

Twenty years ago, explosions and shattered buildings were the main theme of television news on Chechnya, so many participants thought they would see Grozny ruined by fighting and destruction. But they found an entirely reconstructed, modern city with wide boulevards, vast green parks, skyscrapers and luxury hotels. These are tangible aspects of today’s Chechnya.

A more interesting feature of the meeting was the intangible achievement that Chechnya carried out in the fields of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. Reconstruction may be achieved with sufficient finance, while reconciliation needs foresight, dedication and perseverance.

After the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, several separatist movements emerged in Chechnya, which declared independence from Russia in 1992. Some were led by high-ranking Russian Army officers of ethnic Chechen origin. Moscow sent troops to crush the rebellion.

Cities in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia were targeted by terrorist attacks, and many Russians lost loved ones and suffered damage to property. The Russian public expected perpetrators to be punished. Chechen rebel leaders were faced with a difficult dilemma: On one hand there was the Chechen people’s dedication to continue the war at all costs, on the other the mighty Russian army and a country bleeding to exhaustion.

Grozny, which looked like a ghost city several years ago, has been the safest city in Russia for three consecutive years. Chechnya has enjoyed relative calm for more than 10 years, creating an enormous peace dividend.

Yasar Yakis

Chechen officials put the death toll at 160,000 during the first and second Chechen wars, in 1995-1996 and 1999-2006 respectively. This corresponds to 15 percent of Chechnya’s population. Hundreds of thousands were orphaned or widowed, and suffered untold hardship. Entire districts were razed to the ground.

These hard facts pushed leaders to compromise. A peace treaty was signed in 1997 between then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen leader Aslan Mashkhadov, but it did not stop the unrest.

In 2003, Akhmed Kadyrov, the grand mufti of Chechnya who once fought against the Russian Army, was elected Chechen president. He enjoyed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trust, but was assassinated in an explosion during an official ceremony. The title “Hero of the Russian Federation” was posthumously bestowed on him.

His son Ramzan Kadyrov became Chechen prime minister and later head of Chechnya. Moscow and Grozny were able to cooperate more smoothly from then on. An ambitious plan was drawn up in 2006 to reconstruct destroyed infrastructure and buildings, implemented with strong Russian financial support.

Some 82 percent of Chechnya’s 2017 budget is subsidized by the federal government. Grozny, which looked like a ghost city several years ago, has been the safest city in Russia for three consecutive years. Chechnya has enjoyed relative calm for more than 10 years, creating an enormous peace dividend.

Ramzan took an additional step in the post-conflict era to settle family feuds among groups who found themselves on opposing sides at various stages of infighting. He sent messengers to remote villages to set aside differences, settling some 1,500 family feuds.

But there are still gigantic problems to overcome. Unemployment, down from 67 percent in 2006 to 21.5 percent in 2014, is still very high. Foreign investors are hesitant to invest in Chechnya. Their hesitancy will disappear if stability is maintained.

There are several “best practices” in the world to serve as a model for ongoing crises in many parts of the Islamic world. The Chechen example is one of them, both for post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).