Moscow shifts its focus to the Muslim world
Two weeks ago the Russian state bank Sberbank opened a branch in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a republic with a Muslim population, following a strategy of developing Islamic banking. This initiative came as no surprise due to the Western sanctions — Islamic banking and finance serve as an alternative to the Russian financial system.
Islamic banking and finance have been developed through the Islamic Development Bank, which is located in Saudi Arabia, along with Dubai Islamic Economy Development Center through the Republic of Tatarstan. The yearly International Economic Summit, titled “Russia-Islamic World: Kazan Summit,” is another venue where the potential for Islamic banking and finance has been discussed, but among the key limitations was the lack of a legal document that might permit and regulate the activities of Shariah banks.
Nonetheless, the latest pressure on the economic sector contributed to speeding the process. A review of the development of Islamic banking was submitted to the State Duma, which is negotiating the introduction of an experimental legal regime for partner financing in four regions of the Russian Federation with Muslim populations. If this experiment is approved, it will start on Feb. 1 for a period of two years. This will mean that the Russian economy will be further shifted to the East. This reflects the orientation of Moscow’s foreign policies, which, as is the case with China and India, have moved toward the Middle East, and the shared Muslim identities, the so-called Islamic factor, have become even more actively used.
The fact that Russian Muslims are this year celebrating the anniversary of the acceptance of Islam by Volga Bulgars has also generated a number of big events, serving as religious soft power initiatives. Among these is the recent XVIII International Muslim Forum “Justice and moderation: Divine principles of world order,” organized by the International Muslim Forum, the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, and the Moscow Islamic Institute. The event was attended by representatives from over 40 countries, with high-ranking religious authorities from Turkiye, Palestine, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan and Qatar presenting their visions of the current world order, and its alternatives.
Delegates from Palestine, Iraq and Pakistan were extremely critical of “imperialist” policies toward the Muslim world, and this historical experience put these countries in something of an alliance with Russia, which they saw as challenging the existing world order.
This forum is one of the focuses of the main religious organization — the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation — in addition to its active “spiritual diplomacy” or “people-to people” diplomacy, when religious authorities meet with diplomats to build closer bilateral ties, and attend Russian Ummah at international forums convened in the MENA region.
The current geopolitical turbulence puts Russia closer to the MENA region.
Dr. Diana Galeeva
In addition to the activities of the Russian Muftiates, which Russia has used as part of its religious soft power since the 2000s, are the Group of the Strategic Vision “Russia-Islamic world,” the para-diplomacies of the Russian Muslim regions (Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan), and the activities of Muslim NGOs, such as the Association of Muslim Businessmen of the Russian Federation. Arguably, these policies have helped Russia to achieve economic, political and security advantages, including investments in its regions (Chechnya and Tatarstan) by the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The neutral position of GCC states over the Ukraine crisis also suggests the positive outcomes of these policies.
Despite this, these initiatives are somewhat scattered, so for more effectiveness Russia must develop one vision on the use of religious soft power toward the MENA region. Second, “new players” should be integrated into this process — notably the diaspora and women. The diaspora, representatives of business circles living in MENA countries, for example, can be another link for the prosperity of relations between Muslim Russia and MENA region.
Muslim identity can only complement potential business projects, including the further development of the so-called “halal lifestyle.” In recent years, a trend of female empowerment has also emerged in the GCC states. For example, the ministers of the UAE include nine women. With regards to the distribution of positions in public institutions by gender, women make up 66 percent of public sector employees, and 30 percent of women hold managerial positions. Due to cultural differences, at many social events, such as the activities of charitable organizations under the patronage of influential women, the invited attendees are also women. In this regard, it seems possible to involve the women of the Russian Federation, who share a Muslim identity, for the further implementation of religious soft power.
To sum up, the current geopolitical turbulence puts Russia closer to the MENA region. Given Russia’s identity of being between the West and East, and in the current paradigm moving toward the East, its policies and economic interests are also moving toward the East. This emphasis relies on its existing Muslim identities, which are shared with Eastern countries. At the same time, the existing discourses around the Islamic world, and the historic painful experience with Western countries and colonization, also puts these countries closer to Russia. Although these ties are just emerging, we might expect closer collaborations between Russia and the Muslim world derived from existing religious soft power.
• Dr. Diana Galeeva was an academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2019-2022). She is the author of two books: “Qatar: The Practice of Rented Power” (Routledge, 2022) and “Russia and the GCC: The Case of Tatarstan’s Paradiplomacy” (I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2023). She is also a co-editor of the collection “Post-Brexit Europe and UK: Policy Challenges Towards Iran and the GCC States” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).