Interview of Alexander Sivilov with Rustem Habibulin. Assoc. Prof. Rustem Habibulin is Dean of the History Faculty of the State University in Ufa, Bashkortostan. He is also head of the department of international history. A specialist in the military and contemporary history of the United States. He has three studies related to US domestic politics after the Cold War and the development of military industry.
Originally appeared at A-specto, translated by Borislav exclusively for SouthFront
At the moment, Europe stands before the collapse of traditions of ethnic coexistence. The disintegration of the multicultural model has started over here and Islam is perceived as a threat. You are a Muslim. Currently in Russia, Orthodoxy and Islam coexist without problem, how is this achieved?
I watched reports from Europe, from different countries at that. This is about attacks on women. What happened in Cologne seems to be the tip of the iceberg. This problem exists in many other places in the world, but in Europe right now it is taken very tragically.
I do not think that the situation in which we live here in Russia can be a model, but in any case our model shows a path that Europeans will probably walk sooner or later. To reach it, people have to live together for a long time. For example for Bulgaria, Russia is mainly an Orthodox country. When Bulgarians talk about the Russian army and the Russian-Turkish war they are talking primarily about “Русия”. At home we say something else – “Россия” – and that means that in the country live not only Orthodox, not only Christians but also a lot of Muslims. Historically, the two confessions coexist with us for a very long time and this distinguishes us from Europe. About America we will not talk, because the situation there is quite different. In Russia there are several areas where the Muslim population is densely populated. These are primarily the lands around the river Volga, Ural Mountains and the North Caucasus. There are Muslims in other places, but these areas are the largest communities. The situation in these regions is different and I can speak primarily of Bashkiria, but processes in the other places are similar. The Republic of Bashkortostan is one of the models for the Russian multicultural tradition. Here live three nations – Russians, Tatars and Bashkirs and two religions are professed – Orthodoxy and Islam.
The main reason we have such a peaceful model is the symbiosis between historical background and contemporary politics. In Bashkiria there has never been antagonism between Orthodoxy and Islam. The country became part of Russia in 1577 after Ivan Grozny conquered Kazan and the Astrakhan Khanate. He came to the territories populated by Bashkirs and they become part of his country voluntarily. Agreements were signed under which they retain their land and rights of inheritance over them, and they keep their religion – Islam. It spreads on our territory in 13-14 century and it was not persecuted. The coexistence of Orthodoxy and Islam dates back since then.
When we talk about tolerance in religion there is an interesting policy even during royal time. For example, during the Russo-Turkish war waged on the territory of Bulgaria in 1877-1878, in the composition of the Russian army there were no Muslims. There is an Ufinski Infantry Regiment, but it was entirely orthodox. Bashkirs were cavalry, Cossacks. They often guard the borders, but in wars with Muslims they are not used.
In what wars did the Russian Tsars includ the Bashkir cavalry?
The most famous case, is in the war between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I, when the Russian army entered Paris. The king sent there Bashkirs. His aim was to show that he is the ruler of the entire world and to say to Europeans – “Look at what people I wield. Such people have never come to you. If you do not obey, I can bring more.”
In Russian history there are periods when Jews were persecuted and there is a specific attitude towards Catholics. Was there a time when Islam was persecuted?
In this aspect, interesting is the history of Volga Bulgaria. It is located in what is now the Republic of Tatarstan. The state of Volga Bulgarians existed since the end of the 8th century and early 9th century. And since then Islam is professed there. This is the northernmost country in the Mohammedan world. Later it became part of the Golden Horde of Mongols. During the rule of Ivan Grozny, Russia becomes strong again and opposed the Tartars. That’s the first clash of two religions in Russian history. When Ivan Grozny conquered Kazan and Astrakhan we see a conflict at the state level between Russia and the Golden Horde, meaning that even then there are places when Islam and Orthodoxy clash in our country, but the reason is related more so with politics than with religion. In Bashkiria on the other hand everything is peaceful. Our capital Ufa is so remarkable with this, that even in 1788 Empress Catherine the Great founded here the spiritual self-rule of Muslims in the European part of the empire. We have a spiritual self-rule headed by a Supreme Mufti. After the collapse of the Soviet Union every independent republic has such institutions, but anyway traditions are with us for more than 200 years. All this is connected with the policy of Moscow and we have a calm, balanced Islam, which is accepted by the state.
Was the attitude towards your religion different during the Soviet period?
It is interesting that the attitude of Soviet authorities was not different toward Orthodoxy and Islam. Both religions were persecuted and were hit in quite the same way. Churches and mosques were destroyed at the same time. When Christianity was restored, the same happened with Islam.
One of the worst pages of post-Soviet history, is of Russia’s war in Chechnya in the 90s of the 20th century. How is it that suddenly the Chechens went from opponents of Moscow, to the most vehement supporters of the policy of Moscow?
The war in Chechnya in the 90s is a tragic page in the history of Russia. The differences with us in Bashkiria are enormous. There they have a different mentality. Traditions are very strongly rooted. For a long time now with us there are no longer clans, but there, clans are still very important. The direct confrontation between the Russian army and supporters of Dzhuhar Dudayev, did not lead to anything positive for the parties in the conflict. In the current Republic of Ichkeria, all that Dudayev wanted is there, only it has been achieved peacefully with compromises. The current situation in which Moscow subsidizes Grozny is not liked by all, but peace is difficult to achieve. This is the inevitable payment for the victims on both sides. We needed this decision, otherwise we would still be in this conflict. All this is related to the vision of Vladimir Putin to solve the problem. You know he first started working with Chechen spiritual leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who was blown up. He now relies on his son. The extremely complicated situation that we had there has finally found it’s solution.
Is it possible for the Wahhabis who fled Russia and now help the Islamic State, to return and resume the war in the North Caucasus?
Universal recipes do not exist. It is quite possible that the conflict could resume in this scenario.
The penetration of Turkish foundations and preachers of Salafism is observed in Russia. Will they undermine the traditional system of cohabitation between religions in your region?
Our “Russian” Islam does not exist in a vacuum. It is subjected to influences from many places. For a long time in Kazan and Ufa we had no schools to prepare muftis. For this reason, the young priests were trained in Cairo and they returned with other ideas. Now our policy is to create an Islamic university. Since last year in our university – Bashkir State University – we created a course of Islamic theology. With these efforts we hope to counter the ideas of radical Islam that are trying to penetrate here. This is the policy of the leadership of the Spiritual self-rule of the republic of Bashkortostan.
With Isis in Syria, there are people who arrive from Moscow and accept Islam there. Something attracts them. The people from the Islamic State have a strange audience. Citizens of Bashkortostan for the moment do not leave to support the radicals. This indicates that the positions of our moderate Islam is for now strong enough.
Do you feel the tension in the conflict between Ankara and Moscow? I know Bashkortostan traditionally maintain close ties with Turkey?
As a citizen of Russia I accepted with pain the downing of our bomber. I do not think there were military reasons for such an action. Even if it was in the airspace of Turkey it was for a small amount of time and it was quite possible to avoid such an outcome. Consequences that dragged this conflict are very serious. In Russia there are regions such as Tatarstan and Bashkiria, which are connected with Turkey, historically, culturally and our languages are similar. There were very many Turkish investments. Even now Turkish construction companies offer more favorable conditions than local ones. Because of this they continue to build the stadium, which will be used to hold the World Cup in 2018. There are many mixed families. Before, people here often traveled to Turkey. After this tragedy, things changed considerably. However, I think that in the near future the tension will decrease and everything will return to a normal state.
Do the sanctions imposed on Russia in recent years strongly affect the economic development of your country?
The main trade partners of Bashkortostan are the Czech Republic, Great Britain, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, China, Italy, Germany and Finland. Countries that invest in us accordingly are Germany, Cyprus, Austria, Great Britain, Turkey, France and the Czech Republic. It is therefore quite natural for sanctions to greatly affect our economy. For example, in the 90s when centralized economy collapsed many people operated in the black market. At the moment it is still not so, but the conditions are there for its appearance. I believe that in our relations with Turkey, things will be regulated quickly because it is still easier to import tomatoes and tangerines from there, than from Latin America. Currently we are implementing a policy on import substitution. This can be achieved in many sectors, but when it comes to agriculture our climate simply does not allow it. Of course, I would be happy if Bulgaria succeeds to take a position in this market.
In general we feel a slowing of the growth in production. The biggest problem is that the ruble falls and this has consequences. At the moment people joke – “You wanted gasoline for 50 cents. Now you have it and complain.” If a Bulgarian came to us now he would be twice richer than his previous visit a year ago. Prices naturally rise, but not as fast as the currency falls. The situation is complicated, but in Bashkortostan it is still not felt too much.
During the Second World War, Bashkiria gave a shelter to much of the industrial potential of the USSR. In this regard you have a seriously heritage. Bashkortostan is rich in oil. What is the economic strategy of your Republic, in what direction you will develop?
Our primary source of income is no longer the extraction of oil, but the refineries complex. We have two very large factories that produce gasoline and petroleum products. In fact, it’s the largest such complex in the world. We also have large chemical factories. Some time ago I wrote about the experience of Bashkortostan in reorientation from wartime production to peacetime production. Now we have the reverse process. The military industry is recovering and we are direct competitors with the Americans. Russia is the second largest exporter of weapons in the world.
For us it is extremely important to attract investment. Last year in Ufa the meetings of BRICS and the SCO took place. They gave a big boost to the economy and attracted a lot of funds. In connection with these meetings there were built many new buildings and facilities. Most importantly, Bashkortostan is among the ten regions in Russia that is not subsidized, i.e. we give more money to Moscow than we receive. Realistically we are self-sustained. Our standard of living is very good and our most important strategy is to maintain these levels.
Historically, Russia won the clashes with Turkey. Do you expect to repeat of this pattern?
I really do not want to have another Russo-Turkish war, and I hope we do not need to liberate Bulgaria a second time. I hope that rational and sensible policy will prevail.
You have very strong scientific relations with American universities. Do you feel the deterioration of relations between the two countries at this level?
At the level of relations with colleagues, this has no effect. For example, in ten days a fellow American professor arrives to teach and do research. Moreover two more want to come. Antagonism is not felt at all. Naturally, this has to do with the fact that these are men of science who are busy with their own problems and have different attitudes toward the world. As for the mentality of ordinary Americans – they’re interested primarily to what is near them. For example, when we talk about Ukraine, the average US residents do not know where it is and have no position on issues related to the war there.
The upcoming presidential elections will have an enormous significance for US foreign policy. The confrontation with Russia will play a big role in them. Obama as someone who withdraws from presidency will stick to the strategy he had so far. The candidates for the post of president have very different positions on relations with our country depending if they are Republican or Democrat. I think sooner or later realism in foreign policy will prevail. There are too many problems that have to be solved. For example, the war with Islamic State requires the joint efforts of the two countries, and sooner or later they will have to rebuild their interaction. This will not be easy. It is not correct to approach foreign policy emotionally. Needed is sound judgment.
How do you evaluate Turkey’s attempts to become a leader among Turkic peoples in Central Asia? Do you think that with today’s politics the country seeks to restore the position of the Ottoman Empire, as Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu wrote in his book “Strategic Depth”?
The Turks have traditionally considered themselves leaders in the Turkic world. For example, in Istanbul there is a park, in which there are houses built, for each Turkic state. There are houses for Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, and Turkey considers itself a patron. Of course they have always had claims for the return of Ottoman influence. They will have difficult progress when it comes to Central Asia, but Azerbaijan has absolutely pro-Turkish politics. In Bashkiria there is an organization for cultural cooperation with Turkey. On the other hand, we live in a unified Russian Federation and the conduct of a very strong influence is impossible. Moreover, in Turkey itself, the political situation is quite complicated and there are many factions that have different orientation to Islam and Pan-Turkism. With you in Bulgaria, the Turkish influence is very strong because there is a political force that is associated with the interests of Ankara. In Russia such a thing can not happen.
Relations between Bulgaria and Russia have reached one of their lowest levels in recent history. You often visit our country. Do you feel a negative attitude at the street level?
I read the interviews that your president and prime minister give. Of course I’m familiar with what is happening. I can’t assess how much is your independence in foreign policy in the European Union. Bulgaria looks and acts like a state that is located within a space that has one sided policies. Rosen Plevneliev and Boyko Borisov apparently do not have many capabilities. They are constrained by external influences and can not go beyond certain limits. For example, if you do not answer the principles set by Brussels, you do not get any money.
Quite a long period of my life is connected with Bulgaria. I have luck and have met people there who are my friends. Not once have I heard anything bad, and I have not felt a negative attitude. Naturally I have not been with your President and I have not been to the National Assembly. I think that even there, if we meet privately, no one would say something bad to me.
In Russia we observe a disappointment with the politics of our country. What is the attitude of ordinary Russians toward Bulgaria?
I do not want to offend Bulgaria, but Russia is a large country and today it rarely remembers you. Before, this occurred more often. Generally I don’t think anything negative is said. Naturally there are all kinds of people and if you read on the internet you will see a lot of profanity. Imagine what happens in our relations with Ukraine, which has long been an integral part of the Russian space. I suppose that such outbursts exist among ordinary people in England and Scotland. This is normal. I hope that our common history and traditions will win. A young generation is growing up right now. For them Bulgaria means nothing. For example, we used to say – “The chicken is not a bird, and Bulgaria is not behind borders” Now the situation is entirely different.