Author: Emanuel Pietrobon – 29/03/2020
One month has passed so far since the most recent escalation between Russia and Turkey, which took place in Syria in the aftermath of an allegedly Russian-led airstrike in Idlib. Now the peace seems to have been restored and both countries are co-operating as usual, on the background of the deliveries of Russian-made S400s to Ankara. But the true question is: how long will the peace last?
In order to rightly interpret history we should read historic events through the lens of geophilosophy. If we apply this reading method to the Russo-Turkish relations it’s easy to understand that the nowadays’ partnership is unlikely to endure.
Indeed, today as well as in 1853 the Third Rome and the High Porte are still competitors, they are natural-born rivals, and their partnership is already showing cracks because it’s simply unhistorical.
Erdogan’s Turkey has resumed the ancient and evergreen imperial dream of re-uniting the world-inhabiting Turkic peoples under Ankara’s flag. The goal is as ambitious as risky, because Turkic people are spread across Eurasia and live in countries falling under the influence of great powers like Russia and China.
There is no Turkic-inhabited country and/or region that hasn’t been eyed by Turkey, and in every case some effects have been recorded, from secessionist revivals to Islamic radicalisation: Moldova’s Gagauzia, Soviet Central Asian countries, and Russia itself.
And it’s precisely the last point we’re going to talk about. In the midst of Idlib crisis, Erdogan’s personal advisor Mesut Hakki Casim launched a threat to the Kremlin. He warned that Turkey can use Russia’s Muslim community to “shatter the country from inside” in the evenience of an armed conflict.
Some analysts think that Casim’s words are laughable but the uncomfortable truth is that Russia is truly weak and extremely vulnerable to the risk of a new Soviet-style implosion, and if the West ever decides to use the Turkey card, the Kremlin would find itself obliged to confront a life-threatening nightmare.
The situation is the following: several Muslim-inhabited and Turkic-inhabited republics are recording growing radicalisation processes while society and politics are shaken up by the appearance of autonomism-aiming movements – in both cases there is a special appeal exerted on the youth. The list is very long but that which is truly frightening is the re-emergence of believed-to-be-buried forms of secessionism in historically conflict-plagued regions like Dagestan, Tatarstan, Bashkiria, Circassia, Crimea, Chechnya.
Ankara took advantage of Russia’s post-Soviet moment of weakness to enter the North Caucasus and Siberia and to de-secularize the Turkic peoples through mosques, coranic schools, culture centers, private schools, NGOs. In every Turkic-inhabited region, Turkey has been trying to promote itself as the guardian of Turkic people, as the motherland of the Turkic nation.
The FSB is now aware of what is going on and recently has convinced the federal government to ban the activities of Ankara-backed International Organization of Turkic Culture, which was particularly active in Tatarstan, it has launched an anti-secessionist campaign in Crimea against Tatar dissidents, and it has increased the pressure over Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT).
Let’s focus for a moment on Crimea. Erdogan declared that his country will never accept Russia’s sovereignty over the peninsula and that is monitoring very closely the status of Crimean Tatars, whose condition is a top priority of Ankara’s foreign agenda.
Tatars welcomed coldly the 2014 annexation and their hard opposition, based on protests, boycotts, and search for attention from the international community, pushed Russian authorities to start a crackdown which is currently underway.
Among the first actions the most noteworthy were the banning of Mejlis, which was the Tatar self-ruling autonomous body, and its replacing with a Kremlin-backed authority, and the banning of HT, whose members were – and are – put under strict scrutiny by the secret services.
Why so much attention on HT?
HT operates freely and legally in more than 50 countries, including the United States, Ukraine and the Great Britain, but is listed as a terrorist organization in Russia since 2003. HT’s official purpose is to convert non-Muslims to Islam and re-unify the ummah (that is the community of Muslim believers) under a planet-extended caliphate.
In Russia, HT has been accused of planning terrorist plots, radicalizing youths in Muslim-majority republics of the Northern Caucasus, Tatarstan in particular, enrolling jihadists to be sent in Chechnya and Daghestan during the 1990s and early 2000s, and having ties with the world’s most important Islamist terrorist organizations.
Until 2014 HT operated freely in Crimea where it ruled mosques, cultural centers, Islamic schools, entertainment places, despite the fact that Mustafa Dzhemilev, the then-Mejlis leader, reported many times to Kyev authorities the dangerousness represented by the group, since it was allegedly funded by foreign powers to radicalize Tatar youths with Wahhabi and fundamentalist teachings.
According to FSB, HT has at least 10,000 members in the peninsula, mostly in Simferopol. In the last five years the group’s activities, now carried out underground, have been strictly monitored by Russian authorities. In the first part of 2019 more than 30 Tatars have been charged with possession of weapons and explosives, incitement to religious hatred, terrorist plots and sedition.
Turkey and Ukraine are interested in the Tatar question since they aim at feeding the already-existing diffidence and the increasingly social distance between Slavs and Tatars with the goal of fomenting a Chechnya-like civil war or a civil unrest.
Turkey and HT could be behind the Tatars’ increasing religious radicalisation as hundreds fled to Syria and Iraq to join Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s army or Al qaeda-linked anti-Assad rebels. A Chechnya-style scenario in the peninsula is not so unlikely, that’s why Ankara’s range of action must limited as much as possible.
But as written previously, several regions are experiencing phenomena requiring careful analyses, from North Caucasus to Siberia. Islamic nationalism and separatism contributed to keep secession projects alive from the 1990s to date: just think about the tens of thousands of Russian citizens that have travelled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State – and the alleged 14,000 foreign fighters supposedly from Chechnya.
Ankara’s pan-Turkic agenda is highly detrimental to Russia’s national security and territorial integrity as it fits perfectly with Zbigniew Brzezinski’s hidden dream of making Russia blow up by fostering the numerous inter-ethnic and inter-religious differences of the world-largest country. Difference can create enrichment but a smart strategy can exploit it to generate divisions and hate.
We can see this happening right now in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where the Turkish engagement led to the birth of several pro-secession civil movements and political organizations like the The Union of Tatar Youh, All-Tatar Public Center and the Bashkir Kuk Bure.
Such organizations and its proxies, like the foreign-backed mosques, are proving increasingly state-challenging players. In Tatarstan they are going against the decades-old primacy of Russian language by hindering any effort of Russification, offering free-of-charge courses of Tatar, which is no longer written in Cyrillic but in Latin, and lobbying for a new bilateral agreement granting further autonomy to the republic.
In Bashkortostan, the increasingly aggressive Turkish engagement is speeding up the cultural and linguistic de-Russification of the republic and feeding a dangerous ethnic-based polarization, which is causing more and more misunderstandings and troubles between Russians and Bashkirs.
And then there is the Siberian question, where regionalism-aiming civic organizations have started to appear in early 2010s and are now present from Tomsk to Novosibirsk – all of them demand more autonomy from Moscow.
Recently two Russian republics, Yakutia and Tuva, have joined the Turkish intelligence-linked World Turks Qurultai, a pan-Turkic organization promoting the spiritual unity of Turkic peoples.
Novosibirsk hosted a surprisingly unexpected and highly participated separatist rally in 2011 and a replica, set to take place in August 2014, was eventually banned by the authorities. Since then – the silence. But as we know, silence can be the ante-chamber of a storm.
What is next?
There is no doubt that the Turkish engagement in the Russian world (Russkij Mir) is being feeding the appearance of secessionist and regionalist movements and that the situation is likely to get worse in the absence of a proper counter-strategy. Turkey’s might not be interested in Russia’s implosion, whose consequences would be apocalyptic, but more realistically is trying to take advantage of the pan-Turkic revival to have more leverages in Eurasia and in the confrontation with the historic rival, Russia.
The Kremlin must choose its moves according to a strategy based on prevention: no more foreign interferences, state monopoly over identity issues, talks with the civil society instead of mere repression.