Putin Tries To Sell Ukraine's Muslims On Russian Rule

Russian President Putin is reaching out to Muslims in Crimea. Professor Robert Crews tells NPR's Wade Goodwyn that Putin is trying to build alliances in the Muslim world to weigh against the West.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

Now to Crimea, where despite objections from the West, Russia's takeover of the region appears to be a done deal. But Moscow faces a daunting task to bring Crimea into the fold, remaking everything from the banking industry to the legal system. Another challenge in for President Putin is the region's Muslim minority, which makes up about 15 percent of Crimea's population. Moscow has recently stepped up efforts to improve relations with Muslims.

Robert Crews, a professor of Islamic studies at Stanford University, has written that much of the struggle in Ukraine is actually about Islam. We asked him to explain.

ROBERT CREWS: When Putin annexed Crimea, he claimed some 300,000 Crimean Tartars, who are nearly all Muslims. So in that sense, it creates a challenge for his attempt to integrate the space - what to do with a population that is not, not simply Muslim, but one that has had a very kind of tortured relationship to the Russian state in the past. Catherine the Great first conquered the region in the late 18th century, and Stalin deported this population en masse in 1944.

They began to return under Gorbachev, 1980s, but have really struggled to find a home under independent Ukraine where Kiev has not met all of the demands of this community. So what Russia has said is that the Crimean Tartar's will have all their rights restored. They will have Tartar become an official language alongside Russian and Ukrainian and that Russia will give greater respect to Islam than it enjoyed under Kiev's rule.

GOODWYN: If they were to enter into some sort of cooperation, what would the Muslims want out of it? What's their self-interest here?

CREWS: For the nationalist leaders, there's a lot on the table here. One has to do with their language rights. While not Crimean Tartar, children will be taught Tartar in school. It also concerns property rights 'cause if we look at the history of this community, when Stalin deported them in 1944, of course they lost everything. As far as the religious angle goes, if it's true that the Russian Muslim elite will assume a kind of authoritative role in the Crimea, what they've proposed to do is to, in their words, kind of clean up the state of Islam on the peninsula.

So that's another kind of fault line, I think, to keep an eye on - you know, to what extent will these attempts from the north to come in and kind of reshape Islam promote resistance from Crimean Tartar Muslims?

GOODWYN: By what mechanism is Putin communicating with the Muslim leadership in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine?

CREWS: The chief mechanism is this community of Russian Muslim leaders. There are two main institutional structures, which are closely Kremlin but in competition with one another. So since the early 1990s, these institutions have existed. They've been very much committed to reviving Islam after, you know, decades - generations of Soviet atheism.

So the Putin government has relied on these figures, both domestically to make sure that the Russian Muslim populations remain loyal, and they've also been very important for them in international affairs because, particularly in light of America's blunders throughout Muslim-majority countries in the series of wars since 2001, Russia has seen a kind of opportunity to showcase their Muslim communities and show that the Kremlin is friendly to Islam.

As Medvedev and Putin have said again and again, you know, we're part of the Muslim world, too, really to create a kind of counterbalance to American politics in the Middle East, South Asia and North and East Africa.

GOODWYN: Can you talk to me a little bit about Russia's self-interest and engagement with Muslims and other parts of the world, particularly Syria and Iran?

CREWS: Syria and Iran are quite important to Russia's positioning in the world, principally because these countries are counterweights to American power. Iran's opposition to American power in the region is very attractive to Russia, and Russia would like to encourage Iran standing up to American power in the region. And in Syria, too, I think Syria fits a broader anxiety among Russian elites about American-promoted regime change throughout the Middle East and North Africa and beyond.

So there's not a lot of - a logical affinity between or among these states, but they're principally important to the Kremlin because they are bulwarks against American power.

GOODWYN: Islamic studies professor Robert Crews, joining us from Stanford University. Professor, thank you very much.

CREWS: Thank you.

GOODWYN: You're listening to NPR News.

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