By Ilan Berman
New York Post
October 6, 2013
Don’t let Vladimir Putin fool you. Russia’s president may be cutting an imposing figure on the world stage these days, but his country faces a daunting future.
Today, the Russian Federation is fast approaching a massive social and political upheaval that promises to be as transformative as the USSR’s demise was some two decades ago. This coming crack-up is driven by the convergence of three trends: a declining population (though 175% the size of the United States, Russia has half the population), a rising — and radicalizing — Muslim underclass, and sharpening strategic competition with neighboring China.
Here’s a look at the Russian Federation’s mounting internal crises.
The decline of Russia’s Slavic population is being mirrored by the growth of its Muslim minority. Today, Russia’s Muslims number 21 million people — 16% of the overall national population of 142.9 million. But by the end of the decade, one in five Russians will be Muslim. And by the middle of the century, as much as half of the population could be. Moscow, Russia’s capital, is already home to an estimated 2.5 million Muslims — more than any other European city except for Istanbul, Turkey.
Russia’s population is dwindling. Every year, the Russian Federation loses nearly half-a-million people to death and emigration. At this rate, according to official Russian government projections, the country’s population could shrink to just 107 million by mid-century. Demographers have described this phenomenon as the “emptying of Russia.”
With a population of just under 5 million, St. Petersburg still ranks as Russia’s second city. But the metropolis once known as “Leningrad” is experiencing the same domestic trends — from low life expectancy to rampant drug use to high rates of abortion — that are devastating the rest of the country.
Republic of Chechnya
The epicenter of Russia’s war against radical Islam is Chechnya, which attempted unsuccessfully to break away from the Russian Federation some two decades ago. In the years since, the resulting civil war has transformed from a self-determination struggle into an Islamist jihad. And, even though the Russian government says publicly that it has persevered, the objective data suggests otherwise. Over the past several years, Islamic militants in the region have staged a savage comeback, carrying out numerous atrocities (including a brazen 2010 suicide raid on the Chechen parliament and the summer 2012 assassination of the spiritual leader of the Sufi community in neighboring Dagestan).
Republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia
Over time, Chechnya’s Islamist unrest has spread to engulf adjoining republics, chief among them Dagestan and Ingushetia. There, growing dissatisfaction with the Russian government has led to widespread radicalization. A 2011 poll found that 30% of percent of Dagestani youth, including members of Dagestan’s universities and police schools, would choose to live under a Muslim-run religious regime. More than a third of those polled also indicated they would not turn in a friend or family member responsible for terrorism to authorities. Human rights groups and NGOs active in the North Caucasus similarly have documented an upsurge in support for Islamic extremism and radical religious ideas.
The Black Sea resort town of Sochi, located in the territory of Krasnodar Krai, is the site for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics. Despite reassurances from Moscow, experts believe that instability from the nearby majority Muslim republics could pose a real threat to the security of the Games and its participants.
Republic of Tatarstan
In Russia’s heartland, the traditional, assimilationist form of Islam that has coexisted peacefully for centuries with the Russian state is increasingly under siege from an insurgent and extreme Islamic fundamentalism. Last summer, Tatarstan’s two top Muslim religious authorities were targeted for assassination in a public challenge to the established, moderate religious status quo in the region.
Republic of Bashkortostan
Bashkortostan — whose capital city, Ufa, serves as the spiritual seat of Muslims in eastern Russia — has likewise witnessed a marked growth in grassroots Islamist militancy and banditry. This violence has become so acute that in December 2012, the Kremlin took the unprecedented step of dispatching internal security forces to quell the instability — the first time it had done so since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Regions of Siberia
Together, Siberia and the Far East make up a vast expanse of more than 4 million square miles. But the population of both regions is dwindling rapidly. According to Russia’s 2010 national census, the number of citizens in Siberia and the Far East numbers just 25.4 million — or some six inhabitants per square mile. Ordinary Russians — once constrained by Soviet authorities in where they could live — are taking advantage of their newfound, post-Soviet freedom of mobility to move westward in search of economic opportunity and more hospitable climates.
Regions of the Far East
The resource-rich Far East has been likened to an “energy superpower” — an area with vast, largely untapped hydrocarbon wealth. But the Russian state is receding there. Since the Soviet collapse, an estimated 2 million Russians have departed the region, most for economic or social reasons, taking much of the area’s labor force with them. They are being replaced by Chinese migrants, both legal and illegal, and by massive, sustained investment from Beijing. The result, experts say, is that China is a rising political and economic power in Russia’s east.
China’s interest is more than simply economic, however. Russia and China have tussled over the territory of the present-day Far East for centuries and only officially settled their common border comparatively recently (in 2001). But that arrangement isn’t permanent; it expires in 2021, and these days Chinese nationalists are thinking more and more about reclaiming what they view as historic lost lands (which include present-day Primorsky Krai and the Jewish Autonomous Region, and parts of what is today the Amur Oblast and Khabarovsk Krai).
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC, and the author of “Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America” (Regnery Publishing), out now.
H/t CODA’s Sol Sanders