In one of his online programs, Professor Zhang Weiwei (张维为), who teaches international relations at Fudan University, said that Japan broke away from Asia to join the Western world, while we now see Russia breaking away from the West to join Asia. As a Chinese, in this way he probably wants to indicate above all that relations between Russia and China are becoming closer. Indeed, China has become Russia’s main trading partner. However, despite their strategic partnership, Russia and China are merely two neighboring states. It is very unlikely that relations will develop to such an extent that they will give rise to a common cultural and political space. This is because Chinese civilization is very different from Russian civilization and there is no significant Chinese diaspora in Russia comparable to the Chinese presence in Southeast Asia, despite the fact that in the easternmost part of Russia and in Siberia Chinese influence is not insignificant.
However, there is another aspect of this Russian “turn to the East,” this partial integration with Asia: it involves Russia and the Muslim world. And here things look very different. Although China is fast becoming the most important economic partner of Russia, we seem to be at a turning point where Russia is consolidating its relationship with the Islamic world, gradually becoming in some sense part of it.
We do not intend here to describe in detail Russia’s relations with individual Muslim countries: with Iran, with the Gulf States, with its membership of OPEC Plus, and now also of the BRICS Plus. Instead, we are interested in pointing out a general orientation, and especially in highlighting and analyzing the religious aspects of this turn from the West to the East and the South. There are several reasons for this development. Historically, Russia has always been, in part, if not a Muslim state, at least a Muslim-influenced society. This is because Islamic communities have lived in the territory of the Russian state since at least the 14th century. Now this phenomenon is becoming more and more pronounced due to demographic changes and migration, mainly from Central Asia. At the same time, conservative and Orthodox Russian society considers itself much closer to the religious values of Islam than to the liberal values of the West. At the beginning of his presidency, Putin tried to integrate Russia into the West – or at least to establish close relations with the West – but this attempt was largely unsuccessful. With the war in Georgia in 2008 and then with the Ukrainian crisis, from 2013-14 relations with the West for all practical purposes collapsed. We envisage no realistic possibility of their revival for now, so different are the interests of the two sides. On the other hand, we see that Muslim countries, especially Türkiye and Saudi Arabia, are moving away from their alliances with the U.S. and developing an independent policy.
In previous articles on Islam in Russia, we wrote about the integration of Muslims into Russian society. Here, instead, we would like to explore Russia’s integration into the Islamic world. The history of such integration did not begin in the present. Back in 2003, Putin became the first head of state of a non-Muslim majority country to be invited to give a speech at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit. Not even three years into his presidency, Putin was trying to improve Russia’s image in the Islamic world after the wars in the North Caucasus and the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Two years later, Russia became an observer member of the OIC. Its integration into the OIC came at a time of increasing tensions between it and the U.S., particularly because of the invasion of Iraq, and also with Saudi Arabia’s desire to rethink its relationship with the U.S., especially by diversifying its foreign alignments.