Kosovo war rallies Muslims in Russia

Islamic men in Tatarstan sign up to fight, but officials oppose it

Way back in the 17th century, so the legend goes, the Russian czar wanted to marry Syuyumbike, queen of the Tatar people. She agreed, but only on condition that a tall tower be built.

And the tower was erected, dutifully. But as her wedding day approached, Syuyumbike couldn't face being the wife of the Russian Slavic king who had subjugated her people, the Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan. So she climbed to the top of the tower and leapt to her death.

Three centuries later, the slender watchtower with its gold crescent moon is the most revered monument in what is now the semiautonomous region of western Russia known as the Republic of Tatarstan. The Tatar people are still chafing against Moscow's yoke - and its policies in the Balkans.

In the same spirit of self-sacrifice as Syuyumbike, scores of young men here have volunteered to fight for their Muslim brothers in Kosovo. Such gestures contradict the Russian federal government's condemnation of NATO attacks on Yugoslavia and its determination to remain neutral in the conflict.

"We did not invite them to sign up. They just appeared after we published newspaper ads in favor of NATO," says Nabi Nureyev, who mans the desk at the Tatar Public Center.

He says more than 100 men have stopped by to offer their services for Kosovo since NATO's Balkans campaign began.

As far as he knows, it is mainly a show of solidarity and none have actually gone.

A former officer in the Russian Army, the elderly Mr. Nureyev adds that if he were younger, he would be willing to fight for a Muslim nationalist cause.

"I am a Muslim and proud of my Tatar traditions. Because of that I identify with Kosovo," he says.

Such views are in the minority in this republic of 3.7 million people, where Muslims make up about one-fourth of the population. Tatars themselves only slightly out-number Slavic Russians.

But the emotions raised by Kosovo show just how deep the sense of ethnic identification with one another runs among Tatar nationalists.

The regional government has shied away, however, from the violent separatism of another ethnic Muslim republic, Chechnya.

Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiev frowns on mercenary activity of any sort. When the Balkans war began, he raised the unsettling prospect that Muslim volunteers from Tatarstan might one day battle Russian mercenaries who support Belgrade.

This is not the first time Tatarstan has gone its own way from Moscow, 500 miles to the west. Since it declared semiautonomy in the waning days of the Soviet Union in 1990, the republic has regularly clashed with federal authorities over finances. Tatarstan's red, green, and white flag flutters through the regional capital, Kazan, rather than the Russian banner.

Mr. Shaimiev is one of Russia's most powerful men, and he makes the most of the region's strategic importance, with its endowment of oil and defense plants. Tatarstan's claim as an intermediary between East and West is supported by the abundant minarets and faces with Asian features.

An ambivalent relationship with Slavic Russia has existed ever since Mongols thundered in from Asia in the13th century and invaded. Kazan, nestled in the Volga River region, was for some time their capital.

These Turkic people adopted Islam in AD 922 and the republic remains one of several Muslim centers in Russia. In 1552 Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible ravaged Kazan and tried to force Orthodox Christianity on its citizens. Moscow's famed St. Basil's Cathedral was erected to celebrate the event. Suspicion of Islam continued through the Soviet era, when like other religions it was discouraged. But many Tatars continued worshiping in secret.

This all changed with the creation of the republic, and an accompanying Muslim revival that has seen the number of mosques jump from 16 to 1,000.

Sheikh Valuallah Hazrat Yakubov, the deputy head of the Muslim Religious Board of Tatarstan, is against his flock fighting for Kosovo. But he understands the strong emotional link with that fellow Muslim minority dominated by Slavs.

"Certainly we feel a connection with Kosovo," he says. "As we're Muslims from an autonomous region in Russia, it would be the same tragedy for us if someone began to persecute us, too."

The willingness of some men to serve in Kosovo has caused consternation for local authorities who were already trying to quell fundamentalism imported from abroad. Shaimiev recently warned of attempts by Muslim schools to mobilize young people for military training outside the region.

There was an outcry in the Tatarstan Parliament a few months ago when it transpired that one such college had sent three youths to Chechnya to learn guerrilla techniques.

Raphael Khakimov, a presidential aide, says it was necessary to be on guard against extremism.

"We're completely against any participation in such [armies]. We believe Islam can be a unifying force, but a peaceful, nonideological one."

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