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War talk doesn’t faze Tatar oil people

by Russell Working

KAZAN, Russia — The Tatar Autonomous Republic is an area where minarets rise above the whitewashed kremlin walls, where Muslim villagers have pitched in to construct more than 1,000 mosques over the decade since the Soviet Union fell apart.

One might expect this Volga River region — where a Turkish company is rebuilding a garish mosque destroyed by Ivan the Terrible in the 1500s — would be at the heart of Russia’s resistance to a possible American-led war against Iraq.

But Tatarstan, as the region is known, offers a glimpse of the curious ways in which oil shapes politics in Russia today. Although the region’s petroleum company, Tatneft, has signed contracts to drill 80 wells in Iraq, its regional oil adviser finds it hard to get worked up about the prospects of a war.

Renat Muslimov, a presidential adviser on mineral resources, oil and gas, said he would like to see United Nations sanctions against Iraq work, and he hopes a war can be avoided. Still, he added, “I think the situation in Iraq is in our favor, because there’s unrest in the Arab world. And I’m sure America would be very interested in our oil as opposed to unstable Middle Eastern sources of oil.”

Make no mistake: Tatars, like most Russian citizens, are disturbed by the war talk, for reasons that range from fears of American hegemony to business interests in the Arab nation. Russian companies hold contracts for 70 percent of the United Nations’ oil-for-food program, amounting to $3 billion a year. Some 220 Russian companies are working in Iraq.

Furthermore, some central newspapers have worried that a liberated Iraq could pump enough oil to force down the price of petroleum worldwide, making it difficult for Russia to balance a federal budget that is dependent on oil revenues.

But the petroleum industry, like politics, is subject to a complex balancing of interests. Muslimov explained, “It’s blasphemy to say this, but for oil people, any war is good, because it increases prices. And for any other person, it’s bad.”

Founded in the 13th century, Kazan is a medieval Islamic city in the heart of Russia. It once served as capital of the Golden Horde, the Mongol army that swept across Russia and eventually converted to Islam. Patriotic resentment of Ivan the Terrible still simmers here. In most Russian cities, demonstrators march to protest unpaid wages or endless electrical outages. In Kazan, hundreds of protesters gathered Oct. 14 to denounce the Russian sacking of the city in 1552.

Even after 4 1/2 centuries of rule from Moscow, most of the population is Muslim Tatar — government officials estimate that Tatars comprise about 50 percent of the inhabitants. The region maintains a feisty independent streak: Tatarstan flags fly throughout the city, and the republic has its own constitution. But unlike the breakaway republic of Chechnya, Tatarstan has managed to negotiate autonomy without bringing down the wrath of the Russian Army, largely because its president never seceded or resorted to terror.

Over the past decade, the region has reasserted its precommunist Islamic identity. And even if some oilmen shrug, the talk of war against a Muslim nation doesn’t play well on the street. The Takbir Tatar Islamic Charitable Fund of Disabled People is teaching Arabic and has opened a store to sell food permitted under Koranic law. Its director, Damir Khairedinov, isn’t happy about the threats from Washington to deal with Baghdad’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

“It is possible to solve all the problems without a war,” Khairedinov said. “Neither Russians, nor Iraqis nor Tatars nor Americans need this war. These are politicians who are pushing people toward this war. It won’t bring any good to anyone. I’m talking both as a Muslim and as a human being. Our religion, Islam, announces peace to everyone.”

Such sentiments are not uncommon in Russia, even for those who dislike Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Because of the business ties, a genuine closeness has developed between the people of the two countries, said Vladimir Issayev, an Arabic specialist and deputy director of Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies. He was in Baghdad recently when he glimpsed the esteem with which many Iraqis regard Russia.

Issayev was trying to find his way to an open-air market when he stopped a policeman to ask which bus he should take. The cop leaped to the Russian’s assistance. “He stopped a bus and told the driver, “This is a Russian. You should take him to the market,’ ” Issayev recalled. “So the bus changed its route and took me there, and he wouldn’t accept any money.”

Issayev sees little benefit for Russia in supporting the Bush administration. “People say politics are a concentrated form of economics,” he said, “and that’s true with Russia and Iraq.”