Moscow, Russia – Aina Gamzatova, a 46-year-old woman from Dagestan, has made it official. She wants to run against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the March 2018 election.
Hundreds of her supporters gathered around her to celebrate in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, on Saturday, two days after she confirmed her bid in a Facebook post.
Gamzatova heads Russia’s largest Muslim media holding – Islam.ru – comprising television, radio and print outlets, writes books on Islam, and runs a charity.
Her husband, Akhmad Abdulaev, is the Mufti of Dagestan, Russia’s troubled province where a confrontation between fighters, clans and federal forces has killed thousands.
She belongs to a Sufi order that has tens of thousands of followers and whose leader, Said-Afandi Chirkavi, was killed by a female suicide bomber in the Caucasus in 2012.
Muslim leader Said Muhammad Abubakarov, Gamzatova’s first husband, was blown up in his car back in 1998. His killers have never been found, but he publicly lambasted “Wahabbis” – a term Gamzatova often uses to describe the fighters she wants to get tough on.
They are “duplicitous” and “blood-thirsty”, she has said in books and speeches, despite death threats and the killings of other Sufi-affiliated figures in Dagestan.
Gamzatova’s candidacy has become a hot topic among Russia’s Muslim community.
While some say she should not step outside her husband’s shadow, others applaud her determination.
“What about the moral teachings that a woman can’t even leave her house without her husband?” Patimat Ibragimova, an observant Muslim mother of two from Dagestan’s Makhachkala, told Al Jazeera. “Or she can, and the law is for us, mere mortals?”
Aisha Anastasiya Korchagina, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam who works as a psychologist in Moscow, said: “She was brave enough to use her legal right, that is granted to every Russian national, to run for president, she is brave enough to run a decent election campaign.”
Some see her campaign – irrespective of its results – as a way to boost the image of Muslim women in Russia and to attract attention to the needs of impoverished, overpopulated and multi-ethnic Dagestan.
“Even if she loses, people will know that a girl in a hijab [a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion] is not just a mother or a woman, but is also an educated, wise and respected woman,” former Olympic champion in boxing and Dagestan’s deputy sports minister Gaidarbek Gaidarbekov wrote on Instagram.
It is something of a given that Gamzatova has no chance of winning, even if every one of Russia’s 20 million Muslims votes for her in a country of more than 140 million people.
“Of course, she won’t become president, it’s stupid to even discuss it,” wrote Zakir Magomedov, a popular blogger from Dagestan.
But, she may receive a high number of votes in Dagestan and the Northern Caucasus – something that will ruin Putin’s image in the unemployment-addled region that heavily depends on federal subsidies and where – according to election monitors – officials routinely resort to vote rigging and coercion of voters.
“She will definitely get a majority vote – and Putin won’t get his traditional 146 percent from the republic,” Magomedov wrote, referring to a joke among Kremlin critics about the percentage of Putin’s loyalists.
Another expert said that Gamzatova’s candidacy diversifies the pool of mostly male presidential candidates.
“This is an exclusively PR step of a rather small scale” in Russia’s political landscape, Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, a Northern Caucasus expert and director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, a Moscow-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “The more different candidates, especially women, the better, and she is a Muslim woman, why not?”
Gamzatova, who did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for interview, is by far the most surprising hopeful in the presidential race among a string of nominal rivals and a couple of opposition figures whose ratings trail far behind Putin’s.
So far, Gamzatova’s statements are limited to catchy but unsubstantial declarations.
“There is a good phrase, ‘A house divided cannot stand’,” she wrote on Facebook Wednesday. “Our country, Russia, is our home, and if we divide ourselves into Muslims and Christians, Caucasus natives and Russians, our country’s government will not exist.”
should not be seen within a clerical context or an attempt of Muslims to create a competitor to Vladimir Putin … It is a desire to publicly announce and support on the federal level a harsh anti-Wahhabism stance.”]
But one part of her election campaign is loud and clear: she wants the Kremlin to get tougher on fighters who want to establish a separate state in the Northern Caucasus under Islamic law.
Her candidacy “should not be seen within a clerical context or an attempt of Muslims to create a competitor to Vladimir Putin”, she wrote in a piece published on Friday on Islam.ru. “It is a desire to publicly announce and support on the federal level a harsh anti-Wahhabism stance that both local authorities and some federal officials responsible for the region have tried to silence in recent years.”
The rise of armed groups in Russia dates back to the early 1990s, when hundreds of fighters from the Muslim world joined separatists in neighbouring Chechnya.
Many were Saudis, and their doctrine outlawed Sufis as “polytheists” who venerate “saints” and holy sites.
Sufism has deep roots in the Northern Caucasus, where it helped alleviate inter-ethnic tensions and cement resistance to czarist armies and Communist-era efforts to uproot Islam.
The fighters alienated some Sufi separatists in Chechnya who preferred an alliance with the Kremlin. One of them was Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s current pro-Kremlin strongman.
In Dagestan, the fighters started Europe’s “most violent conflict” before the 2014 hostilities in Eastern Ukraine, the International Crisis Group think-tank said. In 2012, the conflict killed at least 700 people and wounded another 525, it said.
Security forces fuel violence with abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings of people merely suspected of membership in “radical” groups, Human Rights Watch has said. Even if a man is blacklisted by mistake, threats, constant interrogations and beatings in detention force him to join the fighters, according to the rights group.
Since 2013, North Caucasus fighters started pledging allegiance to the Islamic State and other groups in Syria and Iraq, and flocked there in droves.
However, Gamzatova believes the problem is far from solved, despite attempts by regional authorities to start a dialogue with fighters.