Cover: Religion, Conflict, and Stability in the Former Soviet Union

Religion, Conflict, and Stability in the Former Soviet Union

Published Jan 15, 2018

Edited by Katya Migacheva, Bryan Frederick


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Research Questions

  1. What has been the relationship between religion and conflict and stability in the countries of the FSU?
  2. How has this relationship varied across different countries and regions within the FSU?
  3. What has been the relationship between religion and other factors associated with conflict in the FSU such as ethnic and socioeconomic grievances?
  4. How have both states and nonstate actors in the FSU used religion to achieve their goals?

Despite the rise of religion as a visible force in the sociopolitical life of post-Soviet countries, little is known about how religion has contributed or may yet contribute to tensions or peace in this region. An improved understanding of the relationship between religion and conflict in the former Soviet republics can fill a critical gap and help inform policymakers and other actors working to bring peace and stability to this volatile region.

This volume of essays takes a multidisciplinary and cross-domain look at religion and how it affects the stability of the former Soviet republics. Contributions by a range of international researchers and policy experts on religion and conflict and the post-Soviet region address the dynamics among religion, conflict, and stability in the South and North Caucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, and Russia. The authors found that while the role of religion varies across contexts, religion has not been the original source of conflict in the former Soviet Union (FSU). Religion has, however, increasingly been used by both states and nonstate groups to mobilize supporters, and the infusion of religion in existing grievances has exacerbated existing tensions and encumbered progress toward peace.

While broad in scope, this volume of essays provides an improved understanding of the role of religion in conflict and stability in the FSU. Further inter- and multidisciplinary work and scholar-practitioner collaborations will be crucial to developing comprehensive and nuanced recommendations for how to approach religion when working toward building sustainable peace in the FSU and beyond.

Table of Contents

Key Findings

Religion's Role in Promoting Opposition to or Support for Governments Varied Substantially Based on the Local Context

  • Religion has been used to increase social cohesion and support for the state within the population (e.g., Kazakhstan, Russia).
  • Opposition groups and nonstate actors have also marshaled religion to mobilize supporters of their causes (e.g., in the North Caucasus).

Religion Has Sustained or Intensified Conflict in Some Parts of the FSU, but It Has Not Been the Original Source of Conflict

  • Most conflicts have stemmed from territorial disputes, domestic and international power struggles, aspirations for self-determination, and economic challenges — not religious disagreements.
  • Despite religion's secondary role, its use in the region's conflicts has frequently been destabilizing; the infusion of religion in grievances has exacerbated existing tensions and encumbered progress toward peace.
  • Religious life is particularly susceptible to manipulation in FSU countries, which share the Soviet legacy of disrupted religious traditions and relatively weak religious knowledge, along with the growing demand for religiosity and the view of religion as the source of morality, identity, and certainty.

State Policies That Restrict or Regulate Religion Appear to Have Contributed to Stability or Conflict in Different Circumstances

  • Relatively loose controls over religion led to concerns about foreign influences on state stability in Russia and Kyrgyzstan.
  • In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, religious restrictions have been maintained more consistently and appear to have helped uphold state control over society.
  • These restrictions may also have damaging longer-term effects, leading to social and intellectual marginalization of independent Islam and cycles of radicalization.


  • To insure stability, leaders of the FSU should not count on repression and diversion. FSU leaders also should not boost radicals to undermine more moderate religious opponents.
  • Leaders of the FSU should play close attention to external sponsors of extremist religious groups while permitting nonviolent religious groups and encouraging secular education and values.
  • U.S. policymakers should use U.S. leverage to encourage FSU nations to adopt the recommendations outlined in this volume, make conscious use of existing unilateral tools with the potential to influence radicalism in the FSU, and improve the depth of understanding of religious issues in the FSU in the government and policy communities.

The research was sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation, under the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs program and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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