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Bashkortostan Protests Peel Back The Layers Of Authoritarian Politics In Putin's Russia

Riot police disperse protesters in the town of Baimak on January 17.
Riot police disperse protesters in the town of Baimak on January 17.

Hundreds of warmly bundled people, many with small children, were milling about aimlessly in Ufa, the capital of Russia's Bashkortostan region, on January 19. But there was tension in the air.

When riot police warned the strollers to disperse or be arrested for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration, some responded: "We are tourists. We came to look at the statue."

A young woman with the words "qara halyq" on a sign taped to her back -- a Bashkir expression for "ordinary people" that literally means "black people" -- was detained and hustled off to a waiting bus. Police also detained a man who had wrapped himself in the Bashkir flag.

The Ufa gathering was a continuation and expansion of protests that began on January 15 in the town of Baimak, more than 400 kilometers to the southeast, over the trial of popular activist Fail Alsynov, a longtime advocate for minority rights and the preservation of the Bashkir language and culture.

As several thousand supporters rallied outside the Baimak courthouse on January 17, Alsynov was sentenced to four years in prison for "inciting hatred or enmity" for a speech in which he used the expression "qara halyq." The day before his conviction, Alsynov was added to the Russian government's list of "extremists and terrorists."

The protest has not been against the Kremlin, but rather an expression of discontent with Bashkortostan head Radiy Khabirov -- elected in a tightly controlled 2019 vote after President Vladimir Putin named him acting regional leader -- who filed the initial complaint against Alsynov and who has publicly called him a "traitor." Some of the Baimak protesters appealed to Putin to intervene on their behalf.

However, analysts describe the Alsynov case as a triggering event that is exposing deeper layers of discontent within Russia's highly centralized, authoritarian system. Comparisons have been raised to Iran's Mahsa Amini, a young woman whose September 2022 death in police custody sparked protests that morphed into a profound threat to Iran's Islamist regime. Or to Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose 2010 self-immolation ignited the widespread Arab Spring movement against several autocratic regimes.

"Alsynov is an accidental figure," said political analyst Abbas Gallyamov, who served as a top aide to the head of Bashkortostan from 2010-14. "Another person could have appeared in his place.... The particular person is not important. It is the accumulated burden of grievances and the perception that the regime is weakening that are playing the decisive role."

Most importantly, the discontent comes against the background of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which Putin unleashed in February 2022, and the widespread conviction that non-Russian ethnic groups, including Bashkirs, have borne the heaviest burden of the fighting there.

The Back Story

One of the first things Khabirov did after Putin appointed him acting head of the region in 2018 was to give the Bashkir Soda Company permission to mine chalk on the Kushtau Hill, part of a chain of hills, or shihans, that are revered by the Bashkir people and play a central role in many folk tales and legends. Originally, there were four shihans in Bashkortostan, but one was destroyed by mining during the Soviet era.

Bashkir nationalist organizations, including Kuk-Bure and Bashqort, in both of which Alsynov played important roles, organized mass protests and the defense of Kushtau that came to a head in August 2020.

"On August 16, some 10,000 men from all over Bashkortostan arrived and with their bare hands began tearing down all the barricades, pushing aside the riot police and physically occupying the hill," recalled Ruslan Gabbasov, a former activist who worked with Alsynov and left Russia in 2021.

"In the end, Moscow had to intervene, and Khabirov was ordered to personally go to the scene and reach an agreement with the protesters," he added. "In the end, we won, and Kushtau, like the other shihans, was registered as a protected natural monument."

Activists Save Hill From Mining In Russia's Bashkortostan Region
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Khabirov, however, initiated a crackdown targeting Bashkir organizations and activists. Bashqort, which had branches across the region and worked actively on many everyday problems like bad roads and the sale of illegal alcohol, was banned.

In August 2020, activist Airat Dilmukhametov was sentenced to nine years in prison for "issuing public calls to violate Russia's territorial integrity," a charge that stemmed from a 2018 statement he made calling for a "genuine" federation in Russia with greater autonomy given to the regions.

The unpopular Khabirov "is consciously persecuting Bashkir nationalist activists and by doing so is trying to clear the political arena in Bashkortostan to remain there alone," Gabbasov said.

"Fail Alsynov was the last remaining leader of the Bashkir people who was at liberty," he added. "Of course, he was inconvenient for the authorities, particularly for Radiy Khabirov."

No 'Normal, Legal Means' Of Protest

After Alsynov's sentencing, popular Bashkir singer Altynay Valitov published a video of support, saying the Bashkir people had "risen up in defense of their hero."

"The government sees only one people -- Russians," he added. "Their propaganda is constantly talking about how we are all 'Russians.' And they send tons of Bashkirs to die in Ukraine under the slogan 'We are Russians.' But we are not Russians. We are Bashkirs with our own millennium-long history, culture, traditions, language, and land."

He called on people throughout Bashkortostan to protest outside their local municipal-government buildings.

The next day, he published an appeal for help, saying that security forces had come to his home in Ufa. Although he later wrote on social media that they had left, he has since gone incommunicado.

Valitov's comments seem to point to the wider grievances of the Bashkortostan protest movement and its potential to spread.

"People feel humiliated and insulted," said Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. "Naturally the protests are developing ethnic undertones."

"It is all because people do not have normal, legal means of defending their interests," he added. "[There are no] honest elections, honest media, honest courts, or constitutional protections such as, for instance, the right to protest peacefully. There is none of that."

And the most immediate source of discontent, Oreshkin adds, is the war in Ukraine.

"After all, the losses have mainly been taken by the likes of Buryatia, Tyva, Daghestan," he said, referring to three other regions with large non-ethnic-Russian populations. "You would have to be a saint not to blame Moscow or Russia instead of the Putin regime. The aggressive relations on the interethnic level are going to intensify."

Already, videos have begun appearing on social media in which Bashkir soldiers fighting in Ukraine express their backing for Alsynov and his supporters.

"If you don't stop acting against our people," one group of soldiers says, addressing the Russian government, "against our fathers and mothers, we will abandon our positions and come for you. If you want a war, you will get it."

Analyst Gallyamov noted that the protesters in Bashkortostan were not "calling for Putin's resignation."

"In reality, though, the underlying motivating emotion is discontent with Moscow," he said. "The main complaint against Khabirov is that he is Moscow's man, implementing Moscow's policies, which are aimed at destroying the Bashkir identity, Bashkir culture, and Bashkir political freedoms."

The central government in Moscow is content with Khabirov, Gallyamov adds, and the main thing the Kremlin demands from him now is "to provide cannon fodder for the front."

"Khabirov has been coping with this task adequately," he said. "There have been no delays in the provision of people from Bashkortostan to the front. Overall, the Kremlin is satisfied with him."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Idel.Realities, RFE/RL's Russian Service, and Current Time

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