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Coming Apart At The Seams? For Russia's Ethnic Minorities, Ukraine War Is A Chance To Press For Independence From Moscow

At a meeting of the Forum of Free Peoples of Russia held in Prague on July 22-24, 2022.
At a meeting of the Forum of Free Peoples of Russia held in Prague on July 22-24, 2022.

In October, Chechen native Rustam Azhiyev – known by the nom de guerre Abdul-Khakim Shishani – traveled to Ukraine and joined an all-Chechen unit fighting with Kyiv against the Russian invasion. Now 41, he has been waging war against Russia since he was 19, and he views the conflict in Ukraine as just a continuation of the cause he took up then.

“In 1999, the war began,” Azhiyev said, referring to the Second Chechen War, during which he rose to become commander of the central front for the unrecognized separatist state of Ichkeria – and Vladimir Putin, then Russia’s little-known new prime minister, played the leading role in Moscow. “And in 2000, at 19, I joined the popular resistance. All my life has been tied to the confrontation with Russia.

“For us, the war is not over,” he added.

Rustam Azhiyev
Rustam Azhiyev

Azhiyev left Russia for Turkey in 2011, but soon found himself with other Chechen separatist fighters in Syria, once again fighting against Moscow’s forces.

“We will follow the enemy anywhere we can,” he said.

“I came here to fight for historical justice,” he said about his decision to go to Ukraine. “Back in the day, a small group of Ukrainians came to help us fight against the Russians, and we have not forgotten that.

“For us, it is a matter of survival,” he concluded. “As long as Russia exists, we cannot live in peace.”

Azhiyev is far from the only one from Russia who sees the war in Ukraine as a chance for ethnic minorities inside the country to push for greater autonomy or even independence.

“The Erzya people have been occupied by the empire for 800 years,” Erzyan elder Syres Boleyan told a meeting of the League of Free Nations, an organization uniting representatives of minority groups inside Russia that are seeking to secede, in July. His said his ethnic group of some 800,000 people, whose historical homeland is in what is now the Russian Republic of Mordovia, was also sending volunteers to fight for Ukraine.

Putin’s war in Ukraine has already lasted far longer and proven far more costly than Moscow anticipated in many ways. As it continues with no sign of an end, many observers say centrifugal forces are growing in the vast and highly centralized Russian Federation. These forces, they argue, will strengthen as the pressures of the war and unprecedented economic sanctions erode Moscow’s leverage over Russia’s regions, from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific.

Many see the war in Ukraine as a chance for ethnic minorities inside the country to push for greater autonomy or even independence.
Many see the war in Ukraine as a chance for ethnic minorities inside the country to push for greater autonomy or even independence.

“The goal of this forum,” read a statement from the July meeting in Prague of the Forum of Free Peoples of Russia -- a gathering of anti-Putin, anti-war groups that has met four times since the war began -- “is the complete and irreversible decolonization of Russia. Our goals will have been achieved only when the Russian Federation ceases to exist as a subject of international law and is transformed into 25-35 independent, free, and – we hope – democratic countries.”

'What Developments Might Bring'

Opinions vary wildly on how likely such a scenario might be. Many analysts agree that the war is shaking the centralized power structure Putin has created over nearly a quarter-century as president or prime minister. Western estimates indicate at least 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed, with tens of thousands more wounded, captured, or missing. Hundreds of thousands of people – many of them in their prime earning years – have fled the country. The international community has imposed sweeping sanctions against Russia, with tough measures targeting Moscow’s vital oil and gas revenues just beginning to be felt.

“I see a certain disorder in the governing system,” said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin. “The power vertical they have been building…is beginning to shake at a critical moment.

“If Putin loses the war – and that is a very realistic possibility – then I don’t see any legal means to change the government. As a result, the siloviki will settle things among themselves,” he said, referring to the leaders of the military and security agencies.

Some analysts point to the weakness of regional elites inside Russia, saying Putin’s system has made regional leaders far more dependent on Moscow than on their local constituents. In many cases, genuine leaders of Russia’s ethnic minorities have either fled the country or faced persecution as “extremists” under Putin’s intense crackdown on dissent over the last few years.

“Unlike in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we don’t see any actors who are capable of building on centrifugal tendencies,” said analyst Nikolai Petrov, contrasting the present situation to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when local leaders became focuses of the independence drives in most of its 15 republics.

Nonetheless, he added, “the collapse of the Soviet empire is not completed and might continue further.” Within 15 years, we might see a “quasi-federative or confederative” state, he said. “Or even separate regions leading a divided existence.”

Elise Giuliano, a specialist on ethnic-identity issues in Russia at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and author of the book Constructing Grievance: Ethnic Nationalism In Russia’s Republics, said anti-government attitudes vary considerably from region to region within Russia, and conditions under Putin make it impossible to gauge public opinion on sensitive matters such as this.

The burning of a Russian flag by Finno-Ugric activists in Finland on December 6.
The burning of a Russian flag by Finno-Ugric activists in Finland on December 6.

“It is possible opposition to the war will lead to broader opposition to the Russian state. However, at present we do not see this, so the collapse of the Russian state seems unlikely,” Giuliano said. “But it is impossible to predict what developments might bring.”

That’s a crucial caveat.

Paul Goble, a retired analyst for the CIA, the U.S. State Department, and RFE/RL, pointed out that many observers failed to predict the breakup of the Soviet Union “even a few months or weeks” before it happened.

Putin, Goble argued, has accelerated the potential collapse of Russia because “his actions don’t represent the resurrection of the Soviet Union but the re-creation of the conditions leading to its collapse – including the antagonism of minorities and Russia’s estrangement from the world.”

Within movements aimed at self-determination for ethnic minorities, meanwhile, there is widespread confidence that Russia is on the road to collapse -- a development some activists describe as “inevitable.”

“The collapse of the empire is obvious,” said Arslang Sandzhiyev, who chaired a congress of the Kalmyk people in October that adopted a declaration of independence for the Republic of Kalmykia, a predominantly Buddhist region of southern Russia along the lower reaches of the Volga River that includes part of the Caspian Sea coast. “It is a natural historical process that has been radically accelerated by the mad and ineffective domestic and foreign policies of the Kremlin.”

“The collapse of the empire is obvious,” says Arslang Sandzhiyev, who chaired a congress of the Kalmyk people in October.
“The collapse of the empire is obvious,” says Arslang Sandzhiyev, who chaired a congress of the Kalmyk people in October.

By December, the Forum of Free Peoples of Russia had been retitled the Forum of Free Peoples of Post-Russia (FSNPR) and held a meeting -- its fourth since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February -- in the Swedish city of Helsingborg. Representatives of Chechens, Tatars, Bashkirs, Nogais, Circassians, Karelians, Cossacks, and others signed a declaration proclaiming Russia “a bankrupt state” and calling for “the end of the existence of the Russian Federation.”

The same forum issued declarations of independence for Karelia and the “Siberian Confederation,” a long-proposed independent region that would encompass most of Russia’s oil-and-gas-rich eastern territory.

Moscow seems to be taking the threat of the secessionist movements seriously, cracking down on minority political and social organizations and persecuting activists. That activity was stepped up considerably in the period just before the Ukraine invasion and has continued over the 10 months since. In July, Moscow declared the Free Idel-Ural civic movement that advocates an independent state in the mid-Volga region an “undesirable organization.” A month earlier, the All-Tatar Public Center was shut down and tarred “extremist.”

People march carrying the flag of Ingria in St. Petersburg on May 1, 2019.
People march carrying the flag of Ingria in St. Petersburg on May 1, 2019.

Historian Maksim Kuzakhmetov lives in St. Petersburg and runs the Ingria Without Borders Telegram channel. He advocates the independence of the historical region of Ingria, which is the area around St. Petersburg that was conquered by Peter the Great around the turn of the 18th century. He said that, until just recently, activists marched openly with Ingria flags and slogans.

“For many years, I met with like-minded people freely and discussed the possibilities for separation,” Kuzakhmetov said. “Only recently has this been considered unacceptable and criminal treason.”

'Genocide Against The National Minorities'

The resentments of Russia’s ethnic minorities were aroused from the beginning of the February invasion and intensified when Moscow, having failed to take Kyiv and subjugate Ukraine in the first weeks, began throwing more and more manpower into battle. Increasingly, they felt the men from their communities were being disproportionately singled out to do the fighting and dying for Moscow’s ambitions.

Russia now is killing two birds with one stone by using the national minorities to fight their war in Ukraine.”
-- Bashkir journalist Aigul Gimranova-Lion

Citing what he said was “rather complete documentation on the number of casualties by region” published by the BBC, analyst Oreshkin said that “any geographer can immediately compare this information with the population figures from those regions and see the catastrophic results.

“For instance, in Tyva, there has been one soldier killed for every 3,300 adults, while in Moscow that figure is one to 480,000 adults,” he said. “That is a difference of more than 100 times.”

The impetus for the independence movements grew dramatically in September, when Putin announced military mobilization. Despite the repression in Russia, protests against mobilization had to be put down in southern Russia and the North Caucasus. More than a dozen recruitment offices across the country have experienced arson attacks. As many as 700,000 young Russian menleft the country, Forbes wrote in October, citing a Kremlin source.

“Mobilization stimulated the trend against the war,” said Batyr Boromangnayev, a Kalmyk separatist activist. “I couldn’t say that before mobilization.”

Bashkir journalist Aigul Gimranova-Lion has called mobilization a policy of “genocide against the national minorities.”

“Russia now is killing two birds with one stone,” she wrote in a September post on social media, “by using the national minorities to fight their war in Ukraine.”

The Erzya National Congress convened in exile in the Estonian city of Otepää on September 30 due to increasing repressions in Russia.
The Erzya National Congress convened in exile in the Estonian city of Otepää on September 30 due to increasing repressions in Russia.

Anatoly Nogovitsyn, head of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) branch of the liberal party Yabloko, also said that “what the authorities are doing can be called genocide.”

“There are about 400,000 of us Yakuts,” Nogovitsyn said. “And that is not many, considering many of them are old people or children. If you count just men who are capable of working, starting families, raising children, then you are talking about 100,000, maximum.

“They are exterminating the small nations,” he concluded.

Russian analyst Grigory Golosov argued on Facebook in August that by forcing the regions to recruit and send battalions to fight in Ukraine, Putin’s government was hastening the collapse of Russia and increasing the likelihood it would be violent.

“When the ‘volunteers’ return – and some of them will return – in every region there will appear a small but consolidated and disenchanted force with military experience and, most likely, weapons, that because of their local identity will become a convenient tool for groups seeking local power,” he wrote. “In any political or social crisis, such a desire will arise, but nothing will come of it without local armed force.”

An extreme development that Golosov asserted could not be ruled out: The possibility that Russia could, for a time at least, devolve into more than 80 “independent countries” that would really be mostly “criminal autocracies.”

'A Euphoria Of Sovereignty'

In October 1552, the Volga River city of Kazan finally fell to Russian forces, who had besieged the capital of the Khanate of Kazan 10 times since 1469. Although guerrilla fighting continued for several years after the fall of Kazan, it marked the end of the khanate and was a landmark event in Russia’s expansion across Eurasia and its subjugation of native peoples.

The Volga River city of Kazan finally fell to Russian forces in October 1552.
The Volga River city of Kazan finally fell to Russian forces in October 1552.

The Kazan Khanate’s demise led to the incorporation into Russia of territory that now forms the Russian regions of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Mordovia, Udmurtia, and Mari El. By the mid-18th century, Russia had expanded out of the central region around Moscow and had annexed the historical homelands of dozens of peoples in what is now southern and northern Russia, Siberia, and the Far East. In many cases, the Russians pursued devastating policies against native peoples in a pattern not unlike the European conquest of the Americas.

In the early Soviet period, when the Bolshevik government was relatively weak and needed the support of ethnic minorities, the central government signed autonomy treaties with many of the republics and autonomous regions that appeared across the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the first of which was the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Republic in 1919. Under the treaties, the regions were granted broad authority for local government, education, culture, and agriculture.

These achievements were undone as the central government gained power under dictator Josef Stalin. Discriminatory policies against non-Russian ethnic groups were imposed. They were actively Russified, their languages and cultures suppressed. Between 1941 and 1944, the Volga Germans, the Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, and Meshketian Turks, as well as the Crimean Tatars, were branded unreliable and deported from their traditional homelands, suffering catastrophic losses.

To mark the end of World War II, Stalin famously offered a toast to “the health of our Soviet people, and in the first place, the Russian people…the most outstanding nation of all the nations of the Soviet Union.”

A Tatar woman is seen on Memorial Day in Kazan to honor the memory of those who died during the capture of the city by the troops of Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1552.
A Tatar woman is seen on Memorial Day in Kazan to honor the memory of those who died during the capture of the city by the troops of Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1552.

In an echo of that pronouncement, one of a host of constitutional amendments that Putin pushed through in 2020 states that Russian is the language of the “state-forming” nation.

When the Soviet Union weakened and collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the weakening of central power not only fueled self-determination drives in the non-Russian Soviet republics, but also among the non-Russian ethnic minorities within Russia itself. Russia initially attempted to remake itself as a genuine federation, with Moscow calling for expanded rights for the country’s autonomous regions. It was a period that Tatarstan sociologist Midkhat Faroukshin called in 1993 “a euphoria of sovereignty,” characterized by Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s often-quoted directive to the regions to “grab as much sovereignty as you can swallow.”

However, Moscow’s tolerance did not extend to threats to its territorial integrity. In November 1991, Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya, launching the First Chechen War after the region overwhelmingly elected a pro-independence legislature and president in October.

In March 1992, Tatarstan held a referendum in which over 62 percent of voters agreed that “Tatarstan is a sovereign state, a subject of international law, building its relations with the Russian Federation and other republics (states) on an equal basis.”

A month later, all of the nearly 90 regions of Russia except Tatarstan and the de facto independent Chechnya signed a Federation Treaty with Moscow.

Putin's 'Crime' Against Russia

Under Putin, whom Yeltsin made acting president on the last day of 1999, Russia has seen the steady dismantling of its federal system, with regional governments strictly subordinated to Moscow and institutions like the Federation Council – the upper house of parliament, which includes representatives from each region -- being stripped of any power.

Putin’s destruction of federalism was a crime against Russia that will haunt us for the next five to seven years."
-- Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin

The Kremlin justified such moves by stressing the country’s sheer size and what officials said was the fundamental fragility of Russia, and by asserting that outside forces were bent on tearing the country apart.

In 2005, Dmitry Medvedev, then the head of Putin’s presidential administration who would later serve as Russian president in 2008-12, said in an interview: “If we fail to consolidate the elite, Russia may disappear as a single state…. The disintegration of the [Soviet] Union may seem like a kindergarten performance compared to the state collapse of modern Russia.”

In 2011, Putin told a government meeting of the North Caucasus Federal District that if the region were to leave Russia, the consequences would be devastating.

“If this happens, then at that very moment – not an hour later, but a second – there will be those who want to do the same with other territorial entities of Russia,” he said. “It will be a tragedy that will affect every citizen of Russia without exception.”

Dmitry Oreshkin
Dmitry Oreshkin

But many observers see Putin’s dismantling of nascent Yeltsin-era Russian federalism and his construction of a hyper-centralized and personalized political system as the real source of Russia’s current fragility.

“Putin’s destruction of federalism was a crime against Russia,” Oreshkin said, “that will haunt us for the next five to seven years.

“By destroying all the institutions that could remediate regional problems or inequities, Putin has created the potential for the destruction of the country,” he added.

Some Russian opposition figures such as former State Duma lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov -- who heads the Congress of People’s Deputies, an organization in exile that includes several dozen former elected officials – expressed the hope for the “democratic re-creation of Russia” in the post-Putin era.

“We must destroy everything related to the functioning of Russia as an empire,” he said. “The empire must die. That is our main goal. And after that, the construction of a democratic country will be the fruit of our collective labor.”

However, the national movements of Russia have not forgotten the history of Russia’s repeated rejection of federalism.

“We want to leave the empire,” says Bashkir nationalist Ruslan Gabbasov. (file photo)
“We want to leave the empire,” says Bashkir nationalist Ruslan Gabbasov. (file photo)

“We want to leave the empire,” said Bashkir nationalist Ruslan Gabbasov. “I won’t even call it the Russian ‘Federation.’

“The historical chance [for Russian federalism] was lost when President Boris Yeltsin failed to ban the Communist Party and to carry out lustration of communist officials and KGB agents,” Gabbasov added. “And later he handed power to the KGB officer Putin.”

“Moscow has proven to be an unreliable partner,” Kalmyk activist Sandzhiyev said.

The League of Free Nations has conflicted with Ponomaryov’s group, which they believe envisions a post-Putin Russia that all regions will automatically be part of, albeit with the right to withdraw. The league, on the contrary, insists the anti-Putin movement must commit to the real independence of the regions that seek it first, with the prospect of them willingly joining a confederation on the basis of democratic referendums at a later date.

Putin is doing everything to tear the country apart.... Perhaps the collapse will begin with the North Caucasus. Or with other ethnic republics on the borders."
-- Historian Maksim Kuzakhmetov

“First independence and then referendums [on future status], not the reverse,” Gabbasov said. “Only after many months of active discussion of the consequences of colonial policies and the state they have left our people in and of what independence offers and what perspectives for the future it opens up – only then can any referendum be held. That is how it must be for all the enslaved peoples.”

In the cases of regions like Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Kalmykia, and Buryatia, Gabbasov envisions status referendums only after two or three years.

It is a dispute that contains historical echoes of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s ultimately unsuccessful efforts to persuade the Soviet republics to remain within a “reformed” and “democratic” Soviet Union.

'Such A Chance Will Not Come Again'

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a strong consensus among the international community that Russia should remain intact and be the inheritor state of the Soviet Union, including taking responsibility for its nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

“The West viewed the war in Chechnya as an internal conflict that was publicly described as ‘the restoration of constitutional order,’” Kalmyk activist Sandzhiyev said. “At that time, Russia was a country that had just thrown off the communist vices of totalitarianism and was striving to join the free world. There was a large credit of goodwill.”

Our struggle for independence has not yet started. But the war in Ukraine really has given us a unique opportunity. It is possible such a chance will not come again.”
-- Rafis Kashapov, deputy premier of the self-proclaimed Tatar government in exile

That situation is completely different now, he continued. Putin’s rule has exhausted that goodwill, and now several Western countries and officials have described Russia as a “terrorist state.”

In addition, the West views Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, and Moscow’s failure to abide by its commitment in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity, as irresponsible and dangerous. The international community has been appalled by the substantial evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine and by Moscow’s unabashed targeting of civilian infrastructure with massive air strikes since October.

“I am sure that today the political situation is completely different,” Sandzhiyev argued. “Naturally, Western politicians and the global community will view the independence of the peoples of Russia from a completely different perspective,” adding that “those peoples have acquired the full moral and legal right to separate from the aggressor country.”

Historian and Ingria-independence advocate Kuzakhmetov
argues the Ukraine war will “inevitably” lead to the collapse of Russia into many small states in a process he compares to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. That process, he argues, left Austria much smaller but arguably better off than it had been as an imperial center.

“Putin is doing everything to tear the country apart,” Kuzakhmetov said. “The collapse might not start with St. Petersburg, where the population is not very militant. Perhaps the collapse will begin with the North Caucasus. Or with other ethnic republics on the borders. Potential strong separatist moods...might emerge in rich regions like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Kazan was once the capital of an independent state, and many in the mid-Volga region remember that well.

“Plus, there is one region that is already physically cut off from Russia – Kaliningrad Oblast,” he added, referring to the exclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. “The collapse could begin there.”

Rafis Kashapov
Rafis Kashapov

If two or three regions break away from Moscow, “the domino effect will take over,” the historian concluded.

Putin’s war against Ukraine and the consequent weakening of central authority in Russia appear to have unleashed unpredictable processes, analysts said, that could play out in myriad ways.

“The center is beginning to sag,” Oreshkin said. “When the center collapses, turbulence will set in in the regions. But we don’t know what kind. If a bloody settling of accounts breaks out in the center, it will trickle out to the regions. That is certain.”

Ethnic-minority activists say Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought the country to a turning point, and that events to come could be as momentous as the collapse of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.

“Our struggle for independence has not yet started,” said Rafis Kashapov, who represents the region of Tatarstan as the deputy premier of the self-proclaimed Tatar government in exile. “But the war in Ukraine really has given us a unique opportunity. It is possible such a chance will not come again.”

Based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Idel.Realities, Caucasus.Realities, North.Realities, Siberia.Realities, and Russian Service.

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