Bashkortostan Protests:
Should the Kremlin be Worried?
January 26, 2024
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Visiting researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
Political scientist Nikolai Petrov looks at what has driven local protests in Russia in recent years and argues that the Kremlin’s model of governing regions is failing, with the wave of local protests expected to grow.
A criminal case was opened against Fail Alsynov, a popular leader of a Bashkir national movement, alleging that he incited ethnic hatred at an April 2023 gathering of citizens “with a speech of negative content in relation to persons of Armenian, Caucasian and Central Asian nationality.”

It was about protests by residents against plans of Eurasia Mining to conduct geological exploration for gold in the vicinity of the village of Baymak on the Irendik mountain range.

Baymak is the main city in the Bashkir Trans-Urals region, far from Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. In Ufa Russians make up half of the population, Tatars a quarter and Bashkirs a fifth, whereas in Baymak ethnic Bashkirs make up the majority.

The discontent was attributable to fears about migrants being used for cheap labor and environmental concerns. About the migrants who, he believed, would carry out the work, Alsynov used the phrase “kara halyk” (Bashkir for “black people”), which, according to him, meant “unskilled workers.” The case against the activist was launched at the personal request of the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov.
Baymak, Bashkortostan. January 15. Source: Yandex
Tough confrontation

Alsynov was to be sentenced on January 15. However, seeing that a crowd supporting him had gathered in front of the courthouse (according to various estimates, it numbered 3,000-5,000 people), the judge postponed the announcement of the verdict to January 17. That day, the number of people out in support of Alsynov had not decreased, though several hundred riot police (OMON) and officers from SOBR (the Special Rapid Response Unit) were on hand. The court sentenced Alsynov to four years in prison – even longer than the prosecutor asked for.

According to one version, the Bashkir authorities, having played for time, were ready to put the brakes on the case and give Alsynov a suspended sentence. But Moscow was said to have intervened: Кremlin-controlled media began to write about the need for a harsh sentence, and Rosfinmonitoring added Alsynov to its list of “extremists and terrorists.”

Back in Baymak, the protesters called for the release of Alsynov and the resignation of Radiy Khabirov. There were clashes, and snow was thrown at the police, who responded with stun grenades, tear gas and batons. In the aftermath, about 40 people went to the local hospital, some with serious injuries. Six people were detained for administrative offenses.

The protests continued on January 19 in Ufa at the monument to Salavat Yulaev. About a thousand people took part in them, and several were detained. Khabirov, who visited Baymak after the events, linked the protests at the courthouse with Bashkir separatism. The Investigative Committee launched a criminal case under parts 1 and 2 of Article 212 (mass riots) and Part 1 of Article 318 (use of violence against a government official) of the Criminal Code.

Baymak in the context of the region and country

The January protests in Bashkortostan can be seen as similar to the riots featuring anti-Semitic slogans in Dagestan in October 2023 (see Russia.Post on this) and even the mass protests against the arrest of Governor Sergei Furgal in Khabarovsk Region in 2020.

In all three cases, the protests were spontaneous and widespread.
Khabarovsk, as in Baymak, the authorities created problems for themselves, basically for no reason: in Khabarovsk, a popular governor was arrested, while in Baymak it was the leader of the national movement.
A protest against the arrest of former Khabarovsk Governor Sergei Furgal. Khabarovsk, May 2020. The sign reads "open trial." Source: Wiki Commons
In the local context of Bashkortostan, the events in Baymak can be seen as a continuation of the summer 2020 environmental protests related to plans of the Bashkir Soda Company to mine around the Kushtau mountain.

The organizer of those protests was Bashkort, a public Bashkir national organization, which was back then declared extremist and banned. One of its leaders was Fail Alsynov, whose arrest sparked the current protest in Baymak.

In 2020, the mountains, which have sacred significance for Bashkirs, were nevertheless protected, despite Khabirov’s position, while the Bashkir Soda Company has been renationalized on Putin’s orders and subsequently transferred to Roskhim, believed to be backed by the Rotenberg brothers.

Khabirov’s actions to suppress protests and national movements practically copy what the Kremlin is doing nationwide. Yet the result is different, much less successful. The reason is that social capital, already weak at the national level – successfully destroyed by the repressive policies of the Kremlin – remains at the local level in some cases. Local leaders can gain the trust of residents, and if such a leader becomes a victim of persecution, actions in his or her defense become widespread.

Khabirov and the Kremlin’s model of regional governance

For Khabirov, as for the Kremlin, noisy protests are especially undesirable now. If the Kremlin does not dismiss him now, then Khabirov will be up for reelection in September, when his five-year term comes to an end. Therefore, he is now demonstrating his active role in pacifying the protests and intimidating his fellow citizens.

Addressing young people during the trip to Baymak, and then to Dyurtyulinsky District on the opposite, northwestern edge of the region, Khabirov made it clear what awaits those who took part in unauthorized actions: “they are being detained by law enforcement. And this is immediately an end to your future career. If they are prosecuted for extremism charges or for participating in unauthorized events, read that they have no future.”
The difficult situation in which Khabirov finds himself is evidence of the failure of the Kremlin’s model of governance, whereby Moscow sends to a region a governor of its choosing.
Radiy Khabirov (left), the head of Bashkortostan, at an event for teachers of the Bashkir language and literature. Ufa, April 2019. Source: Wiki Commons
That said, Khabirov is far from the worst, since he has significant experience in public administration. His track record includes heading up the administration of Bashkortostan’s first leader, Murtaza Rakhimov, and then, when Khabirov lost his trust, going to work in Moscow as deputy head of the Kremlin’s internal policy department under Vladislav Surkov and Vyacheslav Volodin.

The figure of the first president of Bashkortostan, Rakhimov, who died last year, and whose 90th birthday is to be celebrated with pomp across the region on February 7, gives the situation special, symbolic meaning.

Whereas “Babai” (“Grandfather”) Rakhimov used the factor of ethnic Bashkir solidarity to bargain with the Center and strengthen his position, Khabirov, on the contrary, received a mandate from Moscow to suppress nationalism. Until recently, with the help of law enforcement, he had dealt with it relatively successfully. The abovementioned Bashkort organization was banned, and a number of leaders of the Bashkir national movement were sent to jail or driven out of the country.

But now, seemingly, Khabirov’s political instincts have failed him: in line with the Kremlin’s policy of harshly suppressing discontent, he has provoked mass protests, which is completely unacceptable for the Kremlin on the eve of the presidential election.

Sakha, Buryatia, Bashkortostan...

Even more unacceptable for the Kremlin are the slogans about Ukraine being “not our war” that often come out of the so-called national republics. It can be said that the rise of nationalism, especially non-Russian (and sometimes anti-Russian) nationalism, has been stoked by the Kremlin itself, which began playing the nationalist card in relation to Ukraine back in 2014.

To tame the local elites, several key republics were headed by national cadres who had been tested in Moscow and represented relatively young technocratic managers: Alexei Tsydenov in Buryatia in 2017, followed by Aisen Nikolaev in Sakha and Radiy Khabirov in Bashkortostan in 2018. Meanwhile, in the period from 2017 to 2020, the Kremlin carried out a protracted and not-very-successful purge of the national cadres in Dagestan through the non-local General Vladimir Vasiliev, after which the region was given half-local Sergei Melikov, another general, in 2020.

Prominent protests against having to fight in the war, including mass protests, have been observed in all the abovementioned regions. This is true to the least extent, perhaps, in Bashkortostan, where Khabirov is actively involved in forming Bashkir volunteer battalions to fight in Ukraine (here and here).

Khabirov recruited fighters from these battalions to condemn the protests in Baymak. “We have been fighting for more than a year now, defending the honor of Bashkortostan,” “volunteers from the combat zone of the special military operation” addressed Bashkortostan residents. “Over the past few days, unpleasant news has been coming from our homeland: extremists from banned organizations are stupefying and deceiving the residents and are trying to bring them to a rally in support of Fail Alsynov, the founder of an extremist organization... We urge you to send Alsynov and his friends to our battalion, and we will reeducate them and teach them to love their homeland.”

Suppression of protests

The current protests in Bashkortostan, like the previous ones in 2019-20, were of a regional nature.
While touching on issues important for ethnic Bashkirs, the Baymak protests did not and could not receive mass support outside Bashkortostan – not even in Tatarstan or other neighboring regions.
However, it would be wrong to conclude, based on this, that the protests create no serious problems for the Kremlin.

Firstly, Bashkortostan, with its four million residents, is a politically important region. In the 1990s, along with Tatarstan, it was a leader of regional opposition to Moscow and the struggle for regional sovereignty.

Secondly, the current protests indicate both the rise of social tension and the politicization of environmental, economic and other problems, which cannot be solved through the current weak and ineffective mechanisms for representing the interests of different groups and channeling feedback between society and the authorities.
Bashkir activists abroad called on the Bashkir people to engage in a nonviolent campaign of national resistance and rejection of colonial power. Activists propose that Bashkortostan residents hang up portraits of Alsynov and crossed out portraits of Khabirov, not pay taxes, leave the civil service and demand that officials communicate with them in the Bashkir language, which has the status of a state language in the region.

The wave of protests of this type is likely to grow – both due to the weakening of the central government’s finances and the fact that today it is the sticks of police force and nationalization, not carrots, that the government has mostly come to rely on. These sticks help to suppress protests but do not contribute to resolving the underlying conflicts or eliminating their causes.
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