REGIONS
Uneventful mobilization in Tatarstan
October 14, 2022
  • Ceyda Giray

    Journalist

Ceyda Giray cites several factors – economic, political and geographic – to explain why the mobilization has proceeded in a more orderly way and provoked considerably less protest activity in Tatarstan versus other Russian regions.
Kazan Higher Tank Command School. Source: Wiki Commons
Tatarstan announced a partial mobilization on September 21, following President Putin’s early-morning speech the same day. The draft was swift: just a week after the announcement, official media in Tatarstan presented footage from cities and villages in the region where crowds saw groups of young men off with loud applause and to the accompaniment of Farewell of Slavianka, a well-known patriotic march evoking Russia’s military glory.

Reports of the army’s failure to provide necessary equipment for the newly drafted have fed into suspicions that the new recruits – some of whom have no primary military training – will become fresh cannon fodder. For Russia’s ethnic minority regions like Tatarstan, losing the young male population doesn’t just mean an imminent shortage of working hands, but the very vitality of ethnic minorities is at stake. Concerns are growing that the Russian state is resolving the centuries-old nationalities question while pursuing its expansionist aspirations in Ukraine.

Official rhetoric

There is no officially confirmed data on how many people have already been conscripted. Tatarstan, home to about 4 million, was supposed to deliver 10,000 servicemen by October 1. Media sources indicate that the Russian Ministry of Defense eventually lowered the initial target for Tatarstan, as it was probably alarmed by mass protests in other ethnic-minority regions, for instance in Dagestan. The biggest sources of draftees in Tatarstan so far have been the industrial cities with high numbers of working men, such as Naberezhnye Chelny (defense and auto industry), Nizhnekamsk (petrochemical industry) and Kazan (chemical industry).

The mobilization presented Tatarstan with a chance to show off its wealth and order. Conscripts from the whole region travelled to Kazan and were temporarily stationed in the recently built, spacious Kazan Expo exhibition center; in addition, the barracks of the Kazan Higher Tank Command School and tent halls erected on its territory hosted hundreds of recruits. Rustam Minnikhanov, the head of the region, personally visited deployment bases to check the recruits’ accommodation. Official media reported regular hot meals, warm clothing and even entertainment: recruits could borrow books and enjoy a musical performance. The pictures from Kazan starkly contrasted with reports from Russia’s other regions, where the mobilization revealed a severe lack of resources. The sites in Kazan also accommodated several recruits from the neighboring regions of Bashkortostan and Chuvashia, which, unlike Tatarstan, have no large-scale training grounds.

The regional government claims to have addressed excesses that occurred during the mobilization. For instance, the September 21 decree initially prohibited men liable for military service from leaving the region and also required company owners and ordinary citizens to hand in their cars for military needs. In the face of growing public discontent, the language of the decree was softened: military-age men became obliged to coordinate their travel plans with local authorities, and cars could only be seized “by special order.”

On the ground
"Reports from the ground, however, reveal a different picture: the mobilization in Tatarstan didn’t go as smoothly as the official media made it appear."
Some men supposedly had received draft notices as early as the evening of September 20, i.e. before Putin’s announcement; others were called in front of the draft board immediately after the speech but before the publication of the decree in Tatarstan. Although most of the men mobilized seemed to fall within the recruitment guidelines, some were drafted as a result of indiscriminate grabbing, including a schoolboy barely of conscription age and men without previous military experience.

Although the conscripts left their homes to the sound of Farewell of Slavianka, only a few seemed to be driven by patriotic feelings. Fear of criminal prosecution for desertion was probably the most prominent motive for going to war. Rules about legal protection from the mobilization weren’t always clear: the list of exemptions was amended multiple times throughout the mobilization process. And to make things even worse, those in charge of the draft weren’t particularly concerned about abiding by these rules. The reluctance to spend time behind bars is understandable in light of recent scandals: the Russian penitentiary system has become notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, and Tatarstan is no exception.

The region sought to create economic incentives for signing up. Large companies promised to make a one-time payment of 50,000-100,000 RUB for their mobilized workers, which is somewhere between 1-2 median monthly salaries in Tatarstan. Recruits’ families will receive both economic (unspecified) and possibly practical assistance, for instance, with food purchases and delivery; from October 1, the children of conscripts in Naberezhnye Chelny will have free meals at schools. Notably, debt collection from the mobilized will also be suspended. The measures should ease the burden on families losing their breadwinners. Compared with Dagestan and Yakutia, where women were the driving force behind the protests, Tatarstan has succeeded so far in containing the growth of public discontent.

Beyond the legal and economic considerations, some conscripts in Tatarstan also faced social pressure to join the army, which was particularly pronounced in villages. Families with draft-aged men were concerned about public shaming, which is arguably inevitable if a family member refuses to go to the recruiting station. Also, young men themselves are reluctant to stay behind if all their village peers are drafted too.
Mobilized soldiers from Tatarstan. Source: VK
Relocation

Those who fled Tatarstan to avoid the mobilization were primarily young men from the cities. Azatliq-Idel.Realii reported on some individual cases, though precise numbers of “relocatees” remain unknown. (Since the first wave of the mobilization in Tatarstan has wrapped up, some of the men who didn’t receive a draft notice are likely to return). Many Tatars, Bashkirs and Russians fleeing the conscription chose Kazakhstan as their destination, not least because the country shares the longest border and has visa-free relations with Russia. Amid a shortage of affordable plane tickets, many had to travel by car or even cross the border on foot.

Tatar activist Fauzia Bairamova urged the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan to assist Tatars and Bashkirs crossing the border, emphasizing cultural ties between the Turkic peoples. The Tatar diaspora abroad created a Telegram group to arrange lodging for “relocatees” in Kazakhstan and coordinate their further travel to other countries (e.g. Turkey). Help from within Tatarstan was organized primarily through informal networks, which are almost invisible in public spaces, as many worry about possible political persecution.

Religion

Unlike in Dagestan, where religious authorities became leaders of the protest movements against the mobilization, the Spiritual Assembly in Tatarstan (DUM RT) legitimized it. Mufti Kamil Samigullin declared the draft in line with Sharia law. DUM RT also published a special prayer, in Arabic with a Russian translation (!), for the wives and children of mobilized men and launched a fundraising campaign to support soldiers from Tatarstan.

The Orthodox Church in Tatarstan has been largely silent. Individual churches introduced special prayer services for those fighting in Ukraine and for the dead. On September 27, Patriarch Kirill called for a “spiritual mobilization” and an end to the “internecine strife.” The speech didn’t challenge the official line of the Russian Orthodox Church, which has repeatedly sought to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, Patriarch Kirill didn’t attend the official ceremony celebrating the Russian annexation of four Ukrainian territories on September 30, reportedly because he was sick with Covid-19.

Why the low activity against the mobilization in Tatarstan?

Indiscriminate mobilization in predominantly non-Russian regions has raised concerns about targeted ethnic harassment. Some argue that by placing high draft quotas on ethnic regions like Tatarstan, the Kremlin seeks to undermine their protest potential and lower the risk of revolts by ethnic minorities. However, there isn’t enough evidence to prove such claims, not least because no official data exists on the number of soldiers killed in Ukraine, though the very appearance of such rumors is telling. According to open sources, as of September 2022, 136 residents of Tatarstan died in Ukraine since the beginning of the war (the actual numbers are probably much higher); it is unclear how many of the casualties are ethnic Tatars.
"Tatarstan, compared to other ethnic-minority regions, has shown considerably less protest activity after the announcement of the mobilization."
This trend could be attributable to several factors. The first is economic incentives: the need to pay off debt, especially mortgages, which have grown in recent years, prevents many able men in Tatarstan from fleeing. The financial stimulus draftees’ families are promised becomes a strong motivation to join the army. Secondly, the protests so far have taken place mainly on the “periphery:” Dagestan, Buryatia and Yakutia are all border regions, whereas Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and Chuvashia – which have had only a few localized incidents – belong to “inner” Russia and are land-locked regions.

At least for Tatarstan, its geographic position (and resources) has meant historically deeper integration into the economic and political processes of the country. As a result, the elites in Tatarstan have more weight within central power structures than leaders of other regions. (Remarkable in this respect is the recent appointment of a 30-year-old Tatar as Minister of Industry and Trade in the Luhansk People's Republic; on the so-called “Tatar party” in Moscow, see.) The good relations with Moscow suggest that Tatarstan has more control than other Russian regions over how many men will be mobilized and thereby can mitigate protests. Moreover, the region’s relative economic prosperity has fed into continuously high popularity ratings for the ruling elites. Good conditions in the barracks, envelopes with cash, free backpacks with supplies and best-wishes postcards – all broadly covered in the media – create an impression of Tatarstan officials’ respect and care for those mobilized. Yet as suspicions grow that more and more people will eventually be drafted to cover up Russia’s losses in Ukraine, the fragile peace in the region may be shattered.
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