Russia’s Democratic Future Won’t Start in Moscow

When jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was pronounced dead by the Russian prison service, most supporters of Russia’s liberal opposition plunged into despair.

Some spoke of a grappling fear from realization that they “are now left one on one with Putin,” while others claimed that with Navalny had died the hope for Russia’s democratic future.

But despite his heroism, Navalny wasn’t Russia’s only hope for democracy.

From the ousting of dictator Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia’s Bulldozer Revolution in 2000 to Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the most successful nonviolent revolutionary movements in Russia’s neighborhood have been based on grassroots self-mobilization, driven forward not by a single leader, but a shared vision of a better tomorrow.

At least one such movement exists in Russia today.

Not in Moscow, but in Turkic-majority Bashkortostan.

Bashkortostan’s long-running, diverse, and fundamentally nonviolent protest movement might just be Russia’s greatest hope for democratic change right now. Yet, like other popular movements advocating for Indigenous rights and region-level democratization in Russia, it has been sidelined and gravely misinterpreted by Western observers, as well as policymakers who instead continue to favor engagements with Moscow-hailing mainstream Russian liberal opposition.

Russia’s most populous ethnic republic, Bashkortostan is located between the Volga River to the west and the Ural Mountains to the east. Bashkorts, the region’s Indigenous Kipchak Turkic ethnic group conquered by Russians in the 16th century, make up 31.5 percent of the republic’s population. Russians (37.5 percent) and Volga Tatars (24.2 percent) are the two other largest groups, followed by Mari, Chuvash, and Udmurt people.

The first autonomous republic of the Soviet Union, Bashkortostan issued a declaration of state sovereignty in October 1990, though soon went on to sign a federal power-sharing agreement with Moscow. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin took office in 2000, the region has been gradually stripped of nearly all its sovereign rights.

For several days in January, thousands of residents of Bashkortostan came together to protest the imprisonment of Bashkort activist Fayil Alsynov, one of the region’s most vocal advocates for Indigenous rights and a fierce critic of the extractivist colonial policies of the Kremlin and its local cronies.

Up to 5,000 people gathered outside a courthouse in the region’s southeastern town of Baymak on Jan. 15, the day of Alsynov’s expected sentencing on charges of “inciting interethnic hatred.” Likely startled by the size of the crowd outside, Judge Elina Tagirova then postponed the final hearing to Jan. 17.

On Jan. 17, a far larger crowd gathered at the scene again, defying an official warning from regional police, preemptive arrests of activists, and temperatures of minus 21 degrees Celsius in the frozen Urals. Some had made early morning journeys for several hours through snowy roads of southeastern Bashkortostan.

Alsynov’s main supporters are his fellow Bashkorts but others, including ethnic Russians and Volga Tatars, were among the protesters. So were men and women of all ages, white-collar workers, farmers, students, school teachers, opposition politicians, business owners, bloggers, veteran activists, and many others.

Though many of them hoped for a suspended sentence for Alsynov, the activist was eventually sentenced to four years in a penal colony. When the protesters refused to leave the scene following the verdict, riot police used smoke grenades, tear gas, and batons to disperse the crowd. As many as 40 people were forced to seek medical attention following clashes with the police.

Protests in Baymak and a subsequent smaller-scale solidarity rally in Bashkortostan’s capital Ufa have triggered an unprecedentedly large wave of regionwide arrests. The authorities have opened at least 163 administrative and 34 criminal cases against the protesters, according to independent monitor OVD-Info.

At least one of the people detained sustained life-threatening injuries in custody, and two men facing criminal investigation, 37-year-old Rifat Dautov and 65-year-old Minniyar Bayguskarov, died under unclear circumstances.

Russian commentators in both pro-Kremlin and anti-Putin liberal camps were quick to label the protests in Bashkortostan as “riots” with “ethnic nationalist” and “separatist” undertones that seemingly flared up out of the blue. Some even likened the events to the antisemitic riots that swept the capital of Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Dagestan last October.

But the recent protests—as I can say through my years of research there and intimate familiarity with the region’s politics—were neither of these things. Instead of being “nationalistic,” the protests ignited by Alsynov’s imprisonment were a manifestation of deeply rooted discontent with the ruthless exploitation of Bashkortostan’s resources by the Kremlin and its local cronies.

Bashkortostan undertook rapid Soviet industrialization amid the discovery of a vast number of natural resources—including petroleum, natural gas, coal, and limestone—coupled with the relocation of multiple industrial plants from Ukraine, Belarus, and western Russia during World War II.

The scope of environmental damage caused by decades of unchecked industrial development put environmental protection and Indigenous land rights at the forefront of the republic’s fight for independence in the 1990s.

As the republic lapsed from having a plethora of autonomous decision making powers to being fully subjected to the Kremlin’s control in just over three decades, environmental issues persisted along with new restrictions on usage of the Bashkort language and development of Indigenous cultures. This, in turn, expanded support for local environmental and Indigenous rights movements.

The symbiotic relationship between the two movements culminated in the 2020 protests in defense of Kushtau lime stone mountain, which saw Alsynov, a Bashkort rights defender with over a decade of experience, taking a leading role. The subsequent success of the protests brought Alsynov fame and admiration far beyond ethnic Bashkort circles.

Alsynov has played a critical role in the fight against illegal gold mining in Bashkortostan’s scenic and resource-rich Baymaksky district, which the authorities are trying to turn against him.

Bashkortostan’s pro-Kremlin authorities claimed that Alsynov “violated the human dignity” of migrant workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia by referring to them as qara halyq (“black people” in the Bashkort language) and that he called for expulsion of all non-Bashkorts from the republic in a speech made at the protests in April 2023.

Alsynov denied all charges against him, saying his speech was “gravely mistranslated” from his native Bashkort language by a government-affiliated linguistic expert. The activist also clarified that he “didn’t say that [non-Bashkorts] have no right to live or work” in the republic, but instead meant that Bashkorts have to fearlessly protect their native lands as they have no other place to live.

Qara halyq, the Bashkort phrase used by Alsynov, is not a racialized insult but, in fact, an idiom that exists across a number of Turkic languages and is used to refer to ordinary people.

No less absurd than accusations of “nationalism” are the attempts of some observers to present gatherings in Bashkortostan as “riots” instead of nonviolent protests.

From pro-sovereignty protests to standoff at Kushtau to last year’s anti-mining rallies, activists in Bashkortostan have been consistent in using nonviolent resistance methods and demonstrated dedication to maintaining nonviolent discipline in face of worsening repressions and authorities’ attempts to split the movement by offering concessions to its participants.

In building their nonviolent toolkit, Bashkort activists have relied on centuries-long practice of administering self-governance through yiyins, people’s gatherings aimed at resolving key political and social matters that can take place at a level of an individual clan, a village or even a nation.

Unlike traditional male-only yiyins, their modern form is more inclusive, with women now assuming active participation, although male elders and established community leaders still hold considerable influence over proceedings.

Activists in Bashkortostan also demonstrated their commitment to nonviolence during the Jan. 17 rally in Baymak. When agent provocateurs infiltrated the crowd and began throwing snowballs at the security service, protest leaders and experienced participants repeatedly encouraged those around to steer clear from engaging in physical confrontation and largely succeeded in maintaining discipline within the large crowd.

After witnessing the successes achieved by nonviolent movements worldwide and in its immediate surroundings, the Kremlin has been working overtime to suppress nonviolent dissent domestically.

In Bashkortostan, the team of the region’s head, Radiy Khabirov, has repeatedly tried to discredit the movement by portraying its participants as Islamist extremists seeking political destabilization and violent separation from Russia.

“Let’s save Bashkortostan from nazis, wahhabis and those sucking up to the oligarchs,” Khabirov’s infamous ex-PR chief, Rostislav Murzagulov, wrote of the 2020 protest in defense of Kushtau mountain.

A similar propaganda tactic has already been tried and tested by the Kremlin years before in Chechnya, when Moscow—with much success—used the narratives of the war on terror and ever-rising Islamophobic sentiments to justify military intervention into the region and disrepute the Chechen independence movement.

In Bashkortostan’s case, coupled with a lack of independent Indigenous media outlets and platforms willing to amplify voices of Indigenous activists on a countrywide level, this propaganda has proven widely effective.

Unfortunately for the movement’s participants and sympathizers worldwide, much of the analysis and coverage of recent protests in support of Alsynov, too, have been feeding into the government-sanctioned agenda. These reports, for example, made special note of the religious affiliation of protesters and stressed the fact that Bashkort, a movement that Alsynov was formerly part of, was designated “extremist organization” in 2020, while failing to mention that Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was banned under the same pretext just a year later.

Persistently inaccurate and unflattering coverage of Bashkortostan’s nonviolent protest movement is, perhaps, one of the major reasons dissuading Western policymakers from treating it as a worthy partner.

Yet, as Indigenous activists double down on efforts to raise awareness about the events in Bashkortostan and support arrested activists and their families, the West has a unique chance to reimagine the course of Russia’s democratization and offer a helping hand to the regional movements that need it most.

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