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Crackdown on protest in Russia’s Bashkortonstan: personal revenge and an ethnic conspiracy theory

The town of Baymak in Russia's Bashkortostan revolted on Jan. 17 after the local court announced its verdict in a case against well-known Bashkir activist Fayil Alsynov. The anti-war Alsynov was sentenced to four years, officially for the crime of hate speech, and was immediately taken into custody. The protests brought out thousands of locals, who called for the authorities to resign and clashed with riot police. The head of Bashkortostan called the protesters “traitors,” accusing them of separatism. Political analyst Ruslan Aysin told The Insider that Alsynov's sentence had been an example of personal revenge from the region's head, the Kremlin-appointed Radiy Khabirov, who made it his mission to crush Alsynov and his associates after they uncovered evidence of corrupt dealing connected to Khabirov, his wife, and her extended family. From a broader perspective, the Russian government’s nervousness about unrest in the republic can be explained by “ultra-patriots and die-hard securocrats behind various desks operating on the assumption that all of Russia's Turkic peoples want to break away and create the Great Turan,” Aysin says.

Bashkir society is characterized by a strong ethnic identity, solidarity, and mutual support, especially in the east and south, where the population is predominantly Bashkir. Given this confluence of factors, it is not surprising that Aysin sees the region as a potential hotbed of protest: “They have always had an independent view of what is happening in both the republic and the country.”

It was not the first time that the forces of regional head Khabirov and the supporters of regional activist Alsynov squared off on the streets of the republic. In 2020, public demonstrations successfully halted preparations to mine the holy mountain Kushtau Shihan in order to extract its chalk reserves. “Radiy Khabirov decided to hand over sizable economic assets to oligarchs and his inner circle,” the political analyst Asyin says. “This was the case with Bashsoda when they decided to cut into Kushtau, and it wasn’t the only example.”

It is also no coincidence that the riot police who dispersed the protesters had been brought in from another region. After local riot police in the Far East city of Khabarovsk refused to disperse their protesting neighbors and relatives, who had taken to the streets by the tens of thousands in summer 2020 the authorities appear to have learned a lesson. Aysin believes that the importation of out-of-town law enforcement authorities to Baymak partly explains the ferocity evident from video footage of the ensuing confrontation.

As Aysin explains it: “Moscow is likely to draw certain conclusions about the Bashkir authorities. Obviously, Radiy Khabirov is not up to the task. Neither his bold statements nor his attempts to make amends by recruiting battalion after battalion for the war in Ukraine are doing the trick for him, because it was on his watch that Bashkortostan turned from a once prosperous region into a depressed one, when compared to neighboring Tatarstan.”
According to Aysin, the atmosphere in the republic has been heating up in recent years: “This is a very outspoken region, and Bashkirs aren't shy to show their discontent openly. Radiy Khabirov, a hardliner, was appointed to this position specifically to quash any dissent in Bashkortostan, in contrast to his predecessor [Rustem] Khamitov, who had the reputation of a liberal focused more on the economy than on political affairs. Khabirov was sent to tighten the screws and distribute the assets left by Murtaza Rakhimov's clan among various groups of oligarchs.”

As the expert recalls, he and Alsynov collaborated to form organizations aimed at preserving the Bashkir language and culture after Putin effectively obliterated the study of native languages — other than Russian — from the education system “with a single speech.”

As Aysin explains it, “Alsynov and others went through prisons and pressure but remained adamant and never strayed from the chosen path. Alsynov is a well-educated, soft-spoken man, but people respect him a great deal. They see and know how he lives and what he does. Whatever Khabirov and his spies have been saying about him is a lie, and people have not been fooled. Today Alsynov can rightfully be called the national leader of Bashkortostan and the Bashkir people».

As for the current case against the activist, Aysin notes that the sentence of four years in a penal colony surpasses the prosecution's demands. “Even the prosecutor asked for a minimum-security, settlement-type penal colony, but the judge, acting at someone else’s behest, decided otherwise. Apparently, she'd been told to do so.”

“We aren't new to corrupt courts doing the government's bidding, but this time it triggered people's wrath,” Aysin continued. “You can't jail someone for opinions, thoughts, or words. We're in the 21st century, and the world has long since realized that prosecuting a person for their position, however hateful it may be, is not the way to establish peace. Khabirov ordered to crush both Bashkort, Alsynov’s banned organization, and the man himself. This is how Putin's Russia operates; it's the only way. They must have ‘ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer.’ Grassroots leaders just don't fit into that scheme, so the authorities will imprison them and squeeze them out to make sure they don't get a following. People like Khabirov and other proxies [of Putin] have no standing in Bashkortostan, so they will crush anyone who dares to rival them, even informally, because none of the grassroots leaders will ever be allowed to run for office. Their mere existence scares the powers that be.”
Bashkort, the organization headed by Alsynov and his associates, “was declared extremist in a completely falsified, slapdash case, on allegations of inciting interethnic discord, with charges of separatism and posing a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity added further down the line,” Aysin explains. “Notably, Bashkort was a well-structured organization that had numbers, a core group, and distribution of grassroots duties. This entity offered serious competition to the authorities, and they panicked. It was not Khabirov's call; the order came from Moscow. I know there was talk in national security agencies after 2017 to liquidate all ethnicity-based activist organizations because they had the potential to trigger separatist unrest. As I see it, the attempt on Ukraine’s territorial integrity was already in the making, so they were clearing the field.”

Khabirov considers Alsynov to be his personal enemy, the political analyst says. This is evidenced by Khabirov personally demanding an inquest into Alsynov’s activities from the Investigative Committee:

“I found it astounding, because people like Khabirov, who’d worked under Surkov in the Presidential Administration, heading the domestic policy department, know the value of good PR. Apparently, he was too obsessed with the idea of exacting revenge on his rival. Not only did Alsynov and his associates expose the Khabirov regime, but they also uncovered all the criminal schemes used by Khabirov himself, his wife, and her relatives. His findings led to clashes with representatives of Bashkortostan’s Armenian diaspora because Khabirov’s wife is Armenian. Ethnic tensions also flared up — but only in response to the lawlessness perpetuated by Radiy Khabirov's entourage to date. As they say, Caesar's wife is above suspicion. The unrest greatly disturbed Khabirov, who decided to bring the matter to an end. Unlike Putin, who is always careful not to mention Alexei Navalny's name, using monikers like ‘the Berlin patient’, Khabirov isn't shy to name names. The same was true about Mikheil Saakashvili. In this instance, Radiy Khabirov appears to have lost his grip.”

The calls for Bashkortostan's separation from Russia are most often heard from Bashkirs who recently left Russia, Aysin clarifies. The new emigrants make tough political statements, and they urge their compatriots at home to disobey the authorities — much to the dismay of both Khabirov himself and the Kremlin.

Again Aysin: “Bashkortostan is a complex region, populated by Bashkirs, Tatars, and Russians in equal shares. Its ethnic composition is not as complicated as that of Dagestan, but local specifics are making it highly volatile. Bashkortostan becoming the next epicenter of protest is not out of the question. In addition, ultra-patriots and die-hard securocrats behind various desks operate on the assumption that all of Russia's Turkic peoples want to break away and create the Great Turan, a multinational state encompassing the Bashkirs, the Yakuts, the Tuvans, the Altaians, the Karachais, the Kumyks, the Nogais, and the Balkars. To justify their theory, they say Bashkortostan or Altai offer these would-be separatists access to the border with Kazakhstan, where the shadow of Turkey looms. I've heard that on multiple occasions. I think this idea will be getting more and more air time.”

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