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Astrakhan: Russia’s least Russian oblast at the crossroads of emerging separatisms

Astrakhan Oblast is an ethnically diverse federal subject of Russia located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the North Caucasus. The region’s previously marginal pro-independence movements have been gaining popularity since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What is the probability of intergroup violence in the Lower Volga area and how do members of Russia-wide opposition groups react to this challenge?

September 1, 2023 - Dor Shabashewitz - Articles and Commentary

Basy, a village in the Liman district of Astrakhan Oblast in an area contested by Kalmykia. Photo: Dor Shabashewitz

Once an independent Turkic khanate of its own, today’s Astrakhan Oblast is a federal subject of Russia, albeit a rather atypical one. Bordering Kazakhstan, Kalmykia and the Caspian Sea, it has been a hotspot for ethnic diversity for centuries. The formal designation “oblast” is usually given to Russia’s overwhelmingly Slavic regions as opposed to the republics and autonomous okrugs with a significant and formally recognised indigenous presence, but Astrakhan is an exception.

According to the latest census, 57 per cent of Astrakhan Oblast residents who declared any ethnic affiliation identified as ethnically Russian. With as many as 15 per cent of the region’s population lacking ethnicity data – a consequence of the census being carried out under COVID-19 restrictions – one can only speculate on the actual percentage of the ethnic minority population. The more reliable data from earlier censuses combined with the general demographic trends suggest that it falls between 30 and 40 per cent, likely closer to the second figure. Not only is this higher than in any other oblast, it even exceeds the share of the “titular nations” in several republics such as Karelia and Khakassia.

Astrakhan’s ethnic minority population is highly heterogeneous. The largest groups besides Russians are Kazakhs (18 per cent of the region’s total population), Tatars (six per cent), Nogais (one per cent), Chechens (0.8 per cent), Azeris (0.8 per cent) and Kalmyks (0.8 per cent). A few smaller groups such as Turkmens (0.5 per cent) are also viewed as an integral part of the region’s cultural landscape because they reside in long-established, monoethnic rural communities. The geographic distribution of ethnic groups within Astrakhan Oblast is uneven. Urban localities tend to have a higher share of the ethnically Russian population and recent immigrants from outside the region, whereas many rural areas are dominated by Kipchak Turkic-speaking ethnic groups, most notably Kazakhs, Tatars and Nogais. These three ethnicities combined form a majority of the population in four out of the region’s 11 districts.

Astrakhan is often described as a “home for everyone”, that is, a region not associated with any particular ethnic group as its primary “owner”. This well-deserved reputation can be illustrated by the case of the Meskhetian Turkish immigrants from Central Asia, who moved to rural Astrakhan in the 1990s and settled in the villages of Raznochinovka and Pody. Less than 20 years after the move, new streets in these villages were officially named after Turkey and its historic leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This is an obvious sign of the immigrants feeling at home and claiming their new place of residence as their own and the locals agreeing – even despite the Turkish community being a minority in both settlements. Two other regions in South-Western Russia, Rostov Oblast and Kalmykia, experienced a larger influx of Meskhetian Turks. There, they have become a majority in several localities, yet no places are named after them: the street names are all Russian and Kalmyk, respectively.

This openness to immigrants comes from the history of Astrakhan as a settler colony. While many regions of today’s Russia have been settled by the colonising empire, Astrakhan is somewhat unique in the variety of places these settlers came from and ethnic groups they belonged to. Not just the Slavic majority, but most of the region’s minorities, now often referred to as “indigenous”, have in fact settled in Astrakhan within the last three or four centuries. Tatars from the Middle Volga, Karagash Nogais from the North Caucasus, Kalmyks from East Asia, Turkmens from across the Caspian and numerous other groups arrived in Astrakhan after it was conquered by the Russians, founding new settlements of their own along the region’s numerous rivers. This history is evident from place names. The village of Tambovka was settled by Russian peasants from today’s Tambov Oblast; the village of Novo-Bulgary was founded by Tatar settlers and derives its name from Volga Bulgaria, a historic state that existed in and around today’s Tatarstan; and the village of Sarmantayevka got its name from a Kazakh clan. Sure enough, these villages have sizable Russian, Tatar and Kazakh populations, respectively, to this day.

Emerging separatisms

The Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a myriad of discussions pertaining to a hypothetical dissolution of Russia. The topic has gained attention both from Russia’s own activists, primarily those identifying with one or more ethnic minorities, and foreign politicians and scholars, many of whom consider this scenario more likely than ever as the Russian government is getting weaker. Numerous pro-independence movements have emerged among the forced émigrés from Russia’s republics and certain other regions. Although the government-imposed Russification of ethnic minorities, lack of regional autonomy, unfair budget redistribution, and exploitation of natural resources have been common complaints for decades, it was the war in Ukraine that gave regional activists the opportunity to form coalitions and gather support from a broader population.

Russia’s ethnic minorities are commonly said to have been disproportionately affected by the war. Research by independent media outlets such as Mediazona shows that people from the Siberian republics of Buryatia and Tuva are several dozen times more likely to die fighting in Ukraine than Moscow residents. Reasons for this include the impoverished state of these regions, where career opportunities are few and military service is often the most accessible. However, some authors have called this a deliberate decision, part of the Kremlin’s political strategy. Residents of poor, geographically remote rural areas with little access to higher education and a lower share of internet users are significantly less likely to protest against their family members being sent to the war, and even if they do protest, it is easier and less costly for the authorities to ignore their dissent compared to that in Russia’s largest and richest cities. As a result of centuries-long colonial policies, these impoverished and easy-to-disregard areas tend to be the ones that have a higher share of ethnic minorities, whereas the more developed and politically relevant cities are universally majority Slavic.

Since independent polling is practically impossible in today’s Russia and pro-independence activism is illegal, it is hard to estimate the actual popularity of the emerging separatist movements. The only metrics of their significance that are more or less verifiable are their social media followings and participation in public events organised in exile such as the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum. In most cases, the correspondence between ethnic groups, regions and significant pro-independence movements is relatively clear-cut. Russia’s republics are typically considered legal ethnic homelands to specific “titular nations” that enjoy certain formal – albeit practically nonexistent – privileges and are the source of the regions’ names. In most cases, such republics have just one secessionist organisation that represents them at international meetings and speaks on behalf of the respective “titular” ethnic group.

Like any territory affected by Russia’s regional inequality and having a sizable minority population, Astrakhan Oblast has had a disproportionate share of its non-Slavic residents recruited to the war. Out of the 218 known names of Astrakhan Oblast residents who have died fighting in Ukraine, 54 per cent are clearly non-Slavic, despite ethnic minorities making up between 30 and 40 per cent of the region’s population. Most of them have Turkic, Mongolic or North Caucasian origins. It is worth noting that many of Russia’s non-Slavic indigenous groups tend to have Russian-sounding names, which makes their members impossible to distinguish from ethnic Russians by names alone, so the actual share of non-Slavic combatants from Astrakhan is likely even higher.

In many regions, it was the need to talk about this disproportionate use of ethnic minorities as soldiers that triggered the emergence of civic movements, which later adopted pro-independence or at least strongly regionalist rhetoric. Social media communities such as Free Kalmykia first appeared during the so-called “partial mobilisation” in September 2022 as chat groups aimed at helping fellow co-ethnics emigrate to avoid being sent to the war. Once the first round of mobilisation was complete, they began covering a wider array of anti-colonial topics. Among their most recent posts are reading lists on Kalmyk history, videos of émigré pro-independence rallies, examples of racism in Russian society, and explanations of decolonisation as a concept.

Although Astrakhan’s minorities face a lot of the same problems as their Kalmyk neighbours, be it the disproportionate draft or more general things like xenophobia and forced linguistic Russification, no truly equivalent movement has appeared in the region so far. Nevertheless, the future of Astrakhan Oblast during and after a hypothetical dissolution of Russia has been a matter of numerous heated debates, often between movements that primarily represent other regions and do not even include members from Astrakhan.

A village in the Liman district of Astrakhan Oblast. Photo: Dor Shabashewitz

The Nogai claims

The Nogais are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group of Kipchak Turkic origin. They are closely related to the Kazakhs and Karakalpaks of Central Asia but primarily live in the North Caucasus. Unlike many other minorities of Russia, they do not have a designated republic and reside in several non-contiguous areas scattered throughout five federal subjects. Dagestan and Stavropol Krai have a combined Nogai population of 62,000, slightly more than half of their total number in Russia according to the 2010 census.

Official figures suggest there are between 7000 and 9000 Nogais in Astrakhan Oblast, but this is likely to be an underestimation. Isolated from the larger, heavily Nogai areas in the North Caucasus, Astrakhan is home to three distinct Nogai subgroups that speak divergent dialects and differ in culture and identity: the Karagash Nogais, Yurt Nogais and Utars. Despite the Nogai origin of these communities, confirmed by linguistic and historical research and remembered by many of their members, the Soviet government formally considered them part of the Tatar people. Tatar was the legal ethnicity in Astrakhan Nogais’ Soviet passports, and so was the language taught at their village schools as their supposed “mother tongue”. By the time of the dissolution of the USSR, that is, after decades of state-imposed Tatarisation, many Astrakhan residents of Nogai origin genuinely identified as Tatars.

In the 1990s, the Karagash faced a far-reaching ecological challenge after a gas mining field was discovered close to their villages. A gas processing plant was built next to them, and its toxic emissions forced most of the community to relocate for health and safety reasons. This disaster helped the community consolidate and fight for its cause, which in turn led to the emergence of a stronger sense of ethnic identity. Soon afterwards, a group of Karagash activists pressured the regional government to change the language policy so that Nogai rather than Tatar became the language taught as their “mother tongue”. Thirty years later, the vast majority of Karagash people identify as Nogais for all intents and purposes, including census questionnaires. The two other groups of Astrakhan’s Nogais did not face any comparable challenges and thus largely continue identifying as Tatars, just like their parents and grandparents did in the Soviet era. With this in mind, one could speculate that the actual number of Astrakhan Oblast residents of Nogai origin is closer to 30,000 and not 7000 or 9000.

Members of the only Nogai secessionist movement variously branded as Free Nogai El and The Nogai Republic go way beyond that figure. In an interview with RFE/RL, one of the movement’s leaders, Edige Bekmurzayev, claimed as many as 100,000 of Astrakhan Oblast’s residents were Nogais and said Astrakhan should become the capital of a future Nogai state based on “historical sources”. The basis of the second claim is that the Yurt Nogais are the only group directly descended from the pre-colonial population of the Astrakhan Khanate – a theory not universally supported by researchers but commonly cited and believed to be true by most local history enthusiasts in Astrakhan. Ironically, these days most people of Yurt Nogai origin identify as ethnic Tatars, and a local activist promoting the revival of a Nogai identity in the community even faced pressure from municipal authorities shortly before the 2021 census.

The importance of Astrakhan to the Nogai secessionist movement can be seen from the name of its social media group on Telegram, a Russian messenger app. The group self-described as a platform for “supporters of independence for the once sovereign Nogai state currently occupied by Moscow” and bears the name “Nogai Republic (Astrakhan)”, hinting at their future capital city of choice. The movement’s leaders Edige Bekmurzayev and Anvar Kurmanakayev, who have taken part in the Free Nations of Post-Russia Forums, have stated numerous times that they want all of Astrakhan Oblast’s current territory to become part of this future state.

It is worth noting that most promoters and supporters of the Nogai Republic project come from the North Caucasus subgroups of the Nogais and have no direct connection to Astrakhan. The only known exception is Anvar Kurmanakyev, who has lived in Astrakhan for over a decade, but even then he is originally from elsewhere and is not considered a well-known activist by the local community. Astrakhan’s most important community leaders, such as Ramil Ishmukhambetov, Amir Musayev and Eldar Idrisov, who had been promoting the Nogai language and culture for years by the time the separatist movement appeared, either ignored the new organisation or made negative comments about it.

A 19th century Persian caravanserai turned into communal housing by the Soviets. Photo: Dor Shabashewitz

The Kalmyk claims

 The Kalmyks are a predominantly Buddhist ethnic group of Mongolic origin. Despite their close relation to a number of East Asian peoples, the vast majority of Russia’s Kalmyks live in what is considered geographic Europe. The Republic of Kalmykia is one of Russia’s poorest and least populated regions and lies between Astrakhan Oblast and Dagestan by the Caspian Sea. Ethnic Kalmyks make up over 60 per cent of the republic’s population. Russians, Kazakhs and various Dagestani ethnic groups are the largest minorities.

The history of the Kalmyks has been connected to Astrakhan since their original arrival to the Lower Volga region. Under the Russian Empire, most of their settlement area was administratively incorporated as part of the Astrakhan Governorate. When the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast was created by the Soviets in 1920, Astrakhan became its first capital city and was home to many Kalmyk institutions, politicians and intellectuals. It played this role until 1928, when the capital was moved to Elista. Seven years later, the status of the oblast was elevated to that of an autonomous republic.

In 1943, virtually all ethnic Kalmyks were forcibly relocated to remote Siberian settlements by NKVD troops on the direct orders of Joseph Stalin after he accused them of siding with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Soon afterwards, the Kalmyk ASSR was dissolved and its districts redistributed between the neighbouring regions, most notably Astrakhan Oblast and Stavropol Krai.

When the Kalmyks were allowed to return to their homeland in 1956, their republic was re-established, but with different borders and a smaller land area. Stavropol Krai wanted to keep the Iki-Burul district, but Kalmykia’s new leader Basan Gorodovikov managed to get it back through the courts. Gorodovikov was not so lucky when it came to the two districts originally known as Privolzhye and Dolban, which were transferred to Astrakhan Oblast in 1943 and renamed to Narimanov and Liman, respectively. According to the Kalmyk historian Maria Ochir, Gorodovikov planned to give a speech at a high-level Central Committee meeting in Moscow, asking for the two historically Kalmyk districts to be returned to the republic on behalf of his people. He was arrested after the draft of his speech was leaked to the KGB and had to quit his position. Since then and until the dissolution of the USSR, Kalmykia was headed exclusively by ethnically Russian politicians because the Kremlin considered ethnic Kalmyks dangerously prone to “irredentism” and “Pan-Mongolism”. The two districts remain part of Astrakhan Oblast to this day.

The 1990s saw another uptick in discussions about the fate of the contested districts. According to Ochir, Moscow forced Kalmykia’s first post-Soviet leader Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to introduce an informal moratorium on the topic, and the dispute over the two districts has not been brought up by Kalmykia’s authorities since then. However, a number of smaller disputes regarding several isolated and sparsely populated stretches of desert arose and became an important part of the region’s political discourse, recognised and openly talked about by members of Kalmykia’s government.

These disputes are different in nature: the arguments of both sides are more legal than historical. While the contested areas fall within Kalmykia’s constitutionally recognised borders, Astrakhan Oblast officials consider them part of their region based on indefinite lease agreements handed out to a number of Soviet-era collective farms, whose headquarters were located in undisputed Astrakhan territory. These disputes have been the subject of lawsuits and even led to real-life conflicts, such as Astrakhan park rangers confiscating the cattle of a nomadic herder from Kalmykia and forcing him to leave the territory they considered theirs – contrary to what was shown in all the maps, including government-approved ones.

An even wider array of unofficial territorial claims have appeared in local media outlets from both sides in the past 30 years. In 2020, the head of the Kalmyk branch of the Association of Lawyers of Russia, Anastasia Kravtsova, stated that the Astrakhan village of Rechnoye should join Kalmykia. It does not belong to either of the two major contested districts in their current form, and the reasoning is not legal: it is just that Rechnoye is home to the one and only Kalmyk Buddhist temple built before the USSR and still standing today, so it has a special symbolic significance to many Kalmyks. In 2021, Kalmykia’s head Batu Khasikov mentioned a social media publication calling for the Kalmyk town of Tsagan Aman to join Astrakhan Oblast and asked the regional prosecutor’s office to investigate it as a potential case of extremism.

Unsurprisingly, these numerous territorial disputes became a hot topic after secessionism became the mainstream form of ethnic activism in Russia’s republics. The first organisation to discuss the topic in 2022 was the Oirat-Kalmyk People’s Congress. Unlike most secessionist movements in today’s Russia, it existed prior to the war in Ukraine. It emerged in 2015 as the organising committee for a biannual public event based in Kalmykia’s capital Elista, where members of the national intelligentsia and various political opposition groups discussed the region’s future and elected grassroots representatives through direct voting. In early 2022, the elected members of the Congress condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine and were forced to emigrate under threat of political persecution. Later that year, they signed a provisional declaration of Kalmykia’s independence, which mentioned the need to return the contested areas without listing them explicitly.

Earlier statements by the Congress show that its members reached a consensus in that they view the Narimanov and Liman districts of Astrakhan Oblast as an integral part of Kalmykia. Individual members of the organisation, such as Erentsen Dolyaev, went beyond that and publicly called for incorporating all of Astrakhan Oblast’s territory into a sovereign Kalmyk state once it is formed, engaging in internet debates with the aforementioned Nogai leaders who, too, claim the entirety region as their own.

A Kalmyk Buddhist temple in Vostochnoye, a village in the Ikryanoye district of Astrakhan Oblast that was built two years ago by descendants of the victims of Stalin-era deportations. Photo: Dor Shabashewitz

Local opinions

As is evident from the discussion above, the most heard opinions on the future of Astrakhan Oblast after a hypothetical dissolution of the Russian Federation are expressed by people who have little to no personal connection to today’s Astrakhan and its population despite representing ethnic groups that do have historic ties to the region. One can only speculate as to why no secessionist movement has appeared within Astrakhan itself so far, but its internal diversity seems like the most plausible reason. Most pro-independence movements have a strong ethnic bias and are nationalist in nature, which means it might be hard to launch one in an area that half a dozen ethnicities rightfully call home.

Nevertheless, there is a significant group of anti-war and anti-Putin politicians and activists from Astrakhan, including Mikhail Doliyev, Yelena Baybekova, Yaroslav Savin, Marina Mitalyova and Sergey Scherbakov. Despite their affiliation with Russia-wide opposition groups such as the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) and Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, which are routinely labeled as imperialist by anti-colonial movements, these activists hold regionalist view and have expressed dissent with the Kremlin’s Moscow-centrism and exploitation of Astrakhan’s resources and population. Most of them, too, had to flee the country after February 2022.

Today, the highest concentration of Astrakhan émigrés is in Germany, and a few of them have expressed moderately pro-dissolution opinions. Doliyev, who was the head of the regional PARNAS branch until his forced emigration, talked about the once-independent Astrakhan Khanate that was conquered and annexed by Russia and pondered what today’s Astrakhan would be like had this never happened. He came to the conclusion that it could have been much more successful and comfortable to live in, comparing its location in a desert area at the crossroads of trade routes that is rich in natural resources to that of the UAE.

Mitalyova made the assumption that Astrakhan may become part of Kazakhstan if Russia’s government loses control over most of the country and there is a power vacuum, and explained she viewed this as a positive scenario. Interestingly enough, both speakers also mentioned the scenario they deemed the worst – Astrakhan being taken over by the Chechen Republic, which seems extremely unlikely and probably speaks of their older fears as Russians without a minority identity who lived through the Russo-Chechen Wars.

One more local opinion that is worth mentioning is that of Muslim Yunusov, the imam of an Astrakhan mosque and a Tatar community leader. Although he has not made any public statements on the political future of Astrakhan since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, he expressed a unique point of view closely related to the topic in 2021 while commenting on the aforementioned incident regarding the status of Tsagan Aman, a Kalmyk semi-enclave surrounded by Astrakhan Oblast.

Yunusov proposed a merger of Kalmykia and Astrakhan Oblast into a new, larger federal subject as the best solution to the endless territorial disputes between the two. He also suggested adding the Nogai district of Dagestan to the mix, saying it belonged to the same cultural macro-region and once was a part of the pre-Soviet Astrakhan Governorate. This unusual approach practically combines the interests of all the parties involved in the ongoing debate between the secessionist movements, even though it predates their emergence.

Yunusov likely faced pressure from the authorities after he shared this opinion in an interview. Just one day later he wrote an apology post on Facebook saying he was not an “extremist” and did not want to call for any changes to the borders of Russia’s federal subjects. This just goes to show how touchy and dangerous the topic was even before the war and without explicit mentions of secession.

Probability of violent conflict

Even before the emergence of significant secessionist movements, land disputes between Astrakhan Oblast and its neighbours, most notably Kalmykia, would often lead to heated debates. This is evident from the comment sections on the news websites that covered controversial claims coming from both sides. There, users would quickly resort to mutual insults and radical calls, such as those for the abolition of the other federal subject as a separate entity.

Real-life ethnic conflicts are no stranger to the Lower Volga either, with the 2005 mass unrest in Yandyki being the most notable case. Yandyki is a small town in the Liman district of Astrakhan Oblast, one of the two areas formally contested by the Oirat-Kalmyk People’s Congress. It has a Russian ethnic majority with significant Kalmyk, Kazakh and Chechen minorities. In February 2005, a group of young Chechen residents of the town desecrated several graves at the local cemetery, including that of Eduard Kokmadzhiyev, a Kalmyk man who died fighting in Chechnya on the Russian side. At first the Liman district court sentenced them to two years in jail, but quickly suspended their sentence after what most Yandyki residents thought was a bribe. This perceived injustice caused a brawl so massive and violent that over 1200 police officers and soldiers had to be sent to the town to stop the fighting.

That being said, local experts with first-hand knowledge of the region’s rural communities through extensive fieldwork such as Maria Ochir consider the probability of violent clashes between the parties of the land disputes low even if the Russian government loses control over the area. According to Ochir, all other cases of inter-ethnic violence recorded in the region in the past few decades stemmed from mundane quarrels with no political motivation, where the fighting parties just happened to belong to different ethnic groups – something natural for an area that diverse.

While the Yandyki unrest may be considered an exception, it is worth noting that the town’s Kalmyk, Russian and Kazakh communities took the same side and fought together against the Chechens. This, too, has been the case in other, lesser-known and smaller-scale conflicts throughout the Lower Volga region, where ethnic communities perceived as “indigenous” would universally side with each other against those perceived as “immigrants”.

As noted before, almost all of the major ethnic groups in today’s Lower Volga are descendants of immigrants who arrived in the region within the last three or four centuries. That being said, locals tend to make a distinction between the more integrated groups labeled as “indigenous” and those who arrived more recently, universally referred to as “immigrants”. Based on my personal observations, the two main criteria a group has to meet to be considered “indigenous” is a historic presence of longer than 100 years and at least one monoethnic settlement within Astrakhan Oblast or Kalmykia, typically founded by members of the said group and universally viewed as the respective group’s “local homeland”. The main groups that fit this description are Kalmyks, Russians, Kazakhs, Tatars, Nogais and Turkmens. Others, like Chechens, Dargins, Azerbaijanis and Meskhetian Turks are generally viewed as “immigrants”, even if this only becomes a relevant label in times of conflict. Since all of the parties engaged in the debate on Astrakhan’s future represent ethnic groups considered “indigenous”, Yandyki-scale clashes indeed are unlikely.

A gravestone at an abandoned cemetery called Shaitan Töbe (“Devil’s Hill”) near the Kazakh village of Vinny. Photo: Dor Shabashewitz

The future of the oblast

As an ethnically diverse frontier region rich in natural resources, Astrakhan Oblast should receive more attention from international scholars, analysts and policy makers in this time of uncertainty. Although no cohesive secessionist movement has been formed within the region so far, it should not be disregarded in discussions of a hypothetical dissolution of Russia. Multiple pro-independence groups that are primarily focused on one or more of the neighbouring regions have claimed parts or all of Astrakhan Oblast as their own for historical, legal and cultural reasons. Most significantly, such claims were expressed numerous times by the Oirat-Kalmyk People’s Congress, whose members have delivered speeches in the European Parliament and established ties with government officials of several western countries.

Perhaps the most unusual trait of public discussions regarding the future of Astrakhan is that they are initiated by and held between movements and individuals who represent the least numerous of the region’s minorities. Between the heated debates among the Kalmyks (7000 people in Astrakhan Oblast) and the Nogais (8000 people in Astrakhan Oblast), it is easy to forget that the region has a 150,000-strong ethnically Kazakh population and over 50,000 Tatars. This goes on to prove how nationalist and ethnicity-focused the secessionism in today’s Russia is. The Kazakhs as an ethnic group have a sovereign state of their own, and the Tatars have Tatarstan – a larger and more developed federal subject of Russia that does not border Astrakhan and has a long tradition of pro-independence movements which partly succeeded in the 1990s. The existence of these entities might be the main reason for the relative inactivity of Astrakhan’s largest minorities. The members of these two communities who find ethnic self-determination important simply move to their extant nation-state or join the larger movement for the independence of Tatarstan, respectively, instead of forming new movements focused on Astrakhan.

Interestingly enough, ethnically Russian members of Russia-wide opposition groups who happen to be from Astrakhan tend to speak favourably or neutrally of a potential dissolution of the federation – contrary to the general reputation of their Moscow and St. Petersburg counterparts, commonly labelled as imperialist by anti-colonial activists. This may be explained in part by Astrakhan’s atypically high level of diversity, which leads to its Slavic residents being more familiar with the discrimination that ethnic minorities face on a daily basis. However, the very visible impoverishment, neglect and exploitation of this resource-rich region by the federal government are likely a bigger reason.

Another notable trait of the secession discourse in Astrakhan is the utterly passive approach to the issue taken by members of the “mainstream” opposition. While ethnic minority activists eagerly “divide the skin of a bear they haven’t yet caught”, as per the Russian saying, local politicians aligned with Russia-wide anti-Putin movements talk of Astrakhan’s future as something they cannot and will not control. They rank the scenarios they foresee from good (full sovereignty or merging with Kazakhstan) to bad (becoming part of Chechnya) but do not seem to have any plans to try and influence the situation in one way or another.

It is too early to make detailed predictions, but it is already clear that numerous emerging powers will clash over Astrakhan in the event of a dissolution of Russia, and the now cohesive region may end up divided by new national borders. That being said, local experience shows that the territorial disputes are likely to be resolved in ways more peaceful than violent conflict thanks to the extant dynamics of intergroup relations.

Dor Shabashewitz is a Russia-born Israeli journalist with a background in anthropology. He covers ethnic minority rights and regional politics in the Lower Volga and Central Asia for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. He worked as a researcher at the RAS Institute for Linguistic Studies and conducted extensive fieldwork in Astrakhan’s Kazakh and Nogai rural communities before he was forced to leave the country by the Russian Federal Security Service in 2021.

All photos courtesy of Dor Shabashewitz.

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