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Is fighting ethnic activism the new big trend for Russia’s authorities?

The war in Ukraine has encouraged some members of Russia’s minority communities to think about their future under Moscow rule. While most activists calling for outright secession have fled abroad, the country’s repressive authorities are eager to be seen rooting out supposed enemies.

January 31, 2024 - Dor Shabashewitz - Articles and Commentary

Winter panorama of Baymak, a town in the Republic of Bashkortostan. Photo: Wikipedia.org

A few days before New Year’s Eve, the head of the Republic of Buryatia in Siberia, Alexey Tsydenov, announced his plans to establish a regional agency “for acting against the threats of separatism, nationalism, extremism and mass riots”. Despite the name of this body alluding to issues of security, this will not be a branch of the police. The agency will function more as a public council of concerned citizens, including media personalities, researchers and church representatives. However, it is safe to assume they will be working in close cooperation with the Buryat branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and helping them find and persecute “enemies of the nation”.

The alleged threats of separatism and nationalism have always been an important part of Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric. His previous election campaigns were largely based on his image as a leader who brought peace and stability after the lawlessness of the 1990s and the Chechen Wars. As a result, he is seen as the man who prevented the dissolution of Russia.

However, until recently, actual secessionist movements in Russia were few, obscure and viewed as unserious, bordering on role-playing territory. This has been changing since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. Although mistreatment 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 ethnic minority activists the opportunity to form coalitions and gather support.

A big reason for this development is that Russia’s ethnic minorities are being disproportionately affected by the war. Research by independent media outlets such as Mediazona shows that people from Buryatia and Tuva are several dozen times more likely to die fighting in Ukraine than Moscow residents. For more context on why ethno-activist and secessionist movements are growing and what they demand, see my earlier article on the emerging separatisms in the Lower Volga.

The new trendy crime

In the eyes of the Kremlin, the efficiency of Russia’s silovik agencies is largely measured in how many “extra dangerous criminals” they detect and imprison. What exactly the term “extra dangerous” means is defined by the current agenda, and the criminals do not have to be real.

When a war on drugs campaign is making the headlines, a police officer can get promoted by planting lots of marijuana on a random passer-by and saying that he was a drug lord. When the state is vocally paranoid about spies, it is enough to arrest a scientist who once attended a conference abroad – the logic is the same. LGBTQ+ activists are another example of a group targeted by a witch hunt, and again those affected are very unlike your stereotypical criminal.

The establishment of a designated anti-separatism agency, the first of its kind, confirms what my colleagues at RFE/RL have been noticing over the past few months: ethnic minority activism is now “extra dangerous”. For Russia’s authorities, fighting it seems to be the new big trend.

What we know about Russia’s regional elites makes it likely that this was not a direct, explicit order from Moscow. It may well have been more of a “gauging the mood” situation. Tsydenov might have heard President Putin or foreign intelligence Director Naryshkin bash the “Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum” on TV and talk about “western enemies” trying to make mighty Russia fall apart. Due to this, perhaps he thought: “Hey, they will love it if I take initiative and go fight those traitors.”

I wrote in a Twitter thread on January 5th that the new anti-separatism agency’s origins as Tsydenov’s pet project absolutely did not mean that it would stay highly localized forever. Many Russia-wide initiatives were originally invented by a mid-tier local official looking for the Kremlin’s attention and appreciation. Once deemed successful, they are promptly copied all over the country.

Sure enough, three days later the website Region.Expert reported that local agencies with identical names and tasks were being established in two more regions, Voronezh and Oryol. Unlike Buryatia, these two do not have significant non-Slavic populations, but they are close to the Russia–Ukraine border.

Increasingly common arrests

Ukraine connections, real or fabricated, are a recurring topic in the investigations of separatist movements by the Russian authorities. In October 2023, over a dozen Erzya cultural activists were arrested and questioned in Mordovia because of their alleged connection to Syres Bolyaen, a pro-independence community leader exiled in Ukraine.

The Erzya case is not isolated – arrests of ethnic minority activists have been increasingly common over the last few months. In September, the young Komi and Karelian blogger Nikita Goldin was detained in Arkhangelsk for “calls for separatism”. This is despite the fact that his blog explicitly stated that he was against breaking Russian law and did not call for secession.

In November, Rustam Fararetdinov was arrested for the sole crime of being a brother to Ruslan Gabbasov, a Bashkir secessionist leader who lives in Lithuania. Fararetdinov himself did not engage in any sort of activism; he was simply taken hostage. The police said they would only let him go if Gabbasov returned to Russia: “Otherwise, you will go to prison instead of him.”

In January 2024, Bashkortostan saw what was arguably the largest mass protest event in regional Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. Thousands gathered in the small town of Baymak to support Fail Alsynov, a Bashkir ecological activist accused of inciting inter-ethnic hatred, and engaged in clashes with the police.

Although Alsynov did not call for independence in his speech, which was deemed hateful by the authorities, pro-government sources routinely describe him as a separatist. Moreover, the MP Dinar Gilmutdinov has accused Ukraine and the Baltic states of orchestrating the protest in his support.

With such accusations getting more common and new arrests happening almost every week, it begins to look like a whole campaign targeting indigenous activists. The creation of the new anti-separatism agencies appears to confirm this. For those activists who managed to leave Russia, this is a win. Their work is finally being noticed, while Russia officially calls them a serious threat, something they are proud of. At the same time, for their supporters and family members who have stayed in Russia, life is getting more and more dangerous every day.

Perhaps most importantly, the line between secessionism and strictly cultural or linguistic ethno-activism is fairly blurry. Most of the activists who publicly call for the dissolution of Russia are doing so from abroad and cannot be reached by the Russian authorities. But if our worries are warranted and fighting secessionism is the new big trend, Russia’s silovik machine needs to make more arrests to impress the country’s leadership. Who are they going to target when they cannot get a hold of enough “actual traitors”?

The obvious answer is any kind of ethnic activists, even if they are apolitical or do not support secession, like the aforementioned Nikita Goldin. What we will likely see in the months to come is teenagers being detained for reposting indigenous culture-themed meme pictures and elderly authors of small-town newspapers in non-Slavic languages being accused of extremism for not being the “correct” type of Russians – at least that is what many ethnic communities already fear.

While this article was being edited, the Bashkortostan authorities launched a massive crackdown on protesters and activists. Police officers raided numerous towns and villages and detained hundreds of people who supported Fail Alsynov, reportedly using video footage from the protests to identify them days after the rallies took place. At least one of those arrested, Rifat Dautov, died while in detention. According to Dautov’s sister, he didn’t take part in the protest: “He was simply walking in the same area at the time.”

Officials say the cause of his death was related to a heart attack and heavy intoxication, but relatives haven’t been allowed in the morgue to see his body. Many activists suspect that he died after being tortured by the police. This theory is in line with the case of Dim Davletkildin, an actual Alsynov supporter, who was subjected to life-threatening beatings while in detention. This worryingly violent approach the authorities seem to have taken after the head of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, denounced the protests as “inspired by separatists” goes on to show just how quickly ethnic activism is becoming “extra dangerous”. 

Just a few days after the Bashkortostan protests, a new conflict erupted in another non-Slavic republic of Russia, Sakha, where an indigenous Sakha man was allegedly killed by a Tajik-Russian dual national. Dozens of local residents gathered in downtown Yakutsk on Wednesday last week, demanding justice and expressing anti-immigrant sentiment. Like in Bashkortostan, many were arrested. Around the same time, WhatsApp and Telegram users in Sakha reported outages, suspecting that the authorities were blocking the two messaging applications commonly used to coordinate protest events. This, too, may speak of changing attitudes in regional governments which treat ethnic mobilisation-inspired protests as an increasingly serious threat even when they are not explicitly political.

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.

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