On December 28, 2014, authorities in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, Tatarstan, detained Tatar rights activist Rafis Kashapov upon his return from Turkey, where he had reportedly received medical treatment and held meetings with local activists. The authorities ordered the activist detained for two months for “fueling inter-ethnic strife.” Kashapov heads the Tatar Civil Center in Naberezhnye Chelny, which is known for defending the national identity of Tatars, as well as protecting the language and the culture of Tatars (Tatar-centr, December 29, 2014). Details about the rights activist’s unusually harsh treatment subsequently emerged. On January 19, Kashapov went on a hunger strike to protest the way he was treated by the police and the violations of the national and religious rights of ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation. The court hearing on the activist’s case was closed, so that even his relatives were not allowed to attend. Only Federal Security Service (FSB) officers were present. Kashapov was assigned a government lawyer, even though he wanted to hire a private attorney. Moreover, he was reportedly kept in handcuffs during his entire detention (Krymr.com, January 20).
Tatars are the second largest ethnic group in the Russian Federation after Russians. Besides having a different ethnic identity and their own language, related to the Turkic group of languages, they are also predominantly Muslim. The Tatars’ distinct identity from ethnic Russians and their large numbers have prompted the Russian government to monitor ethnic-Tatar activists closely. In October 2014, another Tatar activist, 64-year-old Fauzia Bairamova, received a one-year suspended sentence for “fueling inter-ethnic strife” (Novayagazeta.ru, October 3, 2014).
Both activists regarded the accusations against them as politically motivated. Interestingly, both activists recently drew the attention of the government after they spoke out strongly against Russian aggression against Ukraine. It appears that the Ukrainian issue became the crucial factor in the persecution of both Fauzia Bairamova and Rafis Kashapov. Moscow puts significant effort into fueling the propaganda war against Ukraine inside Russia, and any alternative voices are regarded as hostile. In addition, the Russian authorities also may fear that Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine will have repercussions at home. Indeed, as Russia openly supports separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, it will become harder for the Russian leadership to justify why Tatar separatism should not also be allowed. Tatar activists like Kashapov and Bairamova help Tatar society form an appropriate public discourse and set the tone for Tatarstan’s future demands for greater autonomy from Moscow. This may have been the most important reason for the intimidation campaign the Russian authorities seem to have unleashed against the Tatar activists.
Tatarstan was one of the few places outside Moscow where activists supported the uprising on Kyiv’s Maidan. In December 2013, when the corrupt regime of the previous president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, brutally suppressed the protesters in Kyiv, a group of Tatar activists staged a protest action in Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan. The protesters in Kazan expressed their solidarity with the Ukrainian revolution. Notably, one of the protesters held a sign that said in Russian: “We Also Want to Live in Europe” (Tatcenter.ru, December 16, 2013). Such slogans sounded to the Russian authorities like state treason, and it was therefore no surprise that they decided to crack down on Tatar activists.
In Tatarstan, it is not only the activists who are so bold. The republic’s authorities are also far more explicit in defending Tatarstani interests than most other leaders of Russia’s ethnic republics. Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov stated that the Tatars, as the second largest titular ethnic group in the Russian Federation, had certain rights that all the other Russian regions should respect. Minnikhanov was referring to the problem many Muslims face in predominantly ethnic-Russian cities, where they are not allowed to build mosques. Minnikhanov called on the Tatar business community to be more active in resolving the issue of mosque construction in their cities of residence, emphasizing “if we join our efforts, we will become even stronger” (15minut.org, January 3).
Kazan Tatar activism received an additional boost after Moscow annexed Crimea. The Ukrainian peninsula has a small, but extremely vibrant Crimean Tatar community which has extensive ties in Turkey. Kazan Tatars and Crimean Tatars are different ethnic groups, but both are Muslim and related to the Turkic-speaking world. The annexation of Crimea, therefore, not only expanded the so-called Russian World (Russky Mir) in the interpretation of Vladimir Putin, but also expanded the Tatar World within the Russian Federation as one of its unintended consequences. Moscow’s task of restraining Tatar activists has now become even more daunting. This is a vivid illustration of how the expansion of an empire increases the internal challenges faced by the imperial government.