Outnumbered in their republic by ethnic Russians and nearly equaled by ethnic Tatars, the Bashkirs of Bashkortostan, the product of Joseph Stalin’s first great act of ethnic engineering, have responded to their increasingly desperate situation by creating a new national organization, “Saving the Nation Together.” Whether they will succeed is an open question. But their detailed description of the problems they face is unprecedented, and their obvious conviction that they cannot count on anyone but themselves to solve them sets the stage for new conflicts within that republic and between it and Moscow in the future.
On April 29–30, more than 50 former senior officials and activists met in Ufa to establish a Congress of the Bashkir People of the Republic of Bashkortostan. They declared they were taking this action because existing Bashkir organizations are either focused on members of that nation who live beyond the borders of Bashkortostan or are totally controlled by the authorities. And those latter groups refuse to challenge the government even when the problems the Bashkirs face further worsen. The new group says it will focus on the Bashkirs of Bashkortostan and will mobilize people to solve their problems with Moscow and the republican leadership if possible, but against them if necessary. Moreover, the Congress participants insisted, “life shows that no one will solve [Bashkir] problems besides the Bashkirs themselves” (Proufu.ru, May 3).
Speaker after speaker provided a description of a nation and a republic in trouble, one in which the Bashkirs are losing ground not only to the ethnic Russians—as is the case in many non-Russian peoples in the Russian Federation—but also to the Tatars, who have their own republic next door. Furthermore, the Bashkirs are under threat from various all-Russian measures of economics, education, employment and demography.
Since 2011, they said, most of the economic indicators had gone negative and are now threatening the stability of the region, with Bashkortostan shifting from a donor region to one that needs subsidies from Moscow. Officials in Ufa fail to tell the population or Moscow the truth. Instead, they routinely put out figures that “do not coincide with reality, according to Firgat Bayramgulov, a senior medical official and one of the organizers of the meeting.
Unemployment is much higher than officials acknowledge, wages are 26 percent lower than the all-Russian average, and Bashkirs are being forced to move to other regions to find work—a trend that makes their minority status in their own republic even worse. In the 2010 census, Bashkirs formed 29.5 percent of the population of the republic, down slightly from 2002. Ethnic Russians made up 36.1 percent, about the same as eight years earlier; and the proportion of Tatars was 25.4 percent, a slight increase.
According to Bayramgulov, the republic’s authorities have been pursuing “an intentional anti-Bashkir policy” in recent years. As a result, Tatars occupy 47 percent of the top posts in the republic, Bashkirs 28 percent, and ethnic Russians 15 percent. He notes that while Bashkirs suffer the most because it is their republic—they have no other—ethnic Russians are being subject to discrimination as well. Yet, other speakers noted that Russians, in fact, dominate federal agency offices in the republic, so they are not as harmed as Bayramgulov’s statistics might suggest.
Ilgiz Sultanmuratov, a sociologist, asserted that Bashkirs are suffering from a demographic crisis. Last year, the number of births in percentage terms fell twice as fast in the republic as in Russia as a whole. More than 5,000 Bashkirs left Bashkortostan, and the burden of children and pensioners on each Bashkir worker is increasing rapidly. Those figures both reflect and have given rise to ever greater pessimism among the population. And Ildar Itkulov, a former deputy education minister, says that the school system is collapsing, especially in rural areas. He also added that “the status of the second state language—Bashkir—is not so firm”: Bashkirs do not learn their own language, while Russians and Tatars are also not learning it despite Bashkir being an official language of the republic.
Historian Salavat Khamidullin said that all of these negative phenomena are being intensified by the increasing actions of “nationalist Tatar organizations,” which continue to suggest that Bashkirs are not a separate nation and that parts of what is now Bashkortostan should be absorbed by Tatarstan. He pointed to the statements at the recent All-Tatar Social Center (VTOTs) and the writings of Rafael Khakimov, a leading Tatar historian and advisor to the Tatarstan Republic government, as evidence of what he described as the negative and dismissive attitudes of Kazan to the Bashkirs.
Fanil Fayzullin, an academician of the Bashkortostan Academy of Sciences, summed up the feelings of the session. He said that “the words sometime spoken by Zaki Validi [Togan, the great leader of the Bashkir national movement in the 1920s who was forced into emigration by Stalin] can be rendered this way: we are not Russians, we are not Tatars, we are Bashkirs.”
On the one hand, the April Congress simply shows that the tensions between the Bashkirs and Tatars, two closely related Turkic peoples that Stalin divided at the dawn of Soviet power to weaken the Tatars and allow Moscow to control both, continue to simmer. But on the other, such an open declaration of hostility to the Tatars and also to the Russians is unusual for the Bashkirs. It suggests that a nation typically assumed to be one of most passive is now about to become far more assertive, something that will cause problems not only for Kazan but for Moscow as well.