Repression in Bashkortostan Buys Moscow Only a Brief Respite

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 20


Executive Summary:

  • Although Moscow and Ufa believe their repressions against protesters have been successful, the repressions will likely radicalize protest attitudes, ensuring that non-Russians will see Moscow as the problem.
  • Expert observers recognize this is the case, sparking a new discussion about what the Kremlin and Russian opposition need to do next.
  • Echoes of what occurred at the end of the Soviet Union are present in today’s events, perhaps demonstrating what the future holds for the Russian Federation.

Following the protests in the Republic of Bashkortostan in the middle of January, Moscow and Ufa have increased repression in the republic. Their joint willingness to repress the republic demonstrates that they are ready to do whatever is necessary to suppress any expression of anger from the Bashkirs, sending a message to all other non-Russians that if they protest, they too will face the unrestricted power of the state (, February 5). More than 30 protest leaders are now behind bars, with one having died of injuries inflicted by his captors (ABN Correspondence, January 26, February 3). These actions have intimidated some Bashkirs and other non-Russians and likely mean that there will not be any new mass protests in the immediate future, either in the republic itself or elsewhere in the Russian Federation. The authorities, however, have solved neither Moscow’s problems nor those of the leaders the center appoints (Idel.Realii, January 23, February 2).

Moscow and Ufa have only driven protest attitudes underground, meaning that the next wave of protests will be larger and more radical than the last one. This could lead other non-Russians across the country to follow suit, repeating what happened at the end of Soviet times (, January 19; Window on Eurasia, January 26). This means that while repression has indeed bought Moscow and Ufa some time, it has done so at the price of putting both at greater risk in the future (see EDM, January 23). Some of the most insightful observers are making this argument as a cautionary lesson to those who suggest the demise of the Russian Federation is imminent (Ukrainskaya pravda, February 3).

While the latest round of public protests in Bashkortostan may be ebbing as more of its leaders are imprisoned, it is reasonable to conclude, as some activists already have, that what took place in mid-January is a turning point. These protests mark a transition period not only for Bashkortostan but for Putin and the Russian Federation as a whole. While Putin’s reign and the empire of the Russian Federation are unlikely to end tomorrow, it could happen just as unexpectedly as the disintegration of the USSR (Charter ’97, February 2).

The Kremlin sees the suppression of these protests as yet another example of how repression works. Both Moscow and Ufa appear pleased with their actions (Versia, January 29; Ukrainskaya pravda, February 3). Bashkorthostan leader Radiy Khabirov has concluded that instating these repressions has helped him to shore up his position with Putin (Club regionov, February 2; Idel.Realii, February 7). Moscow’s repression, however, does send a message, but not the one the regime wants. It shows that the Kremlin is afraid and has no answer except to repress. The way in which Ufa has followed Moscow’s lead—a departure from its earlier efforts to negotiate with protesters—has destroyed the idea that there is a good tsar in Moscow who can save them by replacing a bad local boyar. Instead, Bashkirs and others now see that the only solutions to their problems are the radical restructuring of the Russian Federation or even outright independence (Charter ’97, January 17; Idel.Realii, January 23, February 2).

Three Russian commentators provide insight into why Moscow and Ufa are deceiving themselves and how others should respond. The first, Aleksey Makarkin of the Moscow Center of Political Technologies, points out that under conditions of repression, national movements may appear to get smaller, but they inevitably radicalize. The former is undoubtedly what Moscow wants, but the latter will pose problems for the center, just as was the case at the end of Soviet times. Moscow and its agents in the republics can slow that process, but repression alone will not be enough to end resistance or bring more non-Russians into the fold. As a result, the country will be at risk, perhaps not now but in the near term. This will be the result of the policies of those in Moscow who think repression alone is enough (, January 19).

The second, Russian economist and commentator Vladislav Inozemtsev, argues that the events in Bashkortostan are significant because they highlight the sad fact that, just as was the case at the end of Soviet times, neither the incumbent regime nor its opposition has a plan to deal with the rise of non-Russian nationalism. The regime believes that a new Russian nation already exists and can be maintained by terror, given the relatively smaller size of the non-Russian fraction of the population compared to their number compared to the Soviet population at the end of the 1980s. At the same time, the Russian opposition “does not attach any importance” to non-Russian nationalism because it is “confident that democratization, the rejection of state capitalism, and the respect for human rights” is more important not only to itself but to all citizens—regardless of nationality—in the Russian Federation. As a result, he argues, what is happening is a more or less precise repetition of what occurred in the USSR at the end of the 1980s. If neither the regime nor the opposition learns from that fact, “then the price of the post-Putin regimes, just like those which followed the Brezhnev era, will be the loss of the reformed country” (The Moscow Times, January 23).

The third, London-based Russian analyst Vladimir Pastukhov, insists that what has occurred in Bashkortostan should tell Vladimir Putin something he clearly does not understand and does not want to hear: “Anyone who likes to unleash hybrid wars abroad must be prepared for hybrid protests in the rear.” According to Pastukhov, the Bashkortostan protests are of “a special kind.” They are not “anti-war or democratic or anti-corruption” acts in their pure forms. Instead, they are “a little bit of each of these” and receive their energy from religious and nationalistic feelings (, January 18). The Bashkirs have been protesting not so much against Putin “as against imperial policies.” He further argues: “As a result, there’s nothing much to be happy about here for the time being. Russia is sitting on a time bomb that Putin has placed under it, but that bomb is one that will [likely only] explode after he leaves the scene.”

Perhaps the best judgment on what has happened and why it matters so much comes from Bashkir nationalist Ruslan Gabbasov. He pointedly observes that “putting 40 or even 50 people behind bars will not help Moscow forever as there are 1.5 million of us.” This implicitly draws a parallel between what the Soviet government achieved by its attack on Azerbaijan in January 1990, an action that Azeris still remember as “Black January” (Idel.Realii, January 23). That, too, bought Moscow some time. Less than two years later, however, the USSR was no more. Moscow must look to its past to best prepare for its future.