Russia’s Bashkortostan protests: Separatism isn’t the real threat facing Putin

Neither tear gas, police batons, nor the twelve degree January windchill were able to deter thousands of protesters from taking to the streets in Baymak, Bashkortostan, at the start of 2024. On January 12, over 1,500 people turned out in this small town, 250 miles from the regional capital of Ufa, marking one of the largest protests in Russia since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. For the next week, the protests continued to grow, spreading as far as the regional capital before finally being stamped out in a crackdown that saw hundreds of protesters arrested, dozens facing criminal charges, and at least one dead in police custody.

Why were so many people in this province in the Ural Mountains ready to stand up to the Russian government, and why did the government adopt such strong measures to suppress these remote protests over a local issue? This relatively brief incident was a reminder that almost two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many Russians are deeply dissatisfied with their country’s direction, a situation carrying real political risk for the Putin regime.

The spark that lit these frozen demonstrations in Russia’s most populous ethnic republic was the sentencing of local environmental activist Fayil Alsynov to four years in a penal colony. Alsynov, who has been accused by the Russian authorities of “inciting ethnic hatred,” in fact fell victim to a now common wartime practice: Denunciation.

The case against Alsynov stems from the testimony of a single person, Kremlin-appointed governor Radiy Khabirov, who is accused of attempting to paint Alsynov as a separatist traitor masquerading as an innocent eco-activist. Supporters say Alsynov has been a thorn in governor’s side because he’s successfully advocated against big business projects that would endanger the well-being of local people and enrich the elite.

Alsynov has more than fifteen years of experience advocating for Bashkortostan’s regional sovereignty and against several invasive mining projects that threatened to destroy environmental landmarks, pollute local water systems, disrupt agriculture, and whisk away profits. He made his mark in 2020, leading the Kushtau protests against an attempt to mine Bashkortostan’s sacred limestone hills. Alsynov made local headlines again in 2023, when he and his fellow activists campaigned against gold mining in the Indyk mountains. For this, he has earned the trust of many local people who complain of feeling like second-class citizens in their own ethnic republics.

During Alysnov’s trial in December 2023, around 200 people gathered at the courthouse in Baymak to demand his release and the governor’s resignation. They made a video appeal to Vladimir Putin, complaining that due to Khabirov’s mismanagement, Bashkortostan had seen demographic decline, worsening corruption, insufficient development in infrastructure, and a fall in living standards. “Instead of solving problems, Radiy Khabirov refuses to listen to the opinions of citizens and is persecuting public figures and activists, considering them enemies of the state,” said the authors of the video.

Stay updated

As the world watches the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfold, UkraineAlert delivers the best Atlantic Council expert insight and analysis on Ukraine twice a week directly to your inbox.

The political response from the Russian government has been to paint this appeal for better local governance as a radical separatist movement. Without providing any evidence, member of the Russian Parliament Dinar Gilmutdinov attempted to blame the demonstrations on “elements related to the special services of foreign governments, operating from the territory of Ukraine and the Baltic states.”

Meanwhile, regional governor Khabirov defended his decision to denounce Alsynov, writing, “You can put on the mask of a good eco-activist, a patriot, but in fact the situation is not like that. A group of people, some of whom are abroad, essentially traitors, are calling for the separation of Bashkortostan from Russia. They’re calling for guerrilla warfare here.”

False accusations of extremism are a frequently used Kremlin tool for discrediting opposition movements. The most prominent example was the long-running propaganda campaign to portray Alexey Navalny as a far-right or Nazi figure, which culminated in the 2021 designation of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation as an “extremist organization” and criminal charges of extremism against many in the movement.

This approach yields multiple political dividends and provides justification for harsh crackdown measures. That is certainly what followed the recent accusations of separatism against the protest movement in Bashkortostan. In addition to a police crackdown and legal measures deployed against protesters, authorities imposed an information blackout that included the jamming of mobile phone signals and the blocking of popular messaging and social media apps including WhatsApp and Telegram.

Beyond justifying repressive measures, false accusations of extremism also play another important political role in today’s Russia. When effective, they can alienate an opposition movement from potential allies within the broader political opposition and the public at large. Indeed, this seems to have happened with the Bashkortostan protests, with some opposition figures quick to echo Kremlin charges of separatism. This is particularly important to the regime in terms of containing the risk posed by local protests.

In recent years, protest movements organized around local issues and in support of local civic and political leaders have proven some of the most broad-based and durable in Russia. When regional official Sergey Furgal was arrested on murder charges in 2020, citizens in the Russian Far East city of Khabarovsk took to the streets in protests that raged for months. A similar nationwide wave of protests broke out the year before when prominent journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested on falsified drug charges, apparently in retaliation for his investigations into corruption. These movements attest to a pattern in which Russian citizens repeatedly take to the streets in defense of those who many feel truly represent their interests.

Local protests also occur in Russia’s ethnic minority regions. Here, there are often longstanding grievances like those around resource extraction and ecological damage, the ultimate source of the recent protests in Bashkortostan. There are also newer grievances like the disproportionate enlistment of young men from these regions in the high casualty full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which motivated mass protests in Dagestan in response to the general mobilization order in September 2022.

The root causes of all these protests, however, are the same: A total lack of voice for Russia’s citizens in their government’s decisions, even as those decisions cause increasing amounts of harm to the public at large. The periphery has myriad reasons to resent the center. For the most part, major protest movements like the ones in Khabarovsk, Dagestan, or now Bashkortostan have been contained locally. But the naked imperialism driving Russia’s war in Ukraine has raised consciousness across the former Soviet space among formerly colonized groups.

While these groups have their own grievances specific to their colonial experience, they share with the Russian public as a whole a history of violence, repression, neglect, and exploitation at the hands of the Russian state. The real risk to the Putin regime is unity and solidarity across regions among Russians protesting these shared forms of mistreatment at the hands of the state. It is precisely this sort of unity and solidarity that false accusations of separatism are intended to undermine.

Dylan Myles-Primakoff is Senior Program Manager for Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Lillian Posner is Assistant Program Officer for Eurasia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

Follow us on social media
and support our work

Image: Russian police detain a demonstrator protesting the court verdict against a leading rights activist in the city of Ufa in the Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia in this still image from video, January 19, 2024. (REUTERS/Stringer)