by Kateryna Mishchenko

Mass protests began January 15 in the Bashkir town of Baymak, more than 400 kilometers to the southeast. The reason was the outcome of the trial of civil activist Fail Alsynov, a well-known advocate of minority rights in the region and a supporter of preserving the language and culture of the Bashkir people.

On January 17, thousands of Alsimov’s supporters gathered outside the Baymak courthouse. He was accused of “inciting hatred or enmity” for a speech in which he used the term “kara khalyk” (which literally means “black people”, the examination found evidence of insult. He himself claimed that he meant “ordinary people”). A day before this, Alsimov was added to the Government’s list of “extremists and terrorists.”

After being sentenced to four years in prison, the police used force against protesters. Despite this, protests continued in other cities, including Ufa, the regional capital. In response, authorities dispatched vans to villages, detaining dozens on charges of participating in mass disorder and violence against authorities, carrying penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

While authorities in Russia are making widespread arrests, significant protests are localized in Baymak and other cities in Bashkortostan. Why there? The roots of these protests can be traced back to the underlying discontent in 2020. The fight to safeguard ecologically significant chalk formations known as shihans rallied thousands of residents in Bashkortostan, representing a diverse range of ethnicities.

Despite the republic being home to three major ethnic groups – Tatars, Russians, and Bashkirs – it also encompasses Mari, Udmurts, and other Finno-Ugric peoples. Authorities encountered challenges in suppressing the protests of 2020, with many leaders avoiding immediate arrest. Notably, the nationalization of a soda company’s plans to exploit resources from one of the mountains played a role in thwarting these protests.

However, two months before the presidential elections, authorities adopted a harsh stance against protesters in Bashkortostan. Despite the protests not targeting the political system and arising from disagreement with a court decision rather than against the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, cases related to mass disorder were initiated. This move primarily aims to prevent negative perceptions of popular discontent preceding the predetermined results on March 17.

The Kremlin typically asserts that the situation is under control. Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesperson, even claimed there were no mass disorders or protests. However, this contradicts the Investigative Committee’s official position, which initiated proceedings on mass disorders related to the protests.

In winter 2023, demonstrations protested utility tariff hikes in the Novosibirsk region and Altai Krai. While most mass protests occurred in the North Caucasus, particularly in Dagestan, due to issues like mobilization, communal emergencies, and pro-Palestinian rhetoric from the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, the demonstrations in Bashkortostan represent the largest protests in Russia since the onset of armed aggression against Ukraine, prompting concern for the Kremlin. The Putin government succeeded in quelling protest threats in major cities through high living standards, repression against systemic opposition, and electoral mobilization. However, rural Russia, facing lower living standards and persistent environmental challenges, harbors significant protest potential.

On the cover photo, aerial drone view of the famous landmark of Ufa and Bashkiria ©frantic00/