Environment or Ethnicity
Environment or Ethnicity
What do protests in Russia’s Bashkortostan and other ethnic republics have in common? How do protests articulate and transform their discourse? Vlada Baranova, Researcher of Minority Languages, writes on the dynamic interplay of environmental and ethnopolitical demands

Amidst dwindling mass protests in the capital cities following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the implementation of increasingly repressive laws, protests in the Republic of Bashkortostan stand out prominently. On January 17, 2024, the judge sentenced Fail Alsynov to four years in prison. At the same time, several thousand people gathered to protest in the small town of Baymak. The police forcefully dispersed the protesters, resulting in numerous detentions. Subsequent protests unfolded in Ufa, leading to mass disorder and charges against over 80 participants. However, no further protests occurred after Alsynov’s sentence was affirmed.

Some analysts view the developments in Bashkortostan as ethnic minority protests or separatist sentiments. Others, like Guzel Yusupova, attribute regional discontent to social inequality and corruption. Participants in the movement, along with Fail Alsynov himself, emphasize the significance of nature preservation in Bashkortostan. How then should we characterize the protests in Bashkortostan?

Some protesters have taken “the path to politics” via these environmental movements. Elena Solovyova highlights in the case of the Republic of Komi, how environmental protests have attracted individuals distanced from politics, providing a safe outlet for general dissatisfaction. Conversely, participants in eco-protests swiftly become politicized, engaging in dialogues on pivotal regional issues and beginning to articulate their own demands. Can such environmental movements serve as platforms for broader political opposition agendas? Or do their initial goals and dynamics follow a different logic?

The movements’ history

Today, the balance between ecological, social, or nationalist factors in protests is not always clear. Some movements articulate a broader agenda, while for others, safe eco-activism comes first (including monitoring, petitions, and appeals to federal conservation authorities within legal means). For instance, having participated in encampments and protests around Kushtau shihan, the environmental movement Green Shield of Bashkortostan continues its work in the republic, but currently sticking to only legal methods. Other movements respond to various social and political issues with an emphasis on ethnic culture or sovereignty, regional specifics, or the homeland’s environment. To understand the intertwined causes of protests, let us examine the history of the protest movement in Bashkortostan and recent rallies in other ethnic regions of Russia.

Fail Alsynov is known for his involvement in environmental protests in Bashkortostan, particularly in defense of Kushtau shihan hill. In 2020, activists managed to halt soda mining and secured protected status for the mountain. The protection of shihans (solitary limestone hills), including Kushtau shihan, from industrial development dates back to the 1980s. In this case, environmental motives are closely intertwined with ethnocultural agendas. These hills are considered sacred in Bashkir culture. Sadly, trees and rare animal species perish due to industrial exploitation.

The Bashkort movement was not limited to environmental concerns. During the active struggle for the shihans and even earlier, many movement participants were ethnic and youth activists. As noted by Arthur Asafyev, a journalist from Bashkortostan, a group of young movement leaders emerged from a Union of Bashkir Youth State, a 100% state organization: “[At first, they were focused] on youth issues, but they already were engaging in issues of federalism revival, restoration of some degree of region’s sovereignty. They started, however, with issues of youth culture, healthy lifestyle and tackling alcoholism and moonshine trade in villages.”

Appeals to ethnic and regional rhetoric were not coincidental for participants. Bashkortostan’s issues directly stem from inequalities between the region and the federal center. Despite the constitutional rights of ethnic minorities and national languages in republics, residents often face practical absence or gradual restriction of these rights. Many perceive this as a threat to their ethnic group and native language.

Alsynov participated in rallies supporting the Bashkir language (2017-2019) following amendments to the Education Law (2018), which replaced mandatory native language classes with optional ones. Before these amendments, all schoolchildren in the republic had to attend classes in the second state language — Bashkir in Bashkortostan, Kalmyk in Kalmykia, and so forth. Moreover, children from Bashkir families could study in elementary school in their native language, learning Russian as a separate school subject. The amendments effectively eliminated this parity, making studying the republic’s language optional. Additionally, rural schools in Bashkortostan often could afford to open only one Bashkir class per grade, so choosing Russian meant assimilation for schoolchildren from Bashkir families. 

Therefore, activists were ethnically motivated and sought primarily to preserve Bashkirs’ native language and ethnic identity. Arthur Asafyev comments:

“The environmental, national, and political components in the Bashkir national movement have been changing, giving priority to one or the other, depending on the situation. But by the time Radiy Khabirov came into office in the fall of 2019, the Bashkir national movement had already articulated its main claims, demands, and goals, political, national, cultural, and environmental.”

When Fail Alsynov publicly denounced the military mobilization for Russia’s war on Ukraine in September 2022, his arguments were related to ethnic values and dangers to fellow countrymen: “Bıl beƶƶeꞑ hugış tügel. Bıl başqort halqına qarata genoçid!” (This is not our war. This is genocide against the Bashkir people!”) 

Moving “from the specific to the general,” from activism in “their backyard” to a broader understanding of civil society, is not uncommon for grassroots movements. The participation of ordinary, not overly politicized citizens in various initiatives evolves from experiencing collective action and interaction with others. Thus, common values are formed based on lived experiences, a habit of activism, and organizational skills, which can be used to address broader issues and seek ways to resolve them. This is an important path of “mobilizing the apolitical folks,” as demonstrated in Karin Klemann’s research.

The question is why does political mobilization emerge in some cases and not in others? Environmental issues are present across most regions of Russia, giving way to environmental movements and protests in some of them. However, they do not always resonate widely or unite people. Ethnic nationalism in its varying degrees of explicitness appears to be an important factor in mobilizing environmental movements in the ethnic republics. The environmental agenda appealing to “our land”and “our people” seem to be particularly persuasive.

How authorities use accusations of nationalism to suppress protests

Authorities use accusations of ethnic nationalism to justify repressions against various movements for “inciting ethnic hatred and extremism.” Law enforcement authorities in different ethnic republics often employ such accusations to silence or prosecute dissenters.

The prosecution against Fail Alsynov used as pivotal evidence the speech he delivered in April 2023 at a rural gathering where he opposed gold mining in the region. Addressing the audience in the Bashkir language, Alsynov criticized outsiders, owners, and employees of a gold mining company for depleting local resources and potentially creating environmental burden for residents. His use of the term “qara halıq” to describe the outsiders or migrant workers and other aspects of his speech formed the basis for charges of inciting ethnic hatred under Article 282 of the Russian Penal Code. [Note. The phrase “qara halıq” translates literally as “black people” meaning “common folk” or “plebs,” it does not refer to the people of color per se].  

Pressure from authorities through allegations of nationalism and the ethnicization of political or social conflicts, perpetuates a vicious cycle, where the two elements reinforce each other. This dynamic was evident in the protests against Dmitry Trapeznikov’s appointment as mayor of Elista City in 2019. [Note: Dmitry Trapeznikov had no prior connection to the region and had previously served as acting head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). His appointment as acting mayor of Elista sparked dissatisfaction among opponents of the Donbas invasion as well as loyal residents who demanded that the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia should be led by an ethnic Kalmyk or a native of the region.]. Activist efforts resulted in recognizing ethnic discrimination and colonial oppression as underlying causes of social inequality in the region. In response to protests the state has intensified repressions against ethnic activists, which in turn escalated further discussions and drove resentment deeper. 

Response to Nationalism and Separatism Accusations 

How do the authorities respond to the persecution of national movements? Accusations of separatism only intensify feelings of injustice and national oppression. People feel that simply speaking their native language leads to persecution as extremists or separatists. Alsynov supporters chanted “Bez qara  halıq” (“We are the ‘black people’/ ‘common folk’), thereby adopting the language of persecution and making it their slogan. Another example is the choice of language and national agenda in protests in Elista City in 2019. Reflecting on that time, Badma Byurchiev, a Kalmyk activist, commented on those protests as follows:

“When we protested against Trapeznikov as mayor, many nationalist activists joined, emphasizing their Kalmyk identity in every way. On the stage, they introduced themselves as being “from such-and-such clan.” Switching to the Kalmyk language felt natural, especially since shortly before that, the Language Law was passed (2018), and the most massive protests concerned exactly the language issue. It was the first time that young people appeared at rallies. Before that, mostly elderly people were part of the protest here. All of these merged. The [Kalmyk] language was being actively spoken then. I remember we once debated for a long time whether to make banners in Kalmyk or Russian. Because the authorities accused us of nationalism, we thought that a banner in Kalmyk would provide new grounds [for accusations], since not only Kalmyks attended the protests. As a result, the banners were in Russian reading “This is our city.” You know, we tried in every way to emphasize that the whole city was protesting, not Kalmyks alone.”

Byurchiev emphasizes two important things. On the one hand, fearing accusations of nationalism, protesters aimed for a safer urban focus (for example, using Russian as the language of political communication). On the other hand, the use of their native language and ethnic symbols or codes attracted new participants and made the protest more popular. This search for a new language — symbolic or literal, including a new native language is evident in the rhetoric of various movements in the republics. Fail Alsynov delivered all his speeches in the Bashkir language, emphasizing the national perspective on various social, environmental, and political issues.

Ethnicity in 2022-2023 protests

In other cases, we witness that ethnic approach, or even ethnic style while the framing of various issues emerged spontaneously. Thus, protests in the Russian ethnic republics over the past two years were a response to the military mobilization and conscription declared in September 2022 following the war on Ukraine. In Dagestan, as a form of protest, roads were blocked in Kumyk villages in the Babayurt district, and rallies took place in Makhachkala and Khasavyurt. Opposition to mobilization was primarily led by women. This was reflected later in the The Way Home (Put’ Domoy) movement demanding the return of those mobilized to the front. In some cases, the forms taken by the protests or the comments of the participants referenced traditional culture. A notable and prime example was in Yakutsk, where women protesting mobilization performed a traditional circle dance and ritual called “osuokhai” and sang about peace in the Yakut language

Other events in 2023 were connected to purely domestic issues but employed the aforementioned methods. For example, in Dagestan during the summer of 2023, protesters blocked a federal highway due to a malfunctioning water supply and the lack of response from municipal services. Discussions and internet debates about protests concerning the infrastructure of the republics often highlighted the unfair resource distribution among the regions of Russia. This discontent was evident, for instance, in Kalmykia during the summer of 2023 amid frustrations over a broken water system and power outages. Although formally unrelated to national or decolonial ideas, these protests demonstrate the strong desire among residents of the ethnic republics to assert their ethnic identity under pressure from central authorities.

The history of regional protests and activist initiatives demonstrates that environmental and ethnic issues do not develop sequentially in stages of protest. In all the examined cases, we encounter a complex interweaving of agendas that some movements have successfully combined. This was apparent in the national-oriented response to the declaration of military mobilization, a response to issues involving infrastructure, and daily hardships, among other issues. Environmental protests appealed to the individuals who cherish the land and reside in the region, viewing it as their homeland — thereby intersecting with ethnic issues and rights. Will this perspective endure amid escalating repression? Can it serve as a platform for voicing the interests of all residents of the region, including different ethnic or minority groups from various areas? Much hinges on these questions for the success of these initiatives and the future grassroots support for the movements.

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Environment or Ethnicity
Environment or Ethnicity
What do protests in Russia’s Bashkortostan and other ethnic republics have in common? How do protests articulate and transform their discourse? Vlada Baranova, Researcher of Minority Languages, writes on the dynamic interplay of environmental and ethnopolitical demands

Amidst dwindling mass protests in the capital cities following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the implementation of increasingly repressive laws, protests in the Republic of Bashkortostan stand out prominently. On January 17, 2024, the judge sentenced Fail Alsynov to four years in prison. At the same time, several thousand people gathered to protest in the small town of Baymak. The police forcefully dispersed the protesters, resulting in numerous detentions. Subsequent protests unfolded in Ufa, leading to mass disorder and charges against over 80 participants. However, no further protests occurred after Alsynov’s sentence was affirmed.

Some analysts view the developments in Bashkortostan as ethnic minority protests or separatist sentiments. Others, like Guzel Yusupova, attribute regional discontent to social inequality and corruption. Participants in the movement, along with Fail Alsynov himself, emphasize the significance of nature preservation in Bashkortostan. How then should we characterize the protests in Bashkortostan?

Some protesters have taken “the path to politics” via these environmental movements. Elena Solovyova highlights in the case of the Republic of Komi, how environmental protests have attracted individuals distanced from politics, providing a safe outlet for general dissatisfaction. Conversely, participants in eco-protests swiftly become politicized, engaging in dialogues on pivotal regional issues and beginning to articulate their own demands. Can such environmental movements serve as platforms for broader political opposition agendas? Or do their initial goals and dynamics follow a different logic?

The movements’ history

Today, the balance between ecological, social, or nationalist factors in protests is not always clear. Some movements articulate a broader agenda, while for others, safe eco-activism comes first (including monitoring, petitions, and appeals to federal conservation authorities within legal means). For instance, having participated in encampments and protests around Kushtau shihan, the environmental movement Green Shield of Bashkortostan continues its work in the republic, but currently sticking to only legal methods. Other movements respond to various social and political issues with an emphasis on ethnic culture or sovereignty, regional specifics, or the homeland’s environment. To understand the intertwined causes of protests, let us examine the history of the protest movement in Bashkortostan and recent rallies in other ethnic regions of Russia.

Fail Alsynov is known for his involvement in environmental protests in Bashkortostan, particularly in defense of Kushtau shihan hill. In 2020, activists managed to halt soda mining and secured protected status for the mountain. The protection of shihans (solitary limestone hills), including Kushtau shihan, from industrial development dates back to the 1980s. In this case, environmental motives are closely intertwined with ethnocultural agendas. These hills are considered sacred in Bashkir culture. Sadly, trees and rare animal species perish due to industrial exploitation.

The Bashkort movement was not limited to environmental concerns. During the active struggle for the shihans and even earlier, many movement participants were ethnic and youth activists. As noted by Arthur Asafyev, a journalist from Bashkortostan, a group of young movement leaders emerged from a Union of Bashkir Youth State, a 100% state organization: “[At first, they were focused] on youth issues, but they already were engaging in issues of federalism revival, restoration of some degree of region’s sovereignty. They started, however, with issues of youth culture, healthy lifestyle and tackling alcoholism and moonshine trade in villages.”

Appeals to ethnic and regional rhetoric were not coincidental for participants. Bashkortostan’s issues directly stem from inequalities between the region and the federal center. Despite the constitutional rights of ethnic minorities and national languages in republics, residents often face practical absence or gradual restriction of these rights. Many perceive this as a threat to their ethnic group and native language.

Alsynov participated in rallies supporting the Bashkir language (2017-2019) following amendments to the Education Law (2018), which replaced mandatory native language classes with optional ones. Before these amendments, all schoolchildren in the republic had to attend classes in the second state language — Bashkir in Bashkortostan, Kalmyk in Kalmykia, and so forth. Moreover, children from Bashkir families could study in elementary school in their native language, learning Russian as a separate school subject. The amendments effectively eliminated this parity, making studying the republic’s language optional. Additionally, rural schools in Bashkortostan often could afford to open only one Bashkir class per grade, so choosing Russian meant assimilation for schoolchildren from Bashkir families. 

Therefore, activists were ethnically motivated and sought primarily to preserve Bashkirs’ native language and ethnic identity. Arthur Asafyev comments:

“The environmental, national, and political components in the Bashkir national movement have been changing, giving priority to one or the other, depending on the situation. But by the time Radiy Khabirov came into office in the fall of 2019, the Bashkir national movement had already articulated its main claims, demands, and goals, political, national, cultural, and environmental.”

When Fail Alsynov publicly denounced the military mobilization for Russia’s war on Ukraine in September 2022, his arguments were related to ethnic values and dangers to fellow countrymen: “Bıl beƶƶeꞑ hugış tügel. Bıl başqort halqına qarata genoçid!” (This is not our war. This is genocide against the Bashkir people!”) 

Moving “from the specific to the general,” from activism in “their backyard” to a broader understanding of civil society, is not uncommon for grassroots movements. The participation of ordinary, not overly politicized citizens in various initiatives evolves from experiencing collective action and interaction with others. Thus, common values are formed based on lived experiences, a habit of activism, and organizational skills, which can be used to address broader issues and seek ways to resolve them. This is an important path of “mobilizing the apolitical folks,” as demonstrated in Karin Klemann’s research.

The question is why does political mobilization emerge in some cases and not in others? Environmental issues are present across most regions of Russia, giving way to environmental movements and protests in some of them. However, they do not always resonate widely or unite people. Ethnic nationalism in its varying degrees of explicitness appears to be an important factor in mobilizing environmental movements in the ethnic republics. The environmental agenda appealing to “our land”and “our people” seem to be particularly persuasive.

How authorities use accusations of nationalism to suppress protests

Authorities use accusations of ethnic nationalism to justify repressions against various movements for “inciting ethnic hatred and extremism.” Law enforcement authorities in different ethnic republics often employ such accusations to silence or prosecute dissenters.

The prosecution against Fail Alsynov used as pivotal evidence the speech he delivered in April 2023 at a rural gathering where he opposed gold mining in the region. Addressing the audience in the Bashkir language, Alsynov criticized outsiders, owners, and employees of a gold mining company for depleting local resources and potentially creating environmental burden for residents. His use of the term “qara halıq” to describe the outsiders or migrant workers and other aspects of his speech formed the basis for charges of inciting ethnic hatred under Article 282 of the Russian Penal Code. [Note. The phrase “qara halıq” translates literally as “black people” meaning “common folk” or “plebs,” it does not refer to the people of color per se].  

Pressure from authorities through allegations of nationalism and the ethnicization of political or social conflicts, perpetuates a vicious cycle, where the two elements reinforce each other. This dynamic was evident in the protests against Dmitry Trapeznikov’s appointment as mayor of Elista City in 2019. [Note: Dmitry Trapeznikov had no prior connection to the region and had previously served as acting head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). His appointment as acting mayor of Elista sparked dissatisfaction among opponents of the Donbas invasion as well as loyal residents who demanded that the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia should be led by an ethnic Kalmyk or a native of the region.]. Activist efforts resulted in recognizing ethnic discrimination and colonial oppression as underlying causes of social inequality in the region. In response to protests the state has intensified repressions against ethnic activists, which in turn escalated further discussions and drove resentment deeper. 

Response to Nationalism and Separatism Accusations 

How do the authorities respond to the persecution of national movements? Accusations of separatism only intensify feelings of injustice and national oppression. People feel that simply speaking their native language leads to persecution as extremists or separatists. Alsynov supporters chanted “Bez qara  halıq” (“We are the ‘black people’/ ‘common folk’), thereby adopting the language of persecution and making it their slogan. Another example is the choice of language and national agenda in protests in Elista City in 2019. Reflecting on that time, Badma Byurchiev, a Kalmyk activist, commented on those protests as follows:

“When we protested against Trapeznikov as mayor, many nationalist activists joined, emphasizing their Kalmyk identity in every way. On the stage, they introduced themselves as being “from such-and-such clan.” Switching to the Kalmyk language felt natural, especially since shortly before that, the Language Law was passed (2018), and the most massive protests concerned exactly the language issue. It was the first time that young people appeared at rallies. Before that, mostly elderly people were part of the protest here. All of these merged. The [Kalmyk] language was being actively spoken then. I remember we once debated for a long time whether to make banners in Kalmyk or Russian. Because the authorities accused us of nationalism, we thought that a banner in Kalmyk would provide new grounds [for accusations], since not only Kalmyks attended the protests. As a result, the banners were in Russian reading “This is our city.” You know, we tried in every way to emphasize that the whole city was protesting, not Kalmyks alone.”

Byurchiev emphasizes two important things. On the one hand, fearing accusations of nationalism, protesters aimed for a safer urban focus (for example, using Russian as the language of political communication). On the other hand, the use of their native language and ethnic symbols or codes attracted new participants and made the protest more popular. This search for a new language — symbolic or literal, including a new native language is evident in the rhetoric of various movements in the republics. Fail Alsynov delivered all his speeches in the Bashkir language, emphasizing the national perspective on various social, environmental, and political issues.

Ethnicity in 2022-2023 protests

In other cases, we witness that ethnic approach, or even ethnic style while the framing of various issues emerged spontaneously. Thus, protests in the Russian ethnic republics over the past two years were a response to the military mobilization and conscription declared in September 2022 following the war on Ukraine. In Dagestan, as a form of protest, roads were blocked in Kumyk villages in the Babayurt district, and rallies took place in Makhachkala and Khasavyurt. Opposition to mobilization was primarily led by women. This was reflected later in the The Way Home (Put’ Domoy) movement demanding the return of those mobilized to the front. In some cases, the forms taken by the protests or the comments of the participants referenced traditional culture. A notable and prime example was in Yakutsk, where women protesting mobilization performed a traditional circle dance and ritual called “osuokhai” and sang about peace in the Yakut language

Other events in 2023 were connected to purely domestic issues but employed the aforementioned methods. For example, in Dagestan during the summer of 2023, protesters blocked a federal highway due to a malfunctioning water supply and the lack of response from municipal services. Discussions and internet debates about protests concerning the infrastructure of the republics often highlighted the unfair resource distribution among the regions of Russia. This discontent was evident, for instance, in Kalmykia during the summer of 2023 amid frustrations over a broken water system and power outages. Although formally unrelated to national or decolonial ideas, these protests demonstrate the strong desire among residents of the ethnic republics to assert their ethnic identity under pressure from central authorities.

The history of regional protests and activist initiatives demonstrates that environmental and ethnic issues do not develop sequentially in stages of protest. In all the examined cases, we encounter a complex interweaving of agendas that some movements have successfully combined. This was apparent in the national-oriented response to the declaration of military mobilization, a response to issues involving infrastructure, and daily hardships, among other issues. Environmental protests appealed to the individuals who cherish the land and reside in the region, viewing it as their homeland — thereby intersecting with ethnic issues and rights. Will this perspective endure amid escalating repression? Can it serve as a platform for voicing the interests of all residents of the region, including different ethnic or minority groups from various areas? Much hinges on these questions for the success of these initiatives and the future grassroots support for the movements.

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