Staunton, September 18 – On Saturday, two thousand Bashkirs, including activists from the Bashkort national organization and the Congress of the Bashkir People, demonstrated in their republic capital in defense of their national language and in defiance of local officials who tried to block them from assembling.
Artur Asafyev of Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, reports that those assembled carried portraits of some of the most well-known Bashkirs in history, including Zaki Velidi, and the activists who addressed them primarily in Bashkir and demanded that the study of the national language be obligatory in republic schools (idelreal.org/a/28739426.html).
Prominent among the participants were instructors in the Bashkir language who shared their anger about official investigations into whether pupils were being allowed to opt out of the study of the national language. They said that the authorities were cutting back sharply in the number of teachers of Bashkir in the republic.
According to Asafyev, “practically every one of those speaking called for the retirement of republic head Rsutem Khamitov as well as of Bashkir education minister Gulnaz Shafikova, whom the activists blame for the critical situation in which the Bashkir language finds itself today.
Alfiya Uzyanbayeva from the Urals region told the group that “the policies of Rustem Khamitov are leading to a split in society. We already have constantly see this Kremlin ‘Bashperson’ and have reached conclusions about his policy of ethnocide and the destruction of culture, education, cadres, and the media.”
“Where is our Bashkir satellite TV channel?” she asked. “We don’t have BST; we have KhST,” with the “Kh” standing for Khamitov. Bashkirs may be down now, but they are not out. And they will struggle for change because “we need our own Bashkir khan,” not some hireling of Moscow.
Uzyanbayeva and other speakers called for the expansion in the use of Bashkir in government offices on an equal basis with Russian. “Our cause is just!” they declared. Moreover, “we have nowhere to retreat – this is our Motherland! We will defend and preserve the Bashkir language for eternity!”
As the meeting was concluding, the police moved in and tried to arrest the leading speakers. But others in the crowd blocked their way, and no arrests were made at the scene. Later, however, it became known that police had gone to the homes of some of them, detained them briefly and then let them go.
Normally, few would pay much attention to a demonstration of any kind in Ufa. But this one was different and merits comment because it contains three clear warnings to Vladimir Putin that the Kremlin leader will ignore only at his peril.
First, Putin’s tilt toward Russian and against the non-Russian languages is exactly the kind of issue that can unite non-Russians as almost nothing else can. It thus guarantees that unless he moderates his course, there will be ever more protests like the one in normally quiescent Bashkortostan – and these demonstrations will be ever more radical.
Second, this trend will be marked by two other things as well, both of which threaten the stability of the Russian Federation. On the one hand, they will increasingly pit the ethnic Russians against non-Russians in the republics; and on the other, they will divide the nationalists in the population from republic officials who owe their jobs to the Kremlin.
The first will ensure that there will be more clashes between Russians and non-Russians, the very thing all Soviet and post-Soviet leaders until Putin have tried to prevent; and the second will guarantee that local officials will increasingly lose control of the situation and have to choose between Moscow and their own people.
Some, of course, will choose Moscow; but not all, and the ones who don’t will give the center the kind of challenge it has not seen since the early 1990s. But both the one and the other will make the country less stable.
And third, while the discourse of these protests will begin with language and the need to defend native tongues, it will not end with that. As the Bashkirs said in Ufa, they have “nowhere to retreat” because their Motherland as they define it is at risk. That could lead to a new kind of parade of sovereignties, exactly the outcome Putin takes pride in having prevented up to now.