Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Another Border Dispute Waiting to Happen: Bashkortostan and Chelyabinsk

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 5 – Bashkortostan is about to begin the complicated process of demarcating its borders with neighboring federal subjects. In 1919, Ufa will do so with Orenburg and Sverdlovsk oblasts and in the following year with Chelyabinsk and Tatarstan (

            The history of Bashkortostan’s border with Tatarstan is relatively well-known because the separation of these two Muslim Turkic peoples in 1920 was Stalin’s first great act of ethnic engineering and because of the efforts in each republic to assimilate members of the other titular nation (

            But Bashkortostan’s borders to the east are less well known, and the process of establishing the border with Chelyabinsk Oblast has been long and complicated. Indeed, Ilnar Garifullin says, the upcoming border talks will have to address many issues that in the minds of many Bashkirs are far from settled (

            When Zeki-Validi Togan drew the first borders of Bashkortostan, he included the eastern part of what is today Bashkortostan as well as three exclaves: Argayash, Yalan, and Tok-Churan “cantons,” which today are part of Chelyabinsk oblast, Kurgan oblast, and Orenburg oblast even though they still have Bashkir majorities or pluralities.

            The problem he and other Bashkir leaders faced is that Bashkortostan draw according to strictly ethnic principles would not have any major cities or economic centers but drawing it in ways that would include both would significantly reduce the share of Bashkirs in its population. Togan favored the former principle; early Soviet Bashkir leaders the latter.

            The compromise was the existence of the three exclaves. But after Soviet power was firmly established, Moscow moved to disband them. In 1924, Garifullin writes, the Tok-Churan canton was transferred to the Kyrgyz ASSR and later put within the borders of the Orenburg Oblast.

            A similar fate awaited the other two “cantons” as the exclaves were called. They were abolished and their territories and populations transferred to other federal subjects in the 1920s and 1930s. As a result of this, the borders between Bashkortostan and Chelyabinsk Oblast were finally put in more or less their current place by 1934.

            But that is not the end of this story, Garifullin points out. In 1954, Moscow wanted to create a new oblast around Magnitogorsk which would include part of Chelyabinsk and part of Bashkortostan. Ufa objected strenuously; and at least in part for that reason, the project was shelved with no border changes. 

            The economic links that formation was supposed to give political shape to, however, have only intensified: “a third of the working population of Magnitogorsk now are residents of the Bashkir Urals area.” Moreover, Bashkirs remain the dominant portion of the population in what were the canton-exclaves.

            Clearly, Bashkir negotiators will be affected by those realities; and the political analyst says that “the Bashkir exclaves given sufficient political will could exist without particular problems in the framework of a single state.” That is, they could be returned to the control of Bashkortostan.

            Indeed, Garifullin continues, “the experience of Kaliningrad Oblast during the times of the USSR only confirms that.”

            And Bashkortostan has another reason to press for such a return: if these three regions were again part of the republic, that alone would give the Bashkirs a majority in the republic, something they do not now have but that from the very beginning Bashkir activists going back to Togan have wanted.

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