Sunday, October 13, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Chuvash Case Highlights Moscow’s Fears about Support for Idel-Ural State

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 13 – The conviction Thursday of a Chuvash activist on charges of extremism simultaneously highlights Moscow’s fears about popular support for the formation of an Idel-Ural state in the Middle Volga, undermines the authority of Russian courts and the Russian state there, and gives new impetus to the Chuvash national movement.

            As such, the Russian government’s conviction of Ille Ivanov is likely to prove a Pyrrhic victory, one that will not intimidate its opponents but rather add to their convictions that they and not the regime are on the right side of history and that they need only redouble their efforts to achieve their aims.

            On October 10, the Morgaush district court in Chuvashia found Ille Ivanov, 58, guilty of extremism for an article he wrote in 2011 under a pseudonym calling for the authorities there to live up to the Chuvash constitution and Russian law and provide more support for the Chuvash language ( and

            The court sentenced him to 300 hours of community service but then suspended the sentence because of the statute of limitations.  Ivanov, for his part, did not attend the sentencing.  That would have given “too much honor” to the court which refused to hold its hearings in Chuvash, he said, adding that he saw the trial as a moral victory.

            “First of all,” Ivanov said, “my defenders … are certain in our unconditional moralvictory inopposing the most reactionary chauvinist forces of society.  As is said, our affair is right and we will win.” The behavior of the court was so offensive to law and good sense that it has offended “not only Chuvashia but the entire world” (

            That may seem like an extravagant claim, he continued, but “confirmation of my words is to be found in the numerous signers of an open letter published on the Irekle Samakh website ( and the numerous reports about the case in Russia and internationally.

            “No one socially and politically significant event in Chuvashia has ever had such resonance before,” Ivanov said.

            Second, he continued, the casehighlighted serious problems regarding the observance of human rights in the Russian Federation. To make their charges, the Russian authorities relied not on the text of his article but on the tapping of his telephone.

            On the basis of those taps, he said, the authorities said that he was “propagandizing the ideas of Pan-Turkism, separatism and national supremacy, undertaking efforts to reanimate the activity of the Assembly of Peoples of the Volg and Urals with the goal of  creating a sovereign Idel-Ural state, and compromising the policy of the Russian Federation in the sphere of nationality relations.”

            “But hos in a state with ideological pluralism can the propaganda of ideals become an occasion for criminal prosecution if there are no calls for their forcible realization?” Ivanov asked rhetorically.  Consequently, trials like the one he has been subjected to are “a sign of the criminality of the authorities” themselves.

            The court further compromised itself, Ivanov and his supporters say, by refusing to provide him with information about the charges in Chuvash, his native language, or to conduct the hearings in Chuvash as required by both the Russian constitution and Russian law.

            And the authorities rendered themselves “absurd” in the way in which they made use of experts. One who was cited by them said he had never been asked to examine anything. Another said there were no calls for action in Ivanov’s original article, and a third showed the level of her expertise by saying the former president of Chuvashia was a Russian because of his name.

            Ivanov said that the sentence was the only one he could expect, “but this is not the end. This is only the beginning.  We will do everything possible so that the Chuvash language will be genuinely a state language in Chuvashia and so that any of its residents if he wants will be able to go into any court and defend his rights there in his native language.”

            Chuvashia, a republic of 1.2 million people in the Middle Volga region, seldom attracts as much attention as do its Turkic (Tatarstan and Bashkortostan) and Finno-Ugric (Mari, Mordvin, and Udmurt) neighbors, but from Moscow’s point of view, it is potentially the key to what happens there.

            That is because the Chuvash while Turkic in language are Russian Orthodox in religion, an arrangement that at one point meant that the Chuvash were more tightly held than the others but now appears to mean that they are a bridge for ideas from the Turkic world into the others and thus could become the catalyst for the formation of an Idel-Ural state.

            Such a state, referred to only rarely but mentioned in the US Captive Nations Week resolution, is Moscow’s nightmare. Were it to arise and to include the entire region between the Volga and the Urals, Ideal-Ural would cut European Russia off from Siberia and the Far East and make its current position there untenable.

            Consequently, what may seem like a small case in a small republic far away about which few know very much could become something else entirely, a reason if more than a concern with human rights is required for paying more attention to the Chuvash nation and to its leaders like Ille Ivanov.

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