Staunton, November 4 – There are few subjects more taboo in the Russian media under Vladimir Putin than evidence that the non-Russian regions of the country are interested in pursuing their own independent course, Ukrainian commentator Pavlo Podobed says. And nowhere is the ban on coverage more severe than with regard to the peoples of the Middle Volga
In an essay for Tyzhden, he notes that “thanks to the successful manipulations of Moscow,” people in the West ignore what is coming out of the North Caucasus because they have been conditioned to view any independent mindedness there as associated with terrorism (tyzhden.ua/Politics/220313 in Ukrainian; afterempire.info/2018/11/01/orinbor/ in Russian).
But most people know little or nothing about another and even more important region of Russia “which Russians call the Middle Volga and the indigenous population Idel-Ural” and which presents Moscow with a threat that the regime is constantly thinking about but cannot completely suppress, the Orenburg corridor.
(For some rare exceptions to that pattern of neglect, see this author’s articles at jamestown.org/program/the-orenburg-corridor-and-the-future-of-the-middle-volga/, windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2018/03/moscow-analyst-denounces-kazakh.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2013/11/window-on-eurasia-separatism-both.html).
The Middle Volga region consisted of six republics: Erzyan-Mokshania (Mordvinia), Mari El, Udmurtia, Tatarstan, Udmurtia and Bashkortostan, the first three of which are Finno-Ugric and the second three Turkic and Muslim. Moscow recognizes their distinctiveness but does everything it can to suppress its meaning.
It has gutted the institutions these republics have and it has driven nationalist dissidents to their deaths, imprisonment or exile. The governments have fallen in line, but even they were not willing to swallow Moscow’s attack on their national languages which they see as central to their survival as peoples, Podobed writes.
Ever more often, he continues, members of these peoples recall earlier attempts to make Idel-Ural an independent state, most significantly in the first years of Soviet power, the centenaries of which are now being marked in ways that Moscow would rather not have them remembered.
But the peoples of Idel-Ural do remember even if others do not what Moscow did to make the achievement of their goal of independence impossible. Stalin’s 1936 constituiton specified that union republics have the right in principle to freely leave the USSR while autonomous republics do not.
To make that right plausible, Podobed notes, the constitution specified that union republics had to have a border with a foreign state while autonomous republics didn’t need one. And in the case of the Middle Volga peoples, Moscow arranged things so that they didn’t have a common border with even a non-Russian union republic.
That arrangement has come to be known as the Orenburg corridor, a sliver of predominantly ethnic Russian territory between the peoples of Idel-Ural and Kazakhstan which since 1991 has been an independent country. In 1989-1991, with the growth of nationalism, many in Idel-Ural talked about liquidating this obstacle but weren’t able to do it.
Indeed, such attempts seemed completely “fantastic,” the Ukrainian commentator says. The share of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan was roughly equal to the share of ethnic Kazakhs there, and the share of ethnic Russians opposite the Orenburg corridor was higher still. But things have changed: now, there are far fewer Russians and ever more Kazakhs are anti-Russian.
Earlier this year, Podobed notes, the Kazinform news agency put out a map of Kazakhstan which included the part of Orenburg oblast known as the Orenburg corridor. It was quickly taken down and even condemned but the deed was done (youtube.com/watch?v=E7WxaVvEmDY&fbclid=IwAR1JyT3ddHZaPwArOzMPMBvrE-njsUNL8ypLo1u9oNDpGtfzKk3nb6y6xtI).
It then came out that the leader of the Kazinform agency at the time, Askar Umarov, was a passionate supporter of the return of “Orinbor” to Kazakhstan, something that would eliminate the corridor and open the way to the independence of Idel-ural or at least its more intense pursuit (youtube.com/watch?v=UyTfh7MgSSc&fbclid=IwAR13jcfeAzSs-q_H7nrz0YhJvoGLzZ7S5KSSXg5QAwrgaE-apXSS1Xsr1rM).
“It is obvious,” the Ukrainian commentator stresses, “that Idel-Ural is the Achilles’ heel of the Russian Federation.” If it collapses, then the process of the exit of six republics will begin. “Today Moscow controls this lever,” but if it doesn’t, then, “Moscow will be separated from Siberia” with all the consequences thereto.
The Middle Volga is changing,” Podobed says. The number of Russians there is declining and the involvement of Turkey in the region is increasing. “If Ukraine is interested in a victory over Russia, we need to reflect about non-military means of having an impact on the enemy.” One of them is to support the aspirations of the peoples of Idel-Ural.
The Ukrainian commentator proposes three concrete steps: the creation in Ukraine of an analytic center about the Middle Volga, preventing any extradition of Middle Volga leaders who seek asylum in Ukraine, and support for existing Idel-Ural movements like the Free Idel-Ural one, whose representatives work in Ukraine and in EU countries.
The Orenburg corridor is the key to the future not only for the peoples of Idel-Ural but for Ukrainians as well, he concludes.
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