Staunton, August 9 – Today, three thousand Bashkirs assembled on the Kushtau shihan, an isolated mountain that some of them consider holy and all consider a national treasure, to protest plans by a Russian company to begin a mining operation there that will destroy one of the three remaining shihans in the republic (nakanune.ru/articles/116285/).
The demonstrators are not demanding that the plant be closed – too many of their relatives are employed by it – but they are calling for the company to be transparent in what it is doing and use modern technology to reduce the impact of its mining on this natural wonder and on the rivers that rise there and supply water to the population.
Three things make this event likely to be the beginning of something even more explosive than the protests at Shiyes. First, it combines both ecological and ethnic concerns, with those opposing the construction convinced that they are defending not only the environment but their national dignity.
Second, the company has not even tried to go through the motions of securing local approval. It has moved in without any pretense of conducting the required environmental impact studies or informing the local population. People found out only because they live in nearby towns.
And third, when the demonstrators appeared, most of whom were women and pensioners, the company hired a group of young men in masks to clear them away. They may have been regular employees of the company and acted without ceremony against the protesters. As the demonstration grew, the company called in police (nakanune.ru/articles/116285/).
The Bashkirs have a good case in calling for the company to avoid damaging the shihan given that even Moscow officials have called for that mountain to be put on a list of protected areas not subject to development. Now, however, companies clearly feel they can ignore all such limits.
Bashkir activists say they will continue their demonstrations. One big question is whether they will attract the attention of a broader public as the Shiyes protesters have. Those demonstrators, it will be recalled, have been objecting for more than a year to plans to build dumps in pristine areas of the Russian North to handle trash from the Russian capital.
But an even larger question is whether environmental protests in these and other places will power national movements, ethnic Russian and non-Russian, and combine into the kind of political organization that will present the Kremlin with the kind of challenges for which it now appears especially ill-prepared.