Tatars and Bashkirs pursue a more nationalist course
by Paul Goble
Supporters of Mintimir Shaimiyev and Murtaza Rakhimov long suggested that only those two leaders were able to restrain the nationalist movements in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan respectively. Now that Moscow has ousted them, there are indications that these arguments were not without foundation.
The situation in the two Middle Volga republics even now is very different, a reflection of their very different histories, the contrasting approach of Shaimiyev and Rakhimov ruled them, and the very different ways that the two departed from office. But two new articles suggest that both Turkic Muslim republics are currently experiencing a nationalist upsurge.
In a 3100-word article on the “Russky reporter” portal, Vladimir Antipin suggests that Rakhimov left for his successor “a tightly tied knot” of political, social and religious “contradictions” that threatens “to convert the region into a bomb” that could go off if too many changes are made to Rakhimov’s regime too quickly (www.rusrep.ru/2010/28/baskiriya/).
The Moscow media noted the dispatch of spetsnaz units to Ufa in the run-up to the replacement of Rakhimov, Antipin points out, but few stories about this pointed out that there has been real violence in Bashkortostan in recent weeks, largely because of the information blockade about the republic that Rakhimov’s people had imposed.
But there have been serious problems, involving bandits animated by religious and ethnic values, and these were reflected by new developments immediately after Moscow named Rustem Khamitov to replace Rakhimov, including the discovery of arms caches in three districts, ethnic fights in several cities and towns, and at least one assassination attempt against a regional leader.
In short, the Moscow journalist says, that day was “a typical one in ‘the most well-off and stable’ republic in Russia,” where militants have staged attacks on all urban areas except the republic capital of Ufa which has been surrounded for some time by reinforced units of the militia.
One of the most explosive hotspots in Bashkortostan, Antipin says, is the Askin district where “for several months a well-armed group of militants has been operating.” Members of the group have attacked militia stations and individual officials there, despite the introduction of force structure units from Perm kray, Sverdlovsk oblast and other parts of Bashkortostan.
Most of the violence, officials say, has its roots in Wahhabism, which has attracted not only Bashkirs but also Tatars and ethnic Russians. Indeed, several officials told them that in Bashkortostan now, “local Islamists are taking their latest examination on their military preparation.”
In the Askin district, most of the people who live there are Bashkirs but speak Tatar. As a result, they have had problems with Ufa, which views them as potentially or actually disloyal, “almost in the same way as in Kyrgyzstan where northern Kyrgyz considered their southern brethren as not completely part of their community.”
Such feelings intensified during Rakhimov’s rule. Nikolay Shvetsov, the head of the republic’s Entrepreneurs’ Union and a former advisor to Rakhimov, told Antipin that Rakhimov “operated exclusively on Bashkirs.” They occupied three-quarters of more of all state positions even though they formed only a third of the population and three percent of businessmen.
According to Shvetsov, “as a result of the forced Bashkirization of the ethnic Russian and Tatar population, the local powers that be set against themselves an enormous number of people. The local Tatars suffered most of all from the local nationality policy,” he said, because they “typically forcibly re-identified by Ufa.
Wahhabism too has made inroads in Bashkortostan, Antipin says, both because Islam does not make distinctions on the basis of nationality and because of the “weakness” of the representatives of traditional faiths. For many young people in Bashkortostan, they are not of any interest while the radical are.
Asked what the authorities should do now, a local security service official says that it is necessary “to destroy the basis” which is giving rise to radicalism religious and national. The powers that be must change things in a systemic way [because] just getting rid of Rakhimov will not do the job.”
If Ufa with Moscow’s help does not do that, “six months from now we will have not only bombings of gas pipelines and shootings of militiamen.” Instead, “a full-blown ethno-religious conflict will begin.” Moscow’s failure to move earlier against Rakhimov set the stage for this. And its “cowardice” could create “a Chechnya” in the Middle Volga.
At the same time, Antipin concludes, nationalist groups in Bashkortostan are becoming ever more vehement in their demands that, in the words of one, “we have the right to live on our own land and to defend our lawful interests” and in the words of another, “nothing in the republic belongs to us Bashkirs, and this is not normal.”
Meanwhile, in an article on the “Svobodnaya pressa” portal, Anton Razmakhnin says that compared to Bashkortostan, Tatarstan may look calm. “But this is a superficial impression,” he says, and the Tatars may soon act in ways that will destabilize the situation, something that the journalist says is Moscow’s “fault” (svpressa.ru/society/article/28096/).
And that could lead Kazan to challenge Moscow in more serious ways because “there is no one in essence to hold the republic in submission to the federal center” because “the republic elite has received popular support under the banners of nationalism” and will be reluctant to lose that prop.
To clarify the situation, Razmakhnin interviewed Ramay Yuldash, a Tatar national activist. Yuldash said that Shaimiyev, as someone schooled in the Soviet system, was never comfortable with nationalism, but over time the republic leader choose to make use of it to build up his own power relative to Moscow.
But even as he did so, Yuldash continued, “Shaimiyev simply surrendered all our victories of sovereignty.” In neighboring Bashkortostan, he continued, “Rakhimov did the same thing.” According to the activist, Tatars and Bashkirs are beginning to see that clearly and to draw conclusions.
As a result, it is fair to say that “the Tatar people will be and was strong in the national sense,” even though at present, it is “much weaker” than it was in the 1990s. A major impulse to a new rise of nationalist feelings is a growing awareness of how much Moscow is taking away from Tatarstan without giving anything back.
In Soviet times, Yuldash said, Moscow took 97 percent of the earnings of the republic, a lot more than even Chingiz Khan ever did. So much for the “Tatar yoke,” he continued. Then, in the 1990s, the Tatars were able to retain 50 percent, but with the coming to power of Putin and Medvedev, Tatarstan again gives up 87 percent.
And that economic robbery is on top of a large number of cultural and national problems, including language. For example, if a Tatar goes to a Tatar-language school, he still must take the unified state examination in Russian, an arrangement that represents blatant discrimination against Tatars.
And Moscow continues to both try to reduce the number of Tatars by playing games with the census – there are 125 different groups into which the Tatars can be divided in the upcoming enumeration – and to use force against popular demonstrators, thus exacerbating nationality tensions.
Yuldash says that it is “personal impression that Moscow is doing everything so that Russia will disintegrate,” following exactly the same line that was pursued by the Bolsheviks who first encouraged the non-Russians, then cracked the whip against them, and finally had no answer to their problems besides independence.
It is not clear whether Moscow will pass “the Rubicon” in this regard, he concludes, but the new republic leader, “while tough” is “not personally devoted to the federal powers that be.” Consequently, while he won’t support “separatist projects like a South Urals Republic, he won’t devote particular efforts to block them.
If there should be a further economic downtown, Yuldash says, then the situation in Tatarstan could become completely unpredictable from Moscow’s point of view. And at least one of the possible outcomes could be a drive by Tatars to achieve, if not outright independence, far greater control over their affairs than they now have.