Peaceful Rally Turns Violent as Police Clash With Demonstrators
A rare public protest erupted this week in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan after a local activist was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison over his writings criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine.
What began as a peaceful rally in support of jailed activist Fail Alsynov later descended into chaos as riot police clashed violently with demonstrators. According to eyewitness reports and video footage, police struck protesters with batons and dragged some into custody.
The largely Turkic and Muslim region of Bashkortostan has seen next to no unrest during Vladimir Putin’s more than 20-year rule. However, Alsynov’s sentencing appears to have triggered public anger over long-simmering grievances.
Initial Small Protests Swell Following Harsh Sentencing
Last week, a Russian court convicted Alsynov on charges of “publicly justifying terrorism” over two articles he authored that criticized Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. His writings slammed Russia’s bombardment of Ukrainian civilians and called for militant resistance against the war.
Alsynov received an unusually harsh two-year prison sentence, despite prosecutors only seeking a suspended sentence. Small protests immediately flared up in his home city of Baymak, with friends and supporters rallying for his release.
However, public anger reached new heights as news spread that Alsynov staged a hunger strike in detention. On Tuesday, over 1,000 demonstrators marched through Baymak’s streets demanding his freedom. Protests then began spreading to other cities in Bashkortostan.
By Thursday, protests had reached the republic’s capital Ufa. Video showed hundreds gathering downtown, chanting “Freedom for Alsynov!” Riot police soon violently dispersed the unsanctioned gathering, but unrest continued mounting.
Leader Denounces “Traitors and Provocateurs”
Bashkortostan’s leader Radiy Khabirov issued a defiant statement Friday denouncing the protests as the work of “traitors and provocateurs” supposedly intent on sowing instability. However, his combative words only inflamed tensions on the streets.
That same evening, an estimated 15,000 massed in Ufa despite freezing temperatures for Bashkortostan’s largest protests in years. Demonstrators called for Alsynov’s liberation and broader political freedoms. They also voiced economic grievances over falling living standards.
Police managed to block protesters’ attempts to storm government buildings. But running battles still raged long into the night between riot police and the swelling crowds.unday, January 21, 2024
Putin Allies Alarmed as Unrest Persists
Kremlin officials are reportedly alarmed at the expanding unrest in Bashkortostan on the eve of Russia’s March presidential elections. Vladimir Putin is widely expected to secure a fifth overall term in office. However, analysts say even minor disruptions could damage his image of total control.
“This shows that despite overwhelming propaganda, tensions are reaching a boiling point between Russian authorities and minority groups,” said Professor Anna Korbut, a scholar of Russian politics at the University of Oxford. “Putin wants to portray stability and national unity. But now you have riots broadcast across Russian social media.”
So far, federal authorities have avoided direct intervention into Bashkortostan, instead letting local police try to quell the protests. However, analysts say that calculus could change if turmoil shows no signs of abating.
“A harsh, sweeping crackdown would seem the most likely next step,” Korbut said. “We could see mass arrests of protest leaders and organizers to try to stamp this out before it encourages unrest elsewhere.”
|Estimated Protest Size
|Initial large protest in Baymak after sentencing
|Protests reach capital Ufa, police crackdown violently
|Record crowds rally in Ufa despite leader’s threats
Minority Groups Face Discrimination
Bashkortostan is home to a minority population of slightly more than 4 million people. The region has long simmered with discontent over economic neglect and discrimination ethnic Bashkirs face from Moscow. Locals also complain of weak protections for their native Turkic language and cultural identity.
Alsynov’s writings argued Bashkirs have been used as “cannon fodder” in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Protest signs and chants similarly condemned Russian authorities for ignoring the region’s youth dying on the frontlines.
Ufa protester Rustam Iskhakov told reporters: “Our language is barely taught in schools now while our young men are shipped off as first wave attackers in a war we didn’t choose. And if you dare speak up they throw you in prison.”
Will Unrest Spread Across Russia?
Korbut said while a Russian province like Bashkortostan may seem obscure on the world stage, sustained unrest could still reverberate more widely. She noted rising resentment among minority ethnic groups in Russian border regions fed up after centuries of Moscow trying to erase their cultural identity.
If left unchecked, Korbut said dissent could even disrupt vital industrial centers closer to Russia’s ethnic Russian heartland. Factory slowdowns and stoppages played a major role in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union last century.
For now, much depends on whether protests persist in Bashkortostan despite likely repression from Moscow. However brutal the crackdown, experts say the genie may be out of the bottle after years of locals voicing frustrations only in private finally spilling out into mass demonstrations.
Korbut said Putin will try to keep a lid on turmoil to win in March. But she expects grievances fueling the protests to still be simmering close to surface – threatening to flare up again when Russians least expect it.
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