Head of Russian region denounces 'traitors' after rare protest

January 19, 2024 9:17 am

[Source: Reuters]

The head of one of Russia’s biggest ethnically mixed republics accused what he called extremists and traitors of trying to bring about its secession.

A day after police used tear gas and batons to break up a rare demonstration.

The clashes took place in a small town in Bashkortostan, a republic of 4.1 million people in the Urals Mountains, where a leading rights activist was sentenced on Wednesday to four years in a penal colony.

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The activist, Fail Alsynov, had led successful protests in 2020 against plans to mine for soda on a hill that local people consider sacred, and was head of a banned nationalist movement. He denied the charge against him of inciting ethnic hatred.

Bashkortostan’s leader, Radiy Khabirov, said on Thursday that he himself may have been at fault in the past for failing to explain to people that what he described as extremists in the region were masquerading as activists.

“You can put on the mask of a good environmental activist, a patriot, but in reality the situation is completely different,” he said in a statement on Telegram.

“A group of people, some of whom are abroad and who are essentially traitors, are calling for the separation of Bashkortostan from Russia. They are calling for guerrilla warfare here.”

Among the alleged traitors he named Ruslan Gabbasov, a co-founder with Alsynov of the banned Bashkort movement. Gabbasov has been labelled a “foreign agent” by Russia and now lives in Lithuania.

Gabbasov told Reuters in a telephone interview that the grievances of ethnic Bashkir people, who make up just over 30% of the republic’s population, were driven by the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin that had eroded the status of their own language and culture.

He said they were also angry over the environmental impact of mining operations and the disproportionate number of ethnic minority men who are being recruited to serve in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Compared with ethnic Russians, they send a lot more of us to the war, and the number who die is correspondingly higher,” he said. “We don’t want to live as part of Russia any more. Why do we need that? To die and gradually disappear? Not even gradually – with this policy it will happen very quickly.”

Six people were arrested at Wednesday’s protest, of whom five were detained for 10 days and one for 13 days, the local news agency Bashinform said.

Protests in Russia have become very rare since the start of the war in Ukraine because of the risk of arrest at gatherings that the authorities deem unauthorised.

But Gabbasov said activists were calling for a big demonstration in support of Alsynov on Friday in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan.

“What happened yesterday shows that people are tired of being afraid,” he said.