Russia: ‘This is not our war’: Bashkir nationalists create armed resistance



October 18, 2022

Duma party offices and military enlistment offices are set on fire in the republic, and men are urged to go underground and prepare to fight. Bashkir nationalists who defended the Kushtau mountain from exploitation have announced the creation of an armed resistance. They showed chevrons with Islamic symbols for future fighters. At the same time, an anonymous "Bashkir Resistance Committee" has emerged, calling for violent protests, including the burning of the military recruitment office and the offices of political parties. Both organisations advocate Bashkortostan's secession from Russia. Political analysts see the Bashkir national protest as a serious challenge to Moscow. Vertska spoke to one of the nationalist leaders and talks about the national movement in the republic. On September 21, the day "partial mobilization" was announced, an anonymous channel "Bashkir Resistance Committee" was created in Telegram. Its cover shows a clenched fist on a red background, with the caption underneath stating "Bashkortostan will be free!". The anonymous administrators wrote in their first post that the channel had been "created to organise national resistance in Bashkortostan against Putin's power". In the next post, the channel's authors published a photo from a protest on Mount Kushtau in 2020 with the caption: "There will be no mobilisation in a free Bashkortostan". They made several reposts from anarchist Telegram channels and posted two books - "The ABC of the Domestic Terrorist" (included in the list of extremist materials) and "A Short Manual for the Urban Partisan" - and signed them as "a manual for the Bashkir resistance fighter" and "a training manual for the Bashkir urban partisan". On 23 September, a call to set fire to military recruitment offices appeared on the channel to "disrupt mobilisation and give time for as many conscripts as possible to escape it". And in the early hours of 24 September, in the small Bashkir town of Salavat (named after Salavat Yulayev, a national hero and participant in the Pugachev uprising), rubber tyres were set on fire on the porch of the local United Russia office. "The Bashkir Resistance Committee" reported the arson on the afternoon of September 24 after news about it appeared in the "Fire Community | South of the Republic of Bashkortostan" sub-page. The administrators of the anonymous telegraph channel then wrote that some "Bashkir partisans" had carried out the action. On the night of October 3, another office in Salavat was set on fire. This time it belonged to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). The Communists themselves reported the incident. According to them, they only found out about the arson on 4 October when they came to work. Vitaly Somov, first secretary of the Communist Party's city branch, told reporters that a "The Bashkir Resistance Committee" wrote about the arson only on October 5, already after the publications in the media. "The KPRF also supported the aggression against Ukraine, which means they are just as much accomplices of the criminal Putin," the channel's anonymous administrators insisted. The day before this post, the "Committee of Bashkir Resistance" had issued an ultimatum to Bashkir officials and MPs. The anonymous activists demanded that the authorities stop the act of "hidden ethnocide of the autochthonous population", the mobilization in Bashkir and Tatar villages. They promised to deal with the officials and deputies who support the mobilization "as with butchers and hangmen". On the night of October 8, a military recruitment office was set on fire in the district centre of Arkhangelsk Region, 65 kilometres from Ufa. The publication Prufy.rf reported from eyewitnesses that a bottle with a flammable mixture was thrown through the window. "The Bashkir Resistance Committee" posted a post about the arson the next day, writing that it was done by "fighters of the underground movement". Bashkir officials and law enforcement agencies have not yet commented on the arson. There have been no reports of prosecutions or arrests of suspects. Who is behind the creation of the channel remains a mystery. Vertska did not find any hint of specific names or movements in the posts. The channel now has just over 500 subscribers. Ruslan Gabbasov, the leader of the Bashkir nationalists, said in his Telegram channel that some Bashkir partisans were behind the arsons. On October 10, he wrote that there was an underground resistance movement in the republic. Gabbasov posted a photo of a man wearing an arafat shawl, a military shirt and carrying a weapon resembling a Kalashnikov assault rifle, and wrote that he was a Bashkir partisan of the underground movement. Vertska asked Gabbasov to talk about the partisans and the "Committee of Bashkir Resistance". Gabbasov declined to speak on the subject but made it clear that he knew the creators of the "partisan" telegram channel. "These are real people directly related to Bashkortostan," he said. ‘Bashkir political nation’ Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Ruslan Gabbasov and the "Bashkir National Political Centre", or "Bashnatspolit", which he heads, have consistently urged Bashkirs not to participate "in the fratricidal war of two kindred Slavic peoples" and not to become mercenaries by "succumbing to the propaganda of the imperial propagandists". Gabbasov set up the Bashnatspolit at the end of last year. The movement was essentially the successor to the largest national organization, Bashkort, which was also led by Gabbasov - in 2020, the republic's Supreme Court declared it an extremist organization and banned its activities. But while Bashkort advocated federalisation, Bashnatspolit activists have advocated Bashkortostan's secession from Russia since the start of hostilities. In August, Bashnatspolit announced in its Telegram channel that the Bashkir national movement was starting a struggle for "Free Bashkortostan, for the construction of a Bashkir political nation". On his YouTube channel, Gabbasov outlined the political programme of the "Bashnatspolita": the first point is to achieve sovereignty for Bashkortostan. Activists want the republic to secede from Russia and become an independent state with its own army. The army could unite with the armed forces of other republics if Bashkortostan joined a confederation or a union of independent republics. The basis of the Bashkir state, according to the nationalists' idea, will be the "Bashkir political nation". It will comprise Bashkirs - "the leading political force" - and inhabitants of Bashkortostan of any other nationalities, who consider the Republic their "native home and homeland". What the Bashkir nationalists are known for Ruslan Gabbasov, 43, is one of the republic's most famous national activists. He created the youth national movement Bashkort in 2014 together with another young nationalist, Fail Alsynov. The Bashkort group in VKontakte had more than 60,000 subscribers. The movement became famous for organising rallies for the compulsory study of the Bashkir language in the republic and for ecological actions. The leaders of the movement focused on rural youth and began to revive yiyõyns,traditional folk gatherings, in Bashkir villages. In 2019, the yiyõyns began to regularly raise questions about the protection of the Kushtau Shikhan, which the Bashkirs consider a sacred mountain. At that time, the shikhan was threatened with destruction - the Bashkir Soda Company wanted to destroy it, because it was interfering with its sources of raw materials. In May 2020, at the suit of the Prosecutor's Office, the Supreme Court of the Republic declared Bashkorte an extremist organisation. In its grounds for the suit, the agency argued that the nationalists were using yiyõyns to "call for extremist activity and recruit new members". Fail Alsynov, who was chairman of Bashkorte, linked the lawsuit against the organisation to the nationalists' active efforts to protect Kushtau. "Because the people followed us," Alsynov said. Three months later, Gabbasov and Alsynov, along with other Bashkir activists, organised a mass protest on Mount Kushtau. Several thousand activists clashed violently with Bashkir Soda Company security guards and police. The head of Bashkortostan, Rady Khabirov, who had said he would give up the mountain for raw materials even if they were "broken and twisted", came to the mountain for talks and invited the nationalists to an official meeting to resolve the conflict. But the activists only agreed to leave when Khabirov promised that Kushtau would not be developed and asked the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources to give the shikhan conservation status. A few months after the events at Kushtau, former Bashtau activists were searched. Four activists were sent to pre-trial detention facilities on charges of hooliganism and possession of weapons or ammunition. In the autumn of 2021, Gabbasov, fearing criminal prosecution, left for Lithuania and was granted political asylum there in the spring. In September 2022, a criminal case was brought against him by the Bashkortostani Interior Ministry Department for establishing an extremist association (Criminal Code article 282.1, part 1). Fail Alsynov remained in Russia. He became less active in the public space but participated in protest actions. In spring he was detained twice because of actions in the republic, the second time for a rally against illegal gold mining in the Baymakski district. He was then interrogated by officers of the Interior Ministry's Centre for Counteraction to Extremism, who inquired whether Ruslan Gabbasov coordinated the protests in Baymak and whether "pro- Ukrainian forces" were influencing the protest activity in the republic. After the mobilization was announced, Alsynov wrote several anti-war posts on his VKontakte page, where he has almost nine thousand followers. In late September, traffic police officers stopped his car in Ufa. They detained Alsynov and took him to court with a report on resisting police. The court returned the case to the police because of gross irregularities in the report. New nationalist tactics After the mobilization was announced, the Bashnatspolit channel began to issue calls to "go underground and wage guerrilla warfare against Putin's regime, bringing its collapse closer." The activists also offered mock-ups of leaflets for distribution. One shows a Bashkir wearing a traditional fox hat and carrying a rifle, the other a skullcap and a rifle. The inscription on the leaflet is in Russian and calls on the Bashkirs to fight for independence. Besides that, "Bashnatspolit" published a collection of photos of leaflets with different design, already stuck up on the bus-stops in villages and towns. The inscriptions on them are in the Bashkir language. The authors of the leaflets write that a "secret armed organization" is being formed in the republic. They suggest Bashkirs "to create autonomous organizations, arm themselves and wait for instructions" which "will come from a well-known person". On October 10, Gabbasov wrote in his telegram channel to 2700 people that nationalists were starting to create a Bashkir army in the republic. He accompanied the post with a photo of the finished chevrons he said future soldiers would wear. The chevrons look like blue hexagons with Islamic symbols - a crescent and a star. The chevrons are indeed similar to the insignia worn by servicemen of the Bashkir army during the Civil War. The Bashkir nationalists call the first Bashkir Republic the Autonomy of Bashkurdistan. It was proclaimed in November 1917 and included part of lands of today's Bashkortostan, Chelyabinsk and Orenburg oblasts. Bashkurdistan had its own army and fought the Bolsheviks. In 1919, the leaders of the republic concluded an agreement with the Soviets, and the Bashkir army became part of the Red Army, and Bashkurdistan became the Bashkir Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1990 it adopted the Declaration of State Sovereignty, was given its present name, signed a demarcation treaty with Moscow and became part of Russia. On October 16, Ruslan Gabbasov wrote that the troop was being formed, people were being thoroughly vetted. Several men, he said, had already "sworn allegiance to Free Bashkortostan". The activist has published the text of the oath. Anyone joining the Bashkir army should swear allegiance to "free Bashkortostan", to "the people and government of Bashkortostan" and "to be a brave and vigilant warrior, ruthless against the enemies of the Motherland". The oath ends with the statement that if a warrior breaks the oath he will be "severely punished with the whole rigour of the law and the contempt of the people of Bashkortostan". The next day Bashnatspolit published a post on its channel with its own scenario of the seizure of power in the republic. It said that the Bashkir army would become a fighting force by the time "Colonel Putin's regime falls". The head of the republic, Rady Khabirov, will be removed from office, according to activists, because "the Bashkir National Movement and the Revolutionary Committee of Bashkortostan will never agree to the loyal Putinist Khabirov remaining in power." ‘They don't want to fight for the empire’ Gabbasov told Verstka that after the announcement of the mobilization, many former activists of the banned Bashkortostan left Russia for Kazakhstan. Those who stayed behind decided to go into hiding. "They don't want to fight for the empire. They think it's not our war," Gabbasov said. “Why should the Bashkirs die for the "Russian world" somewhere in Ukraine? The Ukrainians haven't done anything bad to us, and the empire has always been crushing us. They have crushed our Bashkir language, they jailed our leaders. Why should we fight for them now?". Bashkir authorities manage to recruit volunteers to regional units and comply with the mobilization plan because they "take advantage of the Bashkir people's gullibility and play on patriotic strings,'" Gabbasov believes. In his opinion, the fact that the Bashkirs are historically militarized people and have participated in all wars on the side of the empire also plays into the hands of the authorities. "The authorities constantly remind us of the ‘northern Amurs’ - how the Bashkirs defended the country during the war of 1812 - or recall General Shaimuratov and his cavalry, which fought during the Great Patriotic War,” the activist cites examples. The fact that Bashkirs' main national hero Salavat Yulayev was a participant in the uprising and fought against the empire doesn't embarrass the republic's residents who go to war, Gabbasov notes. "An ordinary Bashkir, not a nationalist, has everything scrambledcin his head," says the activist. “There's Shaimuratov and the 'Northern Amurs' and Salavat Yulaev at the same time. The main thing is that they all fought.” In Gabbasov's view, the militarisation of the Bashkirs could backfire on the authorities. He claims he can see how Bashkortostan residents who are hesitant about the war are becoming more and more sympathetic to the nationalists, the comments and posts from the locals are becoming more and more anti-government, and the nationalist-oriented publicity pages are getting new followers. If Russia loses the war, the national movement will strengthen "a hundredfold", Gabbasov has no doubt. “If the war drags on and the Bashkirs realise that they are being thrown as cannon fodder, they may be outraged," the activist says. He admits that these people may join the Bashkir national movement when they return from the war. Protest region Political analyst Abbas Galliamov, who worked for several years in the administration of the former head of the republic, Rustem Khamitov, says that Bashkir nationalists have been financed by several major local businessmen in recent years. "As far as I know, these businessmen have been supporting them for the past year too," says the political analyst. “These are Bashkir businessmen who are dissatisfied with what's happening in the country. Some of them are nationalists by their views and genuinely support the ideology of those they are helping". The anonymous "Bashkir Resistance Committee" is likely to have a small number of activists, Galliamov believes. "But such an organization can't be mass," he adds. “It is important for it to maintain a conspiracy. It will have mass followers later, when the system starts to collapse.” According to political scientist Dmitri Oreshkin, Bashkortostan “is becoming the first swallow among republics who are declaring their struggle for independence. In 30 years, a new group of Bashkir intellectuals has formed in the republic and will fight for dominant positions in politics, using rhetoric about the Bashkirs being oppressed and deceived, but pure and noble people at heart," Oreshkin says. This phase, he continues, "has been passed through by everyone - Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan. It is important that this is now a process initiated not from above, but from below. That is the novelty, the sincerity, and the danger of such a movement. Because they really believe they are fighting for the ideals of freedom. But as a rule, when such fighters win, they end up with a sultan- type authoritarian regime," Oreshkin warns. “Putin's strategy is leading to the country's collapse. He has started a war and opened the gates for such processes. The Kremlin's mistakes now give them a powerful incentive.” The republic's leader, Rady Khabirov, has found himself in a difficult situation, the political scientist said. "At one time, [Bashkortostan's first president Murtaza] Rakhimov used Bashkir nationalists to scare the Kremlin: “If you don't give in to me, the insulted Bashkir people will rise up and we won't be able to hold them back.” No one will allow Khabirov to put pressure on Putin, and the national movement clearly wasn't initiated by him," says Oreshkin. “But the Chekists [Russian security service, FSB] are watching him closely now. If it goes on like this, it will be very easy for them or Khabirov's political rivals to accuse him of sympathizing with the nationalists. Khabirov has staked his claim on the Kremlin, he has been put in charge by the Kremlin, and now he will have to deal with the situation somehow, negotiate with the national leaders of the new nationalism and put pressure on them if they are not willing to come to terms with it." The republic's authorities aren't making any public comments on the statements of Bashkir nationalists. Rustem Akhmadinurov, vice-speaker of the Kurultai (Bashkortostan parliament) and a United Russia member who is in Radiyev Khabirov's inner circle, told Verstka that "the activities of the so-called Bashnatspolit movement seem to fall under the purview of anti-extremist legislation. "I hope the law enforcement authorities will provide an appropriate legal resolution to this," he added.