A small spark, the prison sentence of an activist who opposed the construction of a mine in the Republic of Bashkortostan, about 1,300 kilometers east of Moscow, next to the Ural Mountains, has provoked the first relatively massive protest in Russia since the military mobilized in the 2017 fall 2022. Around 2,000 citizens have taken over the center of this region's capital, Ufa, joining the thousands of demonstrators who have taken to the streets over the past three days, defying the authorities' large police force. According to independent Russian media, dozens of people were arrested.
The protests began on January 17, when a well-known defender of the Bashkir ethnic group, Fail Alsinov, was sentenced to four years in prison on the pretext of insulting immigrants. The activist had spoken out in recent years against the construction of a mine at a sacred site in his city, Mount Kushtau, and was arrested several times for his public opposition to the war after the invasion of Ukraine began in 2022.
Bashkortostan is a region rich in gold, coal and other mining resources. During one of his rallies in 2023, Alsinov denounced that his wealth was being exploited by companies based outside his province while his ethnic group was gradually becoming impoverished. “What benefit do we get from this? Our boys are leaving; They bow their heads and die. The men who can defend our country are not staying. Only the women and the elderly remain. Alcoholics die drunk, the living die in war [contra Ucrania]”, denounced Alsinov, whose organization was classified as extremist by the authorities.
The Russian Investigative Committee, the prosecutor's office directly subordinate to the presidential office, opened a criminal case against him in August 2023, accusing him of the crime of inciting hatred against immigrants. The activist held his rally in Bashkir and claimed in the Russian translation that he had made derogatory comments about the arrival of workers from other regions of Russia as well as the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia. “Armenians will return to their homeland, Kara Jalik [un término túrquico despectivo equivalente a ‘gente mafiosa’]“, contained the documents presented by the public prosecutor. However, his defense claims it was poorly translated into Russian and refers to them as “poor people”.
The trial took place in the mining town of Baymak. On the same day that the judges announced the verdict, a large crowd gathered outside the court, between 5,000 and 10,000 people, reports the independent newspaper Viorstka. “Men, women, old people and children” who shouted “Shame!” as one of Alsinov's supporters announced the verdict with a megaphone, according to the newspaper. “Thank you so much for supporting me, I will never forget it. I am not guilty,” the activist told RusNews.
Temperatures below -15 degrees prevailed in Baymak this week. Some of the coat-clad demonstrators that day clashed with police and threw snowballs as huge lines of officers tried to disperse the crowds. Although WhatsApp and Telegram began to function poorly in the region at the time, videos of Russia's first protests in more than a year quickly spread online.
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The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case into “massive unrest” in the city and announced that it would identify and prosecute the participants in the protests, whose punishment under this article of the Criminal Code could be up to 15 years in prison. However, the measure did not deter the region's residents and they continued to take to the streets in Baymak and the regional capital in the days following Alsinov's trial.
Ban on demonstrations
Demonstrations are de facto banned in Russia, and even a single picket with a blank piece of paper can lead to an arrest. For this reason, the Bashkirs played cat and mouse with the police this Friday. More than 2,000 people took over Salatav Yulayev Ufa Square, but it was no ordinary demonstration: instead of forming a single block and shouting their grievances, they danced in circles and sang songs in Bashkir or moved aimlessly under the pretext of them wanted to visit the Ufa Square monument to Yúlavev, according to a local journalist from the Sota channel. However, the police have arrested several people.
A Russian platform that studies political persecution in the country, OVD-Info, estimates that 19,747 people have been arrested during protests since the invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, in addition to 865 criminal cases against opponents of the war, many of them were punished with long prison sentences or heavy fines. The Kremlin managed to quell the complaints on the streets through a huge police deployment and the tightening of laws that impose prison sentences for criticism of the actions of the army and its high command, both for those defending the peace and for those defending the peace Ultranationalists who complain about warfare.
Since the offensive against Ukraine began, there have only been two major waves of protests. The first, at the start of the invasion; and second, after President Vladimir Putin ordered massive mobilization in September 2022, particularly in regions such as Bashkortostan and Dagestan, due to the focus on ethnic minority recruitment. Arrests and sending participants to recruitment centers quickly drowned out those protests, although there was another attempted demonstration in recent weeks after dozens of mobilized women demanded their return home.
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