March 21, 2024


On March 17, Putin won his sham election. The dictatorship is secure, Navalny is dead, opponents are in prison, and there were only a few scattered acts of heroic protest during the vote. Fires were started at four polling places, Molotov cocktails were tossed at a few more, and ballot boxes were sabotaged in seven regions. On election day, thousands participated in the symbolic “Noon against Putin” protest, and Putin’s victory speech threatened death penalties for future anti-war “traitors”. But a few “de-colonization” movements have taken root in regions where ethnic majorities are abused and where economic independence from Moscow is sought. In January, the biggest protest took place in Bashkortostan. Large crowds gathered in freezing temperatures to protest the sentencing of Fail Alsynov, a Bashkir activist, for outing Moscow’s military mobilization as a “genocide of the Bashkir people”. Crowds chanted “freedom”. Many were arrested and one died in custody. The Kremlin called it “a local problem”, but another large protest occurred in neighboring Tatarstan just weeks before. While small, such gatherings led to movements in the 1980s that eventually toppled the USSR.

The two “republics” are oil-rich and the people are mostly Turkic. Both are close to Western markets and could be economically viable. Their young men have been disproportionately thrown into a war they don’t support, along with minorities from other regions. They are deprived economically even though, combined, they produce one-quarter of Russia’s oil, have billions of barrels in reserves, and significant minerals and metals deposits. In 1992, I flew to the capitals of each, as the Soviet Union dissolved, to interview their Presidents about the possibility of independence. At the time, their spartan hotels were jammed with Western and Middle Eastern businessmen and operatives who wanted to cash in on what looked like the possibility that both would leave the Soviet Union, as had Ukraine and neighboring Central Asian republics. But neither President was a revolutionary and instead they cut deals in Moscow to gain some autonomy within the newly formed Russian Federation.

But they’ve been exploited. Today their living standards are low compared to those enjoyed by Russians in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Environmental degradation continues and a 2018 law banned the official use of their language and culture. By 2022, the per capita GDP of people living in Moscow was 22,000 Euros, compared to Tatarstan’s 10,000 Euros and Bashkortostan’s 6,000 Euros a year. Bashkortostan, or Bashkiria, produces more oil than any other region and refines petroleum into plastics and pesticides. Pockets of resistance have persisted, but are met with immediate repression. After the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Committee of Bashkir Resistance formed to fight for outright independence and operates underground, making occasional arson attacks on Russian government buildings and police stations.

Bashkiris have strong ties to Tatarstan or Tataria. They understand one another’s languages. The Tatars also have separatist movements, and the country is an oil and petrochemical powerhouse. In November and December 2022, after the invasion of Ukraine, there were large-scale anti-war

protests, and hundreds of military personnel in its capital of Kazan rioted or walked off their training base, protesting poor living conditions and inadequate weaponry. A crackdown followed.

In October 2023, Russia arrested Tatar journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, an activist and editor with the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Tatar-Bashkir service in Kazan, while she visited her elderly mother. She is an American citizen as well as a Russian, and has lived in the Czech Republic for years, but was charged with failure to register as a foreign agent and with allegedly spreading “false information”. Protests followed her arrest in December, but she’s been moved to Moscow for trial. Washington is now actively involved in her case, because of her citizenship.

Tatars (different from those in Tatarstan and Bashkiria) also populate Crimea and have an underground movement, called Atesh, which means “fire”, that operates behind Russian lines. It formed after Russia’s re-occupation of Crimea in 2014 and carries out acts of sabotage from within the ranks of the Russian army. For instance, it claims that 4,000 Russian soldiers have enrolled in its “Atesh school” online to learn how “to survive during the war” and make money by wrecking their own equipment or helping others to do so. The group claims to have blown up checkpoints, assassinated Russian officers, torched barracks, and fed intelligence to Ukrainian special forces.

Crimea’s 300,000-strong Tatar community accounts for 13 percent of its population but represents 85 percent of those arrested for political reasons. Many of its activists have left or disappeared, but partisans remain and await liberation. “At the current moment, around 1,000 young men are ready to take up arms as soon as the Ukrainian army arrives, if they are able to get the weapons,” said an organizer.

There are roughly 158 million people of Turkic ethnicity across Eurasia. They are secular Muslims and have been oppressed by the Russians for centuries. The first attempt to wrest independence from Moscow occurred in Chechnya in September 1991. ln December 1994, the Russian Federation sent troops into the republic and wars followed until 2009. Its current ruler supports Putin’s war in Ukraine, but the region remains volatile.

The independence of Turkic peoples in the Russian Federation has been openly advocated for years by the Organization of Turkic States, headquartered in Istanbul. The Organization, which includes Central Asian nations, upset Moscow before the war when it declared that there were ten Turkic regions inside the Russian Federation that have a right to sovereignty. It cited seven in the North Caucasus which included Chechnya, Crimea, Bashkiria, and Tataria.

These Russian republics may rise up if Moscow’s war ends badly for Putin and the center doesn’t hold. This happened after the disastrous Soviet–Afghan War when the Soviet Union dissolved into the Russian Federation, and a number of independent republics. Today, Russia represents only 3.4 percent of the world GDP and is smaller than Mexico’s economy, but Putin still maintains an iron grip because of oil exports. “Putin is also seen by them as someone very far removed, unattainable, so they feel like this is someone else’s election that has no meaning for them,” a Turkic voter told the Moscow Times. But the leader of an anti-war and de-colonial movement

from Siberia’s Tyva region noted that “we are seeing how peoples’ attitudes towards the war, towards Putin and towards [General] Shoigu are changing,” said Sholbaana Kuular.

An activist from northern Siberia’s Yakutia region said, “Free Yakutia is not joining the ‘Noon Against Putin’ action. We believe that people should make their own decision about when to vote,” said Sargylana Kondakova, a co-founder of the Free Yakutia Foundation, an anti-war and indigenous rights group from the Far East republic. We tell our followers that they need to vote because that is the only [safe] way to express one’s political position still available to Russian citizens. We ask them not to vote for Putin, but choose any other candidate whom they see fit.”

Unfortunately, Putin’s “re-election” means an even tighter grip. But restive groups in its regions continue to organize in case, like 1992, an opportunity to escape arises.