For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow has dispatched internal troops to a republic outside the North Caucasus to suppress what it calls “nationalist band formations” in Bashkortostan. Not only does that mean that there is a new “hot spot” on the map of the Russian Federation, but it is one that is far closer and ultimately more politically and economically sensitive than any of the other hot spots that the Kremlin has had to deal with up to now.
On Saturday, December 8, Lt. General Aleksandr Poryadin, head of the Urals Regional Command of the Internal Forces of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), told “Novy Region-2” that his units had “carried out joint special operations against Bashkir nationalist band formations” last week. According to the general, his forces were trying to find “a training camp” organized by these formations in neighboring Chelyabinsk Oblast or Perm Krai, but the internal troops were “not able to find the camp” of the Bashkir militants, either because “the operational information was unreliable or [because] the partisans were able to escape to the territory of the republic before the special forces (spetsnaz) raid (nr2.ru/ekb/415495.html).
These are not the first Russian special forces that have been used in the areas around Bashkortostan. Two years ago, the Federal Security Services’ (FSB) Alpha Unit was sent into Perm Krai after three militants on June 12, 2010, shot and killed a local official and seized several guns. According to the FSB at the time, the three, all of whom had Turkic if not Bashkir names, were planning to blow up the Chelyabinsk-Petrovsk gas pipeline. Instead of capturing them and bringing them to trial, however, the FSB unit killed them.
Bashkortostan’s officials at the time insisted this was “the first” case of extremist activities in their republic, but “Novy Region-2” said that there have been repeated “leaks” from the Russian special services that “similar operations have taken place frequently in the forests of Bashkortostan.” If that is the case, Moscow chose not to play them up. But now the situation from Moscow’s point of view appears to have deteriorated to the point that the Russian authorities have decided they have to tell the population about their use of special forces against the population not just in the North Caucasus but in a place far closer to the center of Russia.
Were Moscow to lose the North Caucasus, the Russian Federation could continue to function. But if the center were to lose control of Bashkortostan and the Middle Volga region as a whole, through which all the transportation and communication infrastructure links central Russia with Siberia and the Russian Far East, Moscow would likely lose control over a far greater percentage of its overall territory than the Soviet government did at the end of 1991.
In addition to these obvious geopolitical realities within the Russian Federation, Moscow’s decision to use force in the Middle Volga republic of Bashkortostan, as well as its public admission of something that highlights the center’s weakness rather than its strength, is interesting for three reasons.
First, it occurred on the same day that residents of six of the republics of the Middle Volga went into the streets of their capital cities to protest Moscow’s plans to eliminate the requirement that all students in non-Russian republics take courses on the language of the titular nationality. Many in these republics believe this policy is the first step in a broader effort by Russian President Vladimir Putin to reduce still further the status of the non-Russians and ultimately abolish the non-Russian republics (www.irekle.org/news/i494.html).
Second, it came as delegates of the World Tatar Congress in Kazan adopted a resolution declaring that this organization, on behalf of Tatars and the Republic of Tatarstan, will seek observer status in the United Nations. Moscow will certainly be able to block that, but the issuance of such a demand highlights just how angry people in the Middle Volga are and how committed a sizeable minority now is to the pursuit of independence (tatar-centr.blogspot.com/2012/12/v_8.html).
And third, it comes on the heels of a meeting in Bashkortostan’s capital of Ufa devoted to the 95th anniversary of the proclamation of that republic’s national-territorial autonomy. The meeting in Ufa explicitly condemned Moscow’s current nationality policy and suggested that the campaign against federalism is “leading to the rise of tensions among peoples and is creating a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” (kurultay-ufa.ru/2012/12/07/mezhdunarodnoy-nauchno-prakticheskoy-konferencii-posvyaschennoy-95-letiyu-provozglasheniya-nacionalno-territorialnoy-avtonomii-bashkortostana.html).
But perhaps even more worrisome to Moscow, which has generally viewed the Bashkirs as passive and the Kazan Tatars a problem, the Ufa meeting called for the convention of “a joint meeting of the leaders of the social organizations of the national republics of the Russian Federation to consider just what steps they should take together to block the Kremlin from continuing on its current course (kurultay-ufa.ru/2012/12/07/provozglashenie-territorialnoy-avtonomii-bashkortostana-v-kontekste-sovremennoy-obschestvenno-politicheskoy-obstanovki-v-rf.html).