Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Could Moscow’s Actions in Ukraine Trigger War between Tatars and Bashkirs?

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 4 – Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have had an impact on ethnic relations within the Russian Federation, given that they call into question the stability of borders and even existing ethnic balances and political relations between the center and periphery. But the impact of Moscow’s moves may have a far more explosive effect in a place than anyone anticipates.


            In a commentary on Rufabula yesterday, Petr Gantimirov asks a question few ever thought would be posed: “Is a Tatar-Bashkir war inevitable?” given what the Russian government has been doing in Ukraine and even more because of what it has been saying about the nature of the conflict there (


            He begins his essay with the following narrative: “Once upon a time two peoples lived in a single state and together built a great empire. They spoke closely related languages, but now it would be difficult to call their relations brotherly.”  The first now considers the language of the second a dialect and the two “a single people,” but the second does not agree.


            According to nationalists in the first, “the state of the second is an artificial formation,” and “in reality, on a significant portion of the territory of the second are dominant members of the ethnic group of the first” and large numbers of the second speak the language of the first as well.


            “The second wants to strengthen its sovereignty and make it so that all the residents of their republic know the state language,” Gantimirov continues, while “the first accuse the second in imposing the language [of the second] and artificially assimilating [members of the first]. They demand their language become the second state language in the republic of the second.”


            And if that doesn’t happen, the nationalists of the first say, “then the South-ea … forgive me, the North-West of Bashkortostan must be united to Tatarstan,” he continues, pointing out that what is happening in the Middle Volga is that “the historically dominant” Tatars are infected with chauvinism,” while the historically dominated Bashkirs are engaged in nation building.


            “I’m joking,” the analyst says. “Of course, you have never heard about this conflict. But this is not because the contradictions are insignificant. They are stronger than those between Russians and Ukrainians,” something Moscow has managed to keep under wraps by forcing “both sides to be quiet, the republic governments to observe the status quo, and the media to ignore manifestations” of these and portray everything as reflecting “inter-ethnic harmony.”


            But that “recipe” only works “as long as the power vertical is strong. As soon as it weakens, all these contradictions break out with new force.” Not talking about them does not make them go away. And if one looks around the Russian Federation, one can see many such problems.

                If Russian society were to liberalize, it might be possible to discuss things and overcome such differences, “but openly speaking,” Gantimirov asks rhetorically, “does anyone have any hope for the gradual liberalization of Russia?” The answer of course is no, and that points to an ever more dangerous spiral ahead.


            “The conflicts in the Caucasus have already gone so far that there are no chances left to resolve them peacefully. The Kumyks will fight for the mountain peoples of Daghestan just as they fought in the 1990s.” But this time around, no agreement even of a temporary nature is possible.


            The situation in the Middle Volga between the Tatars and Bashkirs is one in which, Gantimirov insists, “not all [hopes for a peaceful resolution between the two] have yet been lost.”


            All parallels have their limits, he says, and “the Russian-Ukrainian analogy breaks down when one considers the ethnic composition of Bashkortostan” as well as when one considers that it and Tatarstan are within the borders of the Russian Federation rather than being two independent countries.


            According to the last census, Bashkirs only slightly outnumber Tatars in Bashkortostan, 29 percent and 25 percent respectively, and both are outnumbered by ethnic Russian who form 36 percent of the total. The Tatars, the analyst says, “accuse the Tatars” of assimilation and undercounts; the Bashkirs say that “earlier Tatarized Bashkirs are returning to their identity.”


            For a variety of reasons rooted in the Soviet past, there is more basis for conflict between the two Turkic peoples than between either or both of them with the Russians, he says. The borders of Bashkortostan were laid down at the start of the Soviet era at a time when the Tatars wanted a single republic including what they viewed as “’a single people.’”


            But the Tatars did not succeed in getting one not only because of Moscow’s desire to split the two but because the Bashkirs at that time were “a militant stratum like the Cossacks” who were able to field an army during the Russian civil war and “establish their power in the Pri-Ural region.”


            As a result, even today, “the borders of Greater Bashkortostan are part of the national self-consciousness of the Bashkirs and they are not ready to surrender them to anyone … The motivation of the Tatars is [also] understandable: any contemporary nation resists assimilation and seeks to be unified in a nation state.”


            Moscow “has frozen the ethnic conflict between the Tatars and Bashkirs,” but if the two republics acquire greater independence, it is certain that the Bashkir state will take steps that will infuriate the Tatars “in just the same way as the prospect of an independent Georgia angered the Abkhazians and Osetins;”of Moldova, the Gagauz; and of Croatia, the Serbs.”


            Is there a way to avoid such a disaster in the Middle Volga, to reach an agreement before bloodshed leaves the Tatars and Bashkirs in the position of enemies forever?  Gantimirov says that there is, if one begins with what each side most wants and each side at the same time most fears.


            “The Bashkirs want to preserve the borders of Bashkortostan and their conception of their republic as the state of the Bashkirs,” he writes. “The Tatars seek to preserve their leadership in the Volga-Urals region, and the Tatars of Bashkortostan want to preserve their language and identity.” Only some Tatar nationalists want “a Greater Tatarstan.”


            Consequently, “the Bashkirs must receive guarantees of the Bashkir nature of Bashkortostan and the inviolability of its borders,” and “the Tatars must receive guarantees that they will not be subject to Bashkirization in either language or identity in Bashkortostan and that Tatarstan will retain its leadership in the region.”


            The most difficult task, the Ufa commentator says, is to bring the historical narratives of the two peoples into alignment. “The Bashkir conception of ‘Tatarized Bashkirs’” and the notion of a common Tatar nationality as found among some Tatars get in the way and will require enormous efforts to overcome.


            But one basis for optimism that an agreement can be reached is that both Tatars and Bashkirs are going to view any such accord as unjust, but “the Tatars must understand that a peaceful resolution is the only means of preserving regional leadership” and that “the Tatars of Bashkortostan can serve as a connecting link between the two republics.”


            “In the event of war, even if the Tatars win, Tatarstan would get a most hostile enemy at its borders, have problems with its own international legitimacy, and be viewed with suspicion by other neighboring republics. And the Bashkirs in that event could not sit still for either their current borders of the role of their people in the republic.”


            At the same time, “the Bashkirs must recognize that to preserve the current borders of Bashkortostan and the status of the unique titular nation under conditions of independence and democracy will be possible only if they reach agreement with other peoples of the republic” and live up to them.


            Other possibilities, Gantimirov warns, include “a national dictatorship, ethnic purges or a new totalitarian sovereign” promise nothing good, a conclusion which applies with equal or even greater force to the Russian-Ukrainian analogy he began with.




Putin’s Strategy: Involve West in Undermining Ukraine so Ukrainians Will Despise It Too

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 4 – Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and continuing aggression against Ukraine means that Ukrainians will never again accept ethnic Russians as “a fraternal people” or be prepared to defer to Moscow unless they are compelled to by forces beyond the capacity of today’s Russia to field. Instead, they will continue to pursue their European choice.


            That puts Putin in a difficult position, but he appears to have found a way out, one whose implications some leaders in the West have ignored or may not even understand.  By involving them in talks about undermining the integrity of Ukraine, Putin is laying the groundwork for Ukrainian hostility to Europe as well.


            Such antagonism to Europe will not mean that Ukrainians will want to turn to Russia instead, at least not anytime soon. But any such hostility will mean that Ukraine will remain caught between Moscow and the West, not taken in by either and thus ever weaker, more divided, and more subject to manipulation by various means overt and covert from Moscow.


            That Western leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande should have fallen for this trap laid by Putin is appalling not only in terms of its immediate impact but even more because of its long-term consequences, but that the Kremlin leader should set it makes perfect sense from his point of view.


            Those conclusions are suggested by “Moskovsky komsomolets” which notes that not Russia along but it together with France and Germany are now involved with Kyiv in the beginning of “the decentralization of Ukraine,” something the Moscow outlet clearly celebrates (


            The paper reports that the three countries, along with Ukraine, have “discussed the beginning of the work of a special group in Minsk which will be concerned with the preparation of local elections in special regions of the Donbas,” thus giving to Putin yet another victory over Ukraine through the involvement of Western pressure.


            It notes happily that yesterday “it became known that Poroshenko had signed a decree about the creation of a Constitutional Commission which is needed for “the development of agreed upon proposals for the perfecting of the Constitution of Ukraine taking into account contemporary challenges and requirements of society.”


            And it concludes with the words of Mikhail Pogrebinsky, head of the Kyiv Center for Political Research and Conflict Studies, that Poroshenko is moving in this direction because “foreign players including the European Union want this,” again a source of influence Putin may be glad to get but that the EU should not be giving to an aggressor.



Occupation Powers Seek to Destroy Crimean Tatar Mejlis by Registering It

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 4 – Since the Anschluss, Russia’s occupation authorities have tried a variety of means to shut down the Crimea Tatar Mejlis, the most important organization of the group that has most consistently opposed Moscow’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.


            The authorities have banned Mejlis leaders like Mustafa Cemil and Rufat Chubarov from returning to their homeland. They have harassed its members, raided its headquarters, and waged a vicious propaganda war against the organization. And they have created an alternative pocket group, the “Kyrym,” in order to confuse people about who speaks for the Crimean Tatars.


            Now, they have come up with a new strategy, one superficially legitimate but clearly intended to destroy the Mejlis and thus geld the Crimean Tatar nation.  It was announced yesterday by Kyrym whose leaders said they intend to register the Mejlis as a NGO as defined by Russian law (, and


            Refat Derdarov, deputy head of Kyrym and chairman of the Bakchisarai district council, said that with such registration, the Mejlis will work in a legal framework because a social organization which declares itself as such and which represents the interests of the people … must be registered” if it is to deal with the authorities.


            What is needed, he continued, is for the delegates of the Kurultay – the assembly of Crimean Tatars which chooses the Mejlis – to “assemble and evaluate the work of the Mejlis which at present is practically frozen. Certain members of the Mejlis today are responsible for this and try to conduct meetings “from the mainland via Skype.”


            “For us,” Derdarov said, “this is unacceptable. We consider that a leader must be with his own people.” He added that he was confident he had the numbers to assemble a Kurultay and thus preserve it and the Mejlis but under new leadership.  And he said he sees as the new leader Remzi Ilyasov who is willing to work with the Russian authorities in Crimea.


            It is unlikely that Kyrym does, at least if it accurately reflects the views of most Crimean Tatars for whom the Mejlis is not an NGO but rather the expression of their desire to organize the life of their nation on the peninsula and within the boundaries of Ukraine. But Kyrym clearly doesn’t care about that and like the occupiers wants to destroy the Mejlis but registering it.



Russians Less Likely to Protest as Their Situation Deteriorates, Urnov Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 4 – It is an axiom in most countries that people will protest when  their living conditions decline and that assumption underlies current Western policy toward Moscow, but Mark Urnov, one of Russia’s leading political analysts, argues that the situation in Russia is different and that Russians are less rather than more likely to protest as conditions deteriorate.


            In an interview in “Profile” today, Urnov notes that “in Russia as in all societies where the demolition of totalitarian or traditional arrangements is far from complete … the reaction of the population to changes in its material situation is fundamentally different from those typical of developed industrial and post-industrial societies” (


            And consequently, he says, unlike in the latter, “dissatisfaction and political activity [in Russia] intensify not when the situation is getting worse but when it is getting better … When the situation is getting worse, demands sharply decrease, the split between ‘I want’ and ‘I can’ becomes smaller, frustration weakens and protest activity falls off.”


            This pattern was first noted by de Tocqueville in his book, “The Ancien Regime and Revolution” (1856) and has been confirmed by Russian experience from the Bolshevik revolution, which happened after 40 years of “stormy economic growth and the improvement of the standard of living of the population” as well as in other times and places.


            Today in Russia, Urnov says, there is “again a crisis and naturally a fall-off of mass political activity is beginning.” That is because people are now focusing on “individual survival” and “collective protests are losing their attractiveness” for almost everyone, whatever some may hope and others fear.


            Urnov, the head of the political science department of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, tells his “Profile” interviewer Dmitry Ivanov that this is only part of the reason for the high levels of support Russians are giving to Vladimir Putin and the Russian regime at the present time.


            Most of this, he suggests, is the result of propaganda, which has been far more successful than he had thought possible even a year ago, given the Internet and other sources of information which mean that the Russian population is far less cut off from accurate information than was its Soviet counterpart.


            The main reason Russian government propaganda has been so successful, Urnov argues, is that it has played to the requirement many Russians feel for “a positive identity, self-assertion and national pride,” something that the propagandists under Russian conditions can give by presenting Russia as standing up to and thumbing its nose at the West.


            Seizing Crimea was not primarily about increasing the size of the country, he continues, or even about righting what some Russians view as a historic wrong. Instead, as the propagandists recognized and promoted, it was “a demonstration” of aggressive political behavior.


            Russian television assured Russians: “Having returned Crimea, we have not only restored historic justice but we have also thumbed our nose at the US and in this way and yet again shown everyone that we have risen from our knees” and won’t be pushed around.  That message played a far greater role than any other in winning support for the Kremlin.


            Prior to the Crimean Anschluss, Moscow propagandists pushed the notion that Russia’s achievements were peaceful: its athletes at the Olympics and its rich businessmen who were able to buy everything. “Now,” however, “militarist rhetoric predominates,” and that has nothing to do with concern about “the good life” but rather with patriotism and enemies.


            In some respects, Moscow’s rhetoric today is like that of the Soviet Union’s, Urnov says. “But one must note that in the USSR of the Brezhnev period, the core message of propaganda was, in comparison with that of the present day, “more calm, more peace-loving and more kind.” And that does not bode well for the future.


            Today’s rhetoric is “nervous, hysterical and extremely aggressive,” and that has consequences which are “extremely dangerous” not only by creating the preconditions for intolerance and political terror, whose most recent victim was Boris Nemtsov, but also stimulating emigration of the most educated and talented people in the population.


            Within Russia now, Urnov suggests, there is no “organized opposition which could really pose a threat to the authorities” and that it will “hardly appear over the next several years.”  Hope in the middle class is misplaced because most of it consists of those employed by or dependent on the government rather than independent of the regime.


            If the current kind of propaganda continues, the share of aggressive people in the population will increase because their numbers are “absolutely dependent on the authorities” rather than reflecting the decisions of the individuals involved. Their attitudes and actions are thus “triggered” by the propaganda.


            Some of these people will be passive as a result, but others will become active and do things that will threaten society at large and also the regime which riled them up. Overcoming that and overcoming Russia’s totalitarian and authoritarian past will not happen quickly, he says. Instead, it will require concerted effort over several generations.




Leningrad Governor Attacks Finno-Ugric Groups as Threats to Russia’s Territorial Integrity

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 4 – Leningrad Governor Aleksandr Drozdenko says the Izhors, a Finno-Ugric group numbering 26,000, and the supporters of a largely Internet-based project calling for the establishment of an autonomous republic uniting Finno-Ugric and Slavic groups in the northwestern part of the Russian Federation, as threats to the territorial integrity of the country.


            On the one hand, Drozdenko’s attack may be nothing more than his following the current Russian nationalist trend of the Moscow media and a way of shoring up his support not only among the ethnic Russian majority in his region but among the ethnic Russians who dominate policy making in the Kremlin.


            But on the other hand, it could have a far more sinister meaning either as a signal to Estonia and Finland to end their support for Finno-Ugric groups inside the Russian Federation or even as a preparation for possible aggression of one kind or another against Estonia, its NATO membership notwithstanding.


            Speaking to the Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations yesterday, the oblast governor said that the time had come to focus attention on what he called “extremist organizations working on the territory of the region” ( and


            “We have small groups of citizens who, even though they are not residents of Leningrad oblast, are trying to influence the minds, opinions and actions of residents,” Drozdenko said. And he singled out two Finno-Ugric ones, the Ingria group and the Shoikula organization, which is based in Vistino and Ust-Luga in the Kingisepp region.


            According to the governor, these groups are engaged in activities which undermine the interests of the Russian state by casting doubt on its unity and calling for the formation of a separate Ingria state, an assertion which is quite at odds with those on the website of the group, a site that appears to have been taken down yesterday as well.


            Drozdenko said that “we must speak about this lest the situation of 2004 be repeated when the first growths of fascism and chauvinism appeared in Ukraine.” He added that he viewed even that situation calmly now because “the multi-national people of Ukraine” will be able to deal with it and “everything will be in order.”


            The governor has clashed with the Shoikula group representing the Izhors before because that small ethnic community has protested both within the Russian Federation and to neighboring Estonia about the threat to their survival that the untrammeled development of the Ust-Luga port poses.




Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Truly Disturbing Trend: Non-Russians Using Plastic Surgery to Look More Like European Russians

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 3 – A year ago, Marina Saidukova, a Buryat writer, said how devastating it was that one of her teachers told her that “you are so beautiful that you are almost a Russian,” something so offensive and damaging that she has never been able to forget it (


            But now there is a truly disturbing development which suggests this racist view is metasticizing: Women who now live in Russia but who come from Central Asia are turning to plastic surgeons to make them look more like European Russians, in a development that Yevgeniya Keda calls “ethno-plastic surgery” (


            Otari Gogiberidze, a plastic surgeon in Moscow, said that “international statistics really show that in recent times so-called ethnic blepharoplasty has become popular among plastic surgeries … In Russia,” this procedure which changes the shape of the nose or eyes, “also is enjoying demand, but it is done most often to fight aging,” he said.


            In his clinic and in others like it in Moscow, many people from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and other republics of the Caucasus seek to “correct the shape of their noses.” The typical patient is a young woman between 18 and 25. People from other non-Russian areas seek to have the shape of their eyes changed, but he said he argues against that.


            No one should deny anyone the right to pursue their own idea of beauty via plastic surgery or other means, but to the extent that it is not their own but rather someone else’s, that is a most unfortunate form of cultural oppression and one that should be opposed rather than dismissed as something that isn’t important.



For Russians, Putin has Shifted from Being a Lesser Evil than Yeltsin to Being a Lesser One than Chaos, Kirillova Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 3 – No one would deny that Vladimir Putin now has a cult of personality. However, that is not an explanation but rather something that must be explained, especially given its evolution from one in which he was backed as a lesser evil than Boris Yeltsin to one in which he presents himself as a lesser evil than chaos, according to Kseniya Kirillova.


            At each stage, she argues, “the cult of Putin” has been “a means of compensating for a lack of trust in the authorities” rather than a form of adulation because it is based “more on fear” that things have been worse or could become worse (


            What is the most tragic aspect of this, the commentator continues, is that many who accepted Putin in the past as a lesser evil than Yeltsin, who joked about him, and who protested against his rule in 2011-2012 have fallen under its spell even though most of them are aware that they are doing so because they have accepted the notion they should fear a future without him.


            During his first term, Putin was admired by Russians primarily for not being Yeltsin and often was a subject of humor, “but in the new artificially created world where humor in principle has no place, many people have simply shut down their psychic defense mechanisms” and accepted the idea that they have no choice but to support Putin or face a new period of chaos.


            This shift, one intensified by the economic crisis and the invasion of Ukraine, has been further developed by the fact that “the cult of personality of the leader is useful not only and even not so much for Putin himself as for his elite” which view it as a cover for their own crimes and as something that may in the future allow them to escape responsibility for them.


            When he became president, Putin looked good to many Russians especially when compared to his predecessor and the chaos of the 1990s. But “in the first years of his administration, Putin in the eyes of the majority looked not ideal but simply normal,” something that at that time was considered almost “a miracle.”


            “A distinctive feature of this period was that it was very difficult to distinguish between the healthy popularity of this or that leader and what would be a real cult of personality,” Kirillova says, especially as “humor and parody were the invariable accompaniment of the popularity of Putin in those years.”


            At that time, “Russians loved put [but] at the same time they laughed about him and laughed at themselves for this sympathy,” not taking note of the fact that “they were thus swallowing a poison pill” that would come to harm them later.


            Thus the situation continued until the economic crisis of 2008 and the protests of 2011-2012, Kirillova says. Those things made it clear for the Kremlin’s “political technologists” that “for the thinking part of Russian society, [this approach] hadn’t worked” because “they no longer loved Putin but they continued as before to laugh about him.”


            The laughter of Russians disturbed them the most, Kirillova continues, because it was clear that they didn’t fear him, especially when many of them would make remarks like “don’t rock the board, our rat will get sick.”


            Consequently, they decided “to change their tactics,” exploiting one aspect of the support Putin had enjoyed – that he was a lesser evil than something else – but change the evil to which he was to be compared from Yeltsin and the past to the threat of instability and chaos in the future and then insisting that any defeat of Putin would lead directly to that.


            It is worth noting that at least at first, there was no idealization of Putin or the government but only the old notion that he and it were “’lesser evils’” than the alternatives. That is hardly a true cult of personality in the usual sense of the term.  But it set the stage for Putin’s actions later when it was made clear that the time of jokes “had in fact ended.”


            Moreover, by flooding the media with conspiracy theories and thus providing “a model” for patriotism which involves unquestioned support for the national leader, the Kremlin political technologists set the stage for and saw their efforts reinforced by the rehabilitation of the Soviet images of the country as “a besieged fortress” which depends entirely on Putin.


            The deep and widespread conviction among Russians that “’without him things will be worse’” took shape at the end of 2011 at both the conscious “and what is still more dangerous even the unconscious level,” and its rootedness mean that most Russians continue to support him despite clear evidence that he is “leading the country toward a catastrophe.”