Vienna, December 15 – Moscow commentators have long insisted that the leaders of Russia’s non-Russian republics regularly back popular nationalist demonstrations as part of a political game to win friends at home and put pressure on the central government by implying that the incumbent leaders are more cooperative with Moscow than the population would be.
But now, prosecutors in the Middle Volga republic of Bashkortostan are saying officials there are guilty of inciting extremism for their role in demonstrations against Moscow’s policies, charges that appear to reflect both the appointment of new siloviki heads there and anger in Moscow against outspoken Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov.
Moscow’s “Kommersant” yesterday and the Kazan edition of that paper today report that prosecutors in Bashkortostan in recent months have artificially enflamed ethnic tensions in the region by helping local youth organizations get their anti-Moscow slogans into the republic media (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1292990).
The Bashkir officials deny that they have done so, “Kommersant” says, but “observers note that for the first time, the siloviki have been able to take by the hand the powers that be in Bashkortostan, which even earlier had been suspected of using national organizations for political goals.”
Although the central Russian powers that be have long been upset with Rakhimov’s outspoken criticism of Moscow’s policies, the current case appears to grow out of a demonstration on September 29th in front of the republic office of the FSB that was organized to protest that organization’s expanded efforts to monitor extremism in Bashkortostan.
At that protest, the Kuk Bure party, the Union of Bashkir Youth, and several other “national organizations” assembled, “Kommersant” recalls, “under [what from Moscow’s point of would seem to be provocative] slogans like ‘Call one Bashkir in for an interrogation, and you will have to deal with all of them!”
According to prosecutors, the Bashkir authorities had a hand in this and in what followed. “Kommersant” reports that Eduard Yuldashev, the head of the Bashkir government media administration directed the editors of local outlets to “support the protest by making use of the materials of the site of the Union of Bashkir Youth.”
As a result, in the aftermath of the demonstration, there was “a genuine information attack on the [Russian] siloviki.” On October 22, prosecutors sent a letter to the republic Prime Minister Rail Sarbayev directing him to stop this violation of federal laws on social organizations, the media and extremism.
Last week, more than a month later, Ufa responded, and while that response has not been made public, it clearly does not satisfy the prosecutors – or Moscow. A spokesman for the republic’s media administration, while denying that it has allowed any violations and insisting that the media there work within the law, declined to comment.
In the event, Yuldashev himself said that he was “not authorized to comment” on the actions of the supervising organs. But a spokesperson for the legal services administration said that the prosecutors’ letter contained “recommendations rather than demands” and thus could be subject to further discussion.
“The media independently define their editorial policies,” legal services chief Liliya Masyagutova pointed out, and her organization only provides information support in response to questions from the World Kurultay of Bashkirs which is concerned by the actions of the forced organs towards a number of bodies, in particular the Union of Bashkir Youth.”
In her view, therefore, “the law on extremism is not applicable in this case because the Union of Bashkir Youth has not been declared extremist by a court.” Azat Salmanov, the head of Kuk Bure, adds that “there are not real manifestations of extremism in the region,” thereby suggesting that the Russian siloviki are trying to intimidate Bashkir activists.
But despite this resistance, at least some in Ufa and Moscow support the charges. Murat Kiyekbayev, who represents Bashkortostan in the Duma, says that “the actions of national organizations frequently are inspired by the government as an imitation of popular protests concerning the actions of the federal center.”
By making this latest move, he continues, “Moscow is attempting to deprive the regional leadership of a beloved political instrument. Andrey Nazarov, deputy head of the Duma’s legal affairs committee, agrees, but he would adopt an even tougher line. According to “Kommersant, he is seeking to “launch c criminal case” against regional officials who take such action.
Exactly how this case will work out very much remains to be seen, but it is clearly one more indication of rising tensions between Moscow and the non-Russian republics, all of whom will be watching to see whether Rakhimov and his people get away with this or not, viewing his success or failure as an indication of what they can or cannot do.