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.com 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.