MOSCOW — More than 1,000 people rallied in the Russian region of Bashkortostan on Friday, continuing a series of protests triggered by the conviction and sentencing of a local activist and handing a new challenge to the Kremlin.
People gathered in the main square of Ufa, the main city of Bashkortostan, a region spread between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains, dancing and singing folk songs. Police initially didn’t intervene, but later rounded up about 10 participants as the crowd thinned in freezing temperatures, according to the independent Vyorstka and SOTAvision news outlets.
Protesters shouting “Shame!” tried to block a police bus carrying the detainees in the city of 1.1 million about 1,150 kilometers (700 miles) east of Moscow.
The rally followed clashes on Wednesday in the town of Baymak in which hundreds of protesters faced off with police following the trial of Fail Alsynov, a local activist who was convicted of inciting hatred and sentenced to four years in prison. Police used batons, tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the protesters, who chanted “Freedom!” and “Disgrace!” and demanded the ouster of Bashkortostan’s regional leader.
At least 17 people accused of involvement in the clashes were given jail terms ranging from 10 to 13 days.
The unrest was one of the largest reported demonstrations since the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, and raised the threat of instability in the region of 4 million.
Asked whether the Kremlin was worried about the demonstrations in Bashkortostan, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, downplayed their significance.
“I would disagree with the formulation ‘mass riots’ and ‘mass demonstrations.’ There are no mass riots and mass demonstrations there,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters, even though the country’s top criminal investigation agency launched a probe into the clashes on charges of inciting mass riots.
The tensions in Bashkortostan come as Putin is seeking another six-year term in March’s presidential election.
Indigenous people, mostly Muslim Bashkirs, a Turkic ethnic group, make up just under a third of the region’s population. Ethnic Russians account for about 38% and ethnic Tatars about 24%, with some smaller ethnic groups also present.
The region’s Kremlin-appointed head, Radiy Khabirov, denounced the protests, alleging they had been instigated by a group of “traitors,” some living abroad, to call for the region’s secession from the Russian Federation.
Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and other regions with a strong presence of indigenous ethnic groups enjoyed greater autonomy than other provinces during Soviet times. They won even broader rights after the 1991 Soviet collapse, fueling fears that the federal authority could weaken and the country could eventually break up along ethnic lines.
Putin, who spearheaded a second war in Russia’s region of Chechnya to crush its separatist bid in the early 2000s, has methodically curtailed the degree of independence in Russia’s regions to strengthen the Kremlin’s authority. He has repeatedly accused the West of trying to foment unrest in Russia.
Alsynov, the convicted activist, was a leader of a group that advocated the preservation of the Bashkir language and culture and protested against limestone and gold mining operations in the region. The group, called Bashkort, was outlawed as extremist in 2020.
The authorities accused him of denigrating other ethnic groups in a speech he gave at a rally in April 2023, a charge he denied.
Putin, 71, is able to run again after 24 years in power due to a constitutional amendment he orchestrated in 2020 to reset presidential term limits. His reelection appears all but assured after a relentless crackdown on the opposition and independent media.