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Russian police crack down on rare protest in remote region

January 17, 2024

The protesters were demonstrating against a prison sentence for a local environmental activist in Bashkortostan. Police reportedly used batons and tear gas, and made several arrests.

A public protest in Bashkortostan, Russia
Thousands of people gathered outside the court in Baykan, BashkortostanImage: RusNews/REUTERS

Police detained and clashed with activists at a rare protest in a remote region of Russia on Wednesday.

Thousands of protesters braved temperatures of -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) in the town of Baymak, in the Bashkortostan region, to protest a prison sentence for local environment activist Fail Alsynov.

They chanted "Fail, we stand with you!" along with "Freedom!" and "Disgrace!"

Dozens of protesters arrested in Russia

Observers said it was one of the largest protests in Russia since the invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago, namely because of restrictive laws on public demonstrations and a broader crackdown on dissent.

What was the protest about?

Alsynov — who has also campaigned to protect the local Bashkir language — was sentenced to four years in prison for "inciting hatred."

Authorities allege that the activist made a racist comment during a village council meeting against plans to mine for gold.

Alsynov maintains that his words were mistranslated from the Bashkir language.

"I do not admit my guilt," Alsynov said after he was sentenced, adding that he will appeal the verdict.

"I always fought for justice, for my nation, for my republic." 

DW's Riga bureau chief, Juri Rescheto, said, "the protests emerged over local issues but grew to take on national significance.

"The first reason was obviously the punishment of a popular activist who not only fought for the environment, by the way, but also became a kind of symbol of the fight against the arbitrary actions of the authorities."

"And that brings us to the second reason. This is obviously about people's accumulated anger as their dissatisfaction with their own government, because they not only loudly demanded the release of the imprisoned activist, but also the resignation of the Bashkir prime minister."

Rescheto said, "Today's demonstration is certainly a thorn in Putin's side as the people from a region behind the Urals are sending a signal to Moscow that they are able to protest." 


Fail Alsynov in court
Fail Alsynov is a local campaigner for environmental protection and protection of the Bashkir language Image: Sota/AFP

What happened at the protest?

Some three thousand people in the small city of 17,000 inhabitants gathered outside the courthouse after the sentencing.

Video footage showed protesters pelting the police with snowballs that smashed harmlessly on their riot shields.

In return, police officer began using batons against the crowd, according to the footage.

Protesters running from police in Bashkortostan
The unusually-large protest took place in freezing temperaturesImage: RusNews/REUTERS

Independent rights group OVD-Info said police ultimately used tear gas to disperse the protesters.

Meanwhile, independent Russian media reported that police made several arrests, but the exact number was unclear.

"During the mass riots, which were accompanied by violence including the use of objects as weapons, several people were injured, including members of law enforcement," Russia's Investigative Committee said in a statement on Wednesday.

Police with helmets and riot shields in Bashkortostan
Police reportedly used batons and tear gas to disperse the demonstrationImage: RusNews/REUTERS

Wednesday's demonstration followed a similar protest on Monday when the court heard closing arguments behind closed doors.

The head of the local interior ministry, Rafail Divayev, had urged demonstrators to back down on Wednesday.

"Mass riots threaten our country's national security, therefore the punishment under this article is quite serious," the state-run RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

"I advise you to come to your senses and not ruin your life."

zc/jcg (AFP, Reuters, dpa)