Protests spread in rural Russia in support of jailed activist

The uncommon demonstrations are an embarrassment for Vladimir Putin two months before elections.

More than 1,500 demonstrators flooded the center of the regional capital of Ufa in rural Russia, expressing solidarity with Fayil Alsynov, an indigenous campaigner sentenced to four years in prison earlier this week.

The crowd, chanting and dancing in Salawat Yulayev Square in central Ufa, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Bashkortostan, called for Alsynov’s release, ignoring police warnings against participating in the unsanctioned demonstration. One protester declared: “Everyone can express their opinion. Are we under a fascist regime?”

The police dispersed the gathering after three hours, detaining at least 10 individuals amid cries of “Shame!” from the crowd. Independent Russian news outlets SOTAvision and Verstka both reported similar attendance figures for the demonstration.

Friday’s demonstration followed a similar protest on Wednesday outside the courthouse in Baymak where Alsynov was sentenced.

The protests are an embarrassment for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has come down hard on dissent since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The demonstrations come two months before Russian elections.

Alsynov, 37, gained notoriety following his 2020 campaign against limestone mining in Kushtau, a site sacred to locals. His sentencing on Wednesday focused on a 2023 speech he gave at an anti-illegal mining rally in Bashkir in which Alsynov lamented that while Bashkirs are fighting for the Russian military in Ukraine, their lands in Bashkortostan are being taken. He used the term kara halyk, which in Bashkir means “common people,” but literally translates as “black people.”

Governor Radiy Khabirov, interpreting the term as an insult to workers from the Caucasus and Central Asia, initiated legal proceedings against Alsynov. Local activists, however, perceive this as retribution for Alsynov’s activism.

The sentencing prompted protests in Baymak on Wednesday, with security forces employing tear gas and batons against demonstrators, resulting in 17 arrests, according to Russian state media RIA.

Khabirov on Thursday accused the Bashkir protest organizers of “betrayal” and “extremism,” alleging that they were calling for Bashkortostan’s separation from Russia.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Friday downplayed the events, saying: “There are no mass riots and mass protests.”

Sergey Goryashko is hosted at POLITICO under the EU-funded EU4FreeMedia residency program.

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