Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 112,924 Bashkirs in the Russian Federation. Historically, the Bashkir people emanate from both Finno-Ugric and Turkic tribes. The majority of Bashkirs live in Bashkortostan and they are also found in significant numbers in Chelyabinsk and Orenburg Oblasts. The Bashkir language is part of the Turkic branch of the Uralo-Altaic language family. The Tatar and the Bashkir peoples are closely related, their languages being similar, but relations between them have often been tense.
With the fall of Kazan in the sixteenth century, Bashkirs also fell under Russian control. Like Tatars, Bashkirs were involved in revolts against Russian rule.
At the time of the Russian Revolution there was a strong Muslim-led nationalist movement among Bashkirs. On 23 March 1918, a Tatar-Bashkir SSR was declared but Bashkirs pressed for their own republic. The Bashkir ASSR was established on 23 March 1919. During the Soviet period, Bashkortostan (then Bashkiria) was industrialized but remained closely ruled by Moscow. In the late 1980s fear of assimilation by Tatars – up to a third of Bashkirs speak Tatar as their native language – helped generate a Bashkir national movement, established in 1988. The first All-Union Congress of the Bashkir People was convened in December 1989. However, overall political and economic issues rather than ethno-nationalism have driven politics in the region. The Bashkir authorities declared sovereignty on 11 October 1990 and changed the name from the Russified Bashkiria to Bashkortostan on 25 February 1992.
Tension over the issue of the numerical dominance of Tatars continued to influence Bashkir demands. A significant number of Bashkirs remained outside the borders of Bashkortostan and Bashkirs made up only the third largest group in the republic. In June 1992, the Tatar National Movement of Bashkortostan demanded that the Tatar language should be given official status, like Bashkir and Russian. The Bashkortostan Constitution did not, however, include the right to speak and use Tatar, although there are Tatar-language schools in Bashkortostan. Fears of the growing anti-Tatar sentiment among Bashkirs led to calls for the Tatar-populated areas to secede if Bashkortostan became independent. In December 1993 the republic’s parliament adopted a Constitution that declared the republic a ‘sovereign state’ and all of its natural resources the property of the multiethnic people of Bashkortostan. Bashkortostan signed the Union treaty and in August 1994 negotiated a bilateral treaty with Moscow that gave the republic even more powers than Tatarstan had obtained in its agreement.
Tensions between Bashkirs and Tatars have been a recurrent issue in the post-Soviet period, with each group claiming that its members are discriminated against in the other’s republic. Tatar academics challenged the rise in numbers of ethnic Bashkirs and decline in numbers of Tatars reported in Bashkortostan’s census results, while Bashkir activists accused Tatarstan of trying to ‘take over’ Bashkortostan. The debates concerning the status of the Tatar language in Bashkortostan also resurfaced: Tatar activists demanded that the Tatar language have official status in the republic alongside Russian and Bashkir. Tatar activists threatened to promote the idea of unifying Bashkortostan with Chelyabinsk Oblast or another federal entity if their demands were not met.
The political climate in Bashkortostan in recent years has changed considerably. Bashkir and Muslim activists reported to be under constant pressure since the appointment of Rustem Khamitov as the Head of the Republic of Bashkortostan. After Khamitov had expressed his interest in lifting the obligation to teach a Bashkir language at schools, in September 2012 a Bashkir activist filed a civil claim against the President, alleging a violation of the Constitution of the Republic of Bashkortostan. According to the Bashkir Human Rights Movement, she was subsequently called before the Committee of Inquiry of the Republic of Bashkortostan.
Updated December 2020
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
- Kabards and Balkars
- Karachay and Cherkess
- Khants and Mansi
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks
- Russian or Volga Germans
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs