Saturday, May 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Ecology Movement Re-Emerges as Political Actor in Bashkortostan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 11 – The environmental protection movement, which played a great role in the rise of broader nationalist movements in the final years of the Soviet Union, has re-emerged in Bashkortostan, where its activists are now involved in a far more complicated political game.

            Like other ethnic communities in the USSR, the Bashkirs were able to talk about their distinct national interests by getting involved in the superficially non-political effort to protect their territory from the impact of rapid and uncontrolled industrialization with its resulting pollution.

            But unlike many of them, the Bashkortostan effort has been studied in some detail. (For a survey of its history, see R.R. Shilimova, “The Ecological Movement as an Institution of Civicl Society in the Regions of Contemporary Russia (on the example of the Republic of Bashkortostan,” (in Russian), a thesis, Ufa, 2012).

            After the collapse of Soviet power, the ecological movement in Bashkortostan ceded its place in the political arena to other groups for almost two decades, but now, observers say, it is again becoming a central play, albeit now what appears to be in a more “politicized” form (

            The stage for this was set by the appointment of Rustem Khamitov as head of the republic, an official who earlier rose to power in the early 1990s because of his involvement with the environmentalists and who in 1990-1993 chaired the ecology committee of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Bashkortostan.

            But the immediate causes were  growing concerns about the development of the sacred Toratau mountains, increasing pollution in Ufa, and problems with waste at factories there and in Salavat.  The ecologists resumed their meeting and organized large demonstrations which attracted numerous local political figures.

            Khamitov attempted to keep these demonstrations from leading to confrontation between the population and the industrialists by holding a series of meetings between the two groups for “dialogue.” Moreover, he sought to position himself in the middle, promising that Toratau would not be developed but suggesting that the republic needed the jobs the other firms were offering.

            According to a local writer, A. Khaybullin, “in reality, the increasing activity of the ecological theme in Bashkortostan has a deeper cause and is not directly connected with the actions of President R. Khamitov, as his opponents routinely try to suggest.” Instead, it involves the collapse of the closed system of politics there that had existed under his predecessor.

            What has emerged is the result, Khaybullin argues, “of an imbalance of rights between the subjects of the federation and the center,” where Moscow again as in Soviet times pushes developmental policies with little or no regard for their impact on the population in particular regions.
            Consequently, as during Gorbachev’s perestroika, environmental issues are part of “the conflict” between the center and the regions and therefore “automatically acquire a social-political coloration.” Khamitov is caught between Moscow and his own people and constantly has to tack between them.

That is all the more so, Khaybullin continues, because “the political opponents of the president use ecological conflicts” against him, and so, “the ecological problem has again acquired an important place in social consciousness.” Its politicization thus makes it far more significant than a quick glance might suggest.

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