The trial of a minority rights activist in Russia this week sparked one of the biggest outbreaks of social unrest in the country since the start of the war in Ukraine, highlighting the strain the conflict has imposed on Russia’s complex ethnic relations.
Hundreds of protesters clashed with the police on Wednesday in the provincial town of Baymak, near Russia’s border with Kazakhstan, after a local court sentenced an advocate for the local Bashkir ethnic minority to four years in prison. He was convicted of inciting ethnic discord and discrediting the Russian army.
A Russian legal aid group, OVD-Info, said that at least 20 people had been detained and another 20 injured in the protest. A video published on social media, and verified by The New York Times, showed protesters throwing snowballs at a wall of police officers in riot gear; other videos showed the police leading some protesters away and protesters exposed to what appeared to be tear gas.
Tensions in Baymak, in the Republic of Bashkortostan region of Russia, flared on Monday after residents gathered outside the courthouse to protest over the trial of the activist, Fail Alsynov. Mr. Alsynov had called for greater cultural and economic autonomy for the predominantly Muslim Bashkir people of Russia’s Ural Mountains. Mr. Alsynov has also criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the 2022 mobilization, which he said had disproportionally affected ethnic minorities like the Bashkirs.
“The smartest, strongest Bashkir men are being put under fire,” Mr. Alsynov said on social media last year, a post that contributed to his arrest. “This is not our war. Our land has not come under attack.”
The trial of Mr. Alsynov has shown how long-running ethnic grievances in the Russian provinces can swiftly assume antiwar undertones, in a potentially explosive mix that the government has demonstrated in Baymak that it will act decisively to prevent.
“The Kremlin is afraid of nationalism and separatism,” said Abbas Gallyamov, an exiled ethnic Bashkir and former speechwriter for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, in a written response to questions. “Putin and his circle were traumatized by the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and are worried that Russia will repeat its fate.”
Videos of the protests showed hundreds of security officers in full riot gear clashing with demonstrators outside the courthouse of Baymak, a town of 15,000 people, and local media reported that mobile data access in the area had been restricted.
Several social media accounts that covered the protests have disappeared from platforms popular in Russia this week, and the Russian Prosecutor’s Office in Moscow said on Wednesday that it had opened a criminal case over the incitement of riots.
OVD-Info, the rights group, said two students from Bashkortostan’s capital, Ufa, were detained on Thursday, seemingly in connection with Mr. Alsynov’s case.
The crackdown came despite attempts by the protesters to emphasize that their focus was on supporting Mr. Alsynov, rather than criticism of the federal government or calls for greater autonomy.
“We are the people of the Republic of Bashkortostan, a subject of the Russian Federation. We are not extremists,” one Baymak protester said in a video addressed to Mr. Putin on Monday.
The leader of Bashkortostan, Radiy Khabirov, said in a social media post on Thursday that his office had worked to charge Mr. Alsynov with extremism and to ban his organization, Bashkort, which had promoted Bashkir language and culture and opposed mining in the region.
“I must protect people from any attempts to weaken interethnic unity,” Mr. Khabirov said in a video posted on his Telegram channel.
In his public war speeches, Mr. Putin has portrayed Russia as a harmonious multiethnic society united against what he claims are Western attempts to dismember it. He has lauded ethnic minorities for their contribution to the war and stressed the shared history of the country’s diverse ethnic groups and a common commitment to what he calls “traditional values.”
But Mr. Putin’s use of Russian imperialist rhetoric to justify the war in Ukraine has also empowered once-ostracized far-right movements, leading to an outbreak of xenophobic rhetoric.
Mr. Alsynov, the convicted activist, made reference to the Kremlin’s conflicting messages in his social media post about the war last year.
Mr. Putin, he wrote, had argued for action because “in Ukraine they are harassing Russian people, they don’t teach the Russian language,” contrasting that stance with what he characterized as mistreatment of the Bashkir language in Bashkortostan.
Malachy Browne, Alina Lobzina and Oleg Matsnev contributed research.