ALMATY -- Inspired by Ukraine's resistance to Russian invaders, representatives of six Russian indigenous peoples have created a new political coalition that promotes "decolonisation" and "full sovereignty" from Russia.
There are more than 100 identified ethnic groups in Russia, of which 41 are recognised as "indigenous peoples" and have legal protections, according to the Cultural Survival website. Some groups are disqualified because they have populations exceeding 50,000, while others are striving for recognition.
There are also 24 larger ethnic groups classified as national identities or titular nations. They inhabit independent states or autonomous areas in Russia but do not have specific legal protections.
With Russia's war in Ukraine growing increasingly unpopular, some activists and analysts predict major changes within Russia in the coming years.
In preparation for those potential changes, representatives of six groups -- Bashkir, Buryat, Ingush, Kalmyk, Erzya and Adyghe -- in late May announced the formation of the League of Free Nations. Their native territories range from European Russia to the Russian Far East.
In a statement posted online by a sympathetic organisation, the indigenous leaders proclaimed a manifesto upholding their "presumption of agency".
This means that if the current regime in Russia collapses, its regions do not need to appeal to anyone to grant them sovereignty.
"Today, as a result of Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, major global political changes are taking place, and this gives us the opportunity to become a subject state, and no longer be treated as an object," said Vladimir Dovdanov, a member of the Oirat-Kalmyk People's Congress and one of the initiators of the League of Free Nations, according to the statement.
"I see that many other peoples in Russia have the same desire."
Deciding their own future
Another co-initiator of the League of Free Nations platform, Sires Bolaen, chief elder of the Erzya people, addressed the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous People in May, calling attention to the plight of indigenous peoples in Russia, Euromaidan Press, a Ukrainian news site, reported.
He blamed Moscow for turning internal republics and indigenous communities in Russia into socially backward and under-developed regions where young people view the Russian military as the only way to escape devastating poverty.
Since the start of Russia's war in Ukraine, many Russian citizens from indigenous nations have been drawn into the Russian military, some of them unwittingly.
The regions of North Ossetia, Buryatia, Tuva, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chukotka and Idel-Ural have the highest number of dead soldiers per capita, said Bolaen.
Bolaen is in Ukraine, leading a group of Erzya volunteers fighting alongside the Ukrainian army, and is the co-founder of yet another organisation seeking independence for ethnic minorities in Russia.
The Free Idel-Ural movement, founded in 2018, advocates the withdrawal of six internal republics in the Volga region -- Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, Chuvashia, Mordovia, Mary El and Udmurtia -- from Russia and the creation of the Idel-Ural confederation.
"All regions, by definition, may achieve and declare full sovereignty and full independence from Moscow," the Free Idel-Ural movement said in its May statement, citing the League of Free Nations manifesto.
"Then, acting as free territories, they may decide their own future: whether they want to remain independent, unite with other regions and republics or create a confederation of states."
The League of Free Nations invites all those who share anti-imperialist views to join it, Bolaen said, according to the statement.
Approaching potential allies
As a first order of business, participants in the League of Free Nations plan to approach European, Turkish and Kazakh civil society organisations and political parties for support.
Political actors in Kazakhstan have not yet reacted publicly to these developments.
Russia will lose the war in Ukraine within a year, Arman Shorayev of Almaty, a former manager of Khabar and KTK, the largest Kazakh television channels, predicted.
The loss will inevitably lead to the collapse of Russia, and its autonomous republics will gain sovereignty, he said.
"If the separatists in Ukraine can hold a referendum and become an independent state, why can't separate ethnic groups within Russia -- Tatars, Bashkirs, Chechens and others -- do the same thing?" he said.
The Kremlin itself is responsible for setting off these movements by sending men mainly from Russia's minority groups to fight in Ukraine, he said.
"The majority of the soldiers who have died in Ukraine are Buryats, Dagestanis and ethnic Kazakhs," Shorayev said.
"It's no accident that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is engaging in this sort of selection -- he is purposefully reducing the military potential of the minorities in Russia so they can't rise up against Moscow."
On February 28, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Russian Ministry of Justice put Free Idel-Ural on its list of undesirable organisations in Russia, after the Prosecutor General's Office took the same step.
Observers in Kazakhstan see this move as a confirmation of the Kremlin's double standards.
"The upshot is that the Russian authorities recognise the right to self-determination of the Russians in Ukraine, but they don't recognise the right to self-determination of members of other ethnicities on their own territory," said Ruslan Nazarov, an international relations analyst in Nur-Sultan.
"How is that fair?"
Moscow will not allow the residents of Dagestan to hold a referendum and become a sovereign republic, he said.
"If push comes to shove, Putin will unleash a bloodbath there, but no way will he give his own citizens the same privileges that he has provided to the residents of Crimea and Donbas."
A broken Russia
Observers in Azerbaijan have also noticed a buildup of separatist sentiment within Russia.
"The likelihood of Russia breaking up into multi-ethnic states has increased drastically," Hagani Jafarli, a Baku-based journalist and political analyst, wrote on May 9.
Discussing the key factors influencing the possible collapse of Russia, Jafarli noted that sanctions have both isolated it from the global economy and severed economic relations among the constituent parts of Russia by exacerbating domestic socioeconomic problems.
Like Shorayev, he cited the disproportionate casualties in Ukraine suffered by Russia's minorities.
"Another element that has encouraged non-Russians to break away from Russia is that the majority of the soldiers who have died in the war against Ukraine have been people from the outlying parts of the empire," he wrote. "Although right now this isn't greatly influencing the sentiment of marginalised groups within Russia, it will have dramatic social consequences after the war."
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has severely curtailed the Kremlin's ability to suppress the striving of the indigenous peoples for emancipation, Jafarli said.
"Before the war in Ukraine, efforts by non-Russian peoples to achieve emancipation were thwarted by military and police action, and by bribing the ethnic elites with oil money, but Russia's military defeat in Ukraine will greatly restrict its capabilities to stifle minorities that are trying to escape dependence on Russia," he wrote.
The disgruntlement of the regional elites in Russia came to a head long ago, fuelled by the "prevailing ethnic discrimination against and humiliation of ethnic minorities in Russia".
"Meanwhile, the sanctions against Russia's military and political elite and the accusations of war crimes will become a new major factor that will encourage the regional elites to distance themselves from Moscow," Jafarli wrote.