A fight is heating up between one of the Russia’s largest chemical consortia and members of the local population in Bashkortostan, just south of the Ural mountains. The reason? A disappearing chain of hills known as the Shikhans.
For years, the Bashkir Soda Company has been mining these hills for their limestone—the raw material for the soda industry. The threat facing the Shikhans has brought together scientists, campaigners from regional NGOs and concerned members of the local population to oppose the company’s plans.
One of these hills, Shakhtau, which sits close to the company’s headquarters in Sterlitamak, has effectively disappeared—its entire mass quarried to feed the kilns. Now the Bashkir Soda Company (BSC) is demanding that a second hill, Toratau, be stripped of its protected status. Otherwise, production at the soda plant will cease several years from now for lack of raw materials. Several thousand people could lose their jobs.
The regional government, which has always been equivocal on the issue, has recently announced its intention not to sacrifice the mountain and suggests the soda company find alternative sources for its raw materials. But both sides are busy lobbying Moscow, which, according to the experts, will have the last word on the fate of the hill.
A national symbol
For the Bashkir people, the Shikhans are sacred hills, steeped in tradition. After settling the region in the early middle ages, the Bashkir gave them names: Shakhtau (‘king hill’), Kushtau (‘double hill’), Yuraktau (‘heart hill’) and Toratau (‘fortress hill’).
Historians and archaeologists believe there was an ancient Bashkir shrine on the hilltop, and the Shikhans were a ritual site for one of the main Bashkir clans, the Yurmat tribe.
Toratau mountain, a source of national pride for Bashkortostan and limestone for its chemical companies. Photo CC: Olegfoto, 2008‘Toratau was once the centre of the Nogai Khanate,’ says Abdrakhman Validov, a resident of the village of Urman-Bishkadak, which lies at the foot of the hills. ‘They buried saints here for many centuries. The earliest tomb dates back to the second century BCE. There are seven tombs on the summit of Toratau and another 18 at its foot.’
In 1965, Toratau and Yuraktau were made ‘complex natural sites of republican significance’ and given protected status. Now this status is under threat. Excavations have also revealed evidence of Bronze and early Iron Age activity, which led to the hills being designated as protected sites in 1960.
For the Bashkir people, the Shikhans are sacred hills, steeped in tradition
At roughly the same time, biologists discovered that the Shikhans were an incredibly rich botanic habitat and important for the region’s biodiversity. Specialists believe that examples of a quarter of the republic’s botanical species can be found growing on Toratau and Yuraktau.
According to the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Ufa Institute of Biology, Toratau alone is home to 12 species of plant believed to be extinct and 21 species unique to the area. Many of these plants are on Bashkortostan and Russia’s ‘red lists’ of threatened species.
One hill down…
In the 1930s, Soviet Bashkortostan was designated as a region ripe for development as a centre for the chemical and cement industries. A geological survey carried out in 1936 revealed that the hills near Sterlitamak were a large source of limestone, the raw material for this sector.
It was agreed that development would start with Shakhtau and building began in 1941 on the Sterlitamak soda works, followed by cement and roofing tile plants, for which the Shikhans have become the general supplier of raw materials. 'We will save the Shikhans'. The village of local resident Abdrakhman Validov lies at the foot of Toratau mountain.Folk memory records only instances of unspoken opposition among the local people. ‘In 1955, my granny would say: “You can’t destroy the mountain – there’ll be a serious flood”,’ says Abdrakhman Validov.
According to head of the school museum in Urman-Bishkadake: ‘There’s a legend that people present at the first blasts on Shakhtau saw a little old white man—the spirit of the hill—emerging from the clouds of smoke and dust. He wandered off in tears.’
Regional historic and scientific journals make no reference to any real protest against the project at the time. ‘It was just after the war, and we had to rebuild our country from its ruins. It didn’t occur to anybody,’ says Abdrakhman Validov.
‘The environment wasn’t a priority in the Soviet years,’ adds Valiakhmet Badretdinov, chair of Arkadash, an umbrella group of Bashkir NGOs. ‘You could protest against poaching or campaign to protect endangered animals or plants, but say a word against big industry and you’d soon find yourself in the loony bin.’
The soda plant increased production levels year on year, and now accounts for 66 per cent of all caustic ash and 88 per cent of bicarbonate of soda produced in Russia. The plant gradually grew into a town-size complex. An urban area quickly developed to the south, swallowing the towns of Salabat and Ishimbay. ‘Okay, Shakhtau has gone,’ say BSC spokespeople, ‘but we have our beautiful city of Sterlitamak and its whole southern industrial hub.’
By the end of the 20th century, Shakhtau had been almost completely levelled, and the soda company faced a dilemma—to look for sources of limestone elsewhere, to update their technology or to try to have Yuraktau and Toratau stripped of their protected status. The industrialists, who aren’t short of lobbying power, decided that this last option would be the most economical.
The beginnings of opposition
At the start of the 2000s, the soda company began to push Bashkortostan’s republican government to remove the Shikhans’ protected status. Soon the issue went public, triggering an on-going campaign by Bashkir ethnic organisations, local civic campaigners, environmentalists and other civic activists to save the hills.
‘Our campaign started in 2005,’ Abdrakhman Validov tells me. ‘That year we held our first big rally and wrote to the presidents of both Bashkortostan and Russia. We also organised cultural events, an international world music festival, for example, in the area near the hills.’
By the end of the 20th century, Shakhtau had been almost completely levelled
The core of the resistance campaign took place, however, in government and other official offices. The soda company systematically refused to consider any of the proposed alternative locations for its raw material under the pretext that none of them met their chemical, physical and mechanical specifications.
‘In the early 2000s, we approached Bashnedra, the republic’s subsurface resource management department, asking them to find us another quarrying site,’ the company’s Director of Communications Sergey Lobastov told journalists at his last press conference. ‘They told us to continue quarrying the remains of Shakhtau, saying that there was still enough lime left there. But experts have told us that further development there would be impossible, dangerous even, because of the site’s complex hydro-geological conditions. Then we investigated the Kushtau Shikhan, but the limestone there isn’t of a high enough quality.
‘We went back to Bashnedra, and this time they recommended a site in another district, but once again the limestone was not good enough. And meanwhile a higher office, the Volga regional subsurface management department, ruled that the limestone in the Shikhans was the only suitable raw material for the soda company in the whole republic. In other words, there is no alternative to quarrying Toratau, however undesirable that might be.’ This was Lobastov’s summary of years of public discussion. Gone but not forgotten: Shakhtau mountain, Bashkortostan. The industrialists’ arguments, however, have been met with open scepticism by their opponents. ‘I would trust the conclusions of Bashnedra experts, which confirm that there are equally good sources of limestone elsewhere in the republic, but not the statements being made by the company,’ says Aleksandr Veselov, head of the Bashkortostan Ecologists’ Union.
‘Of course it makes more sense to the company to quarry a hill on their doorstep than to invest in new equipment and updated technology and carry out detailed surveys of other possible sites further away. All these expenses will, after all, affect their investors’ dividends!’
‘Of course it makes more sense to the company to quarry a hill on their doorstep’
For many years, the regional authorities have been rather evasive on this issue—and much to the intrigue of the public. The current head of the Bashkortostan republic, Rustem Khamitov, who has a reputation on green issues, equivocated for a long time before finally speaking out on the issue in 2010 on his blog: ‘We need to explore other options. They are trying to convince me that Toratau is the only, the unavoidable source of limestone. I can’t agree. I haven’t even seen the reports. So I still believe that Toratau should not be touched.’
In May 2014, however, as his new election campaign kicked off, Khamitov spoke to journalists about the possibility of allowing the company to quarry one of the remaining hills. ‘The Bashkir Soda Company and I are trying to find an option that would not require the destruction of the Shikhans. If there is no other option, then we shall need to take some special decisions, including the extraction of raw material from one of these hills.’
Over the past two years, the public have been alarmed several times by official leaks about a supposedly completed draft of a directive to strip the Shikhans’ of their protected status. A BSC board member, for example, who headed the republic’s presidential administration until 2013, has said that the draft directive has already ‘been passed both by all the requisite republican bodies and at national level, but the republic’s leadership has unexpectedly changed its mind on the matter.’
A tug of war
In November this year, Khamitov made a series of public statements in which he rejected the soda company’s claim to Toratau. ‘For a long time, our government believed that the only source of the necessary raw material was the Shikhans. We were being, accidently or deliberately, misled. So at some point we needed to establish the real facts of the matter,’ he told a press conference.
‘Preliminary data show that there are other appropriate sites; our republic is fortunate enough to have enormous supplies of limestone, some of which is suitable for the chemical industry and the production of caustic soda.’ Khamitov went on to say that a site that was acceptable to the soda company had finally been located near the village of Gumerovo, only 35km from Shakhtau.
‘Public opinion polls have shown that 70 per cent of the local population oppose the quarrying of Toratau,’ added Khamitov. ‘There is a general feeling that people will not allow the destruction of these hills, and the company will be left without its raw material.’
Kushtau (Bashkir: Ҡуштау, meaning 'double mountain') was saved from destruction by the low quality of its limestone. Photo CC: WadPol, 2005As Azamat Galin, a political analyst and businessman, comments, Khamitov is expressing the opinion of central government here. ‘According to my sources, the presidential envoy to the Volga region has been monitoring public moods in the area. They concluded that the negative political consequences of the hill being handed over to the soda company could outweigh its economic benefits. It isn’t just that Bashkirs that would rise in defence of Toratau: its the entire region. It would trigger a powerful mobilisation of civil society movements. Given this situation, BSC was told to use what was left of the Shakhtau site, to allow the situation to stabilise.’
Khamitov’s intention to save the Shikhans was supported by the official regional media, members of Bashkortostan’s state assembly and the republic’s Academy of Sciences.
BSC has meanwhile been showing off its lobbying power: a round table discussion in Russia’s Civic Chamber ended with a recommendation to the republican authorities to remove Toratau’s protected status. At this very event, the head of Sterlitamak’s Public Civic Chamber Damir Garifullin, who had been invited to Moscow, declared that if Khamitov would not ‘hand over the hill’, the republic’s president should resign. (In fact it was Garifullin who was forced to resign after this outburst.)
Earlier, the directors of BSC had felt able to publicly remind Khamitov that his success in the 2014 republican presidential election ‘was due in part to the significant support of the republic’s major industrial enterprises, including the Bashkir Soda Company with its many thousands of employees, its trade unions, retired staff organisation and a majority of the voters of Sterlitamak.’
The company has also tabled the Toratau issue for discussion at a meeting of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. ‘The pressure on the Shikhans is very strong,’ says State Assembly deputy Rufina Shagapova, ‘We are all feeling it.’
Lobbying and lies
The ‘information war’ over the Shikhans has not subsided since the conflict went public. From time to time, supporters of the soda company play the ‘geopolitical’ card, arguing that any holdup with new sites (let alone the closure of the Sterlitamak plant) will play into the hands of manufacturers in Turkey and other countries, who will inevitably penetrate the Russian market.
Bashkir nationalists hold a protest at Toratau, June 2014. Video still via YouTube.One of the opposition websites recently published an article claiming that a certain Mr. Sharif Said, described as ‘the chair of the Chamber of Commerce of the Turkish Republic’ had sent Rustem Khamitov a letter offering ‘to immediately begin supplying your country with soda products from our plants in Turkey.’
The whole thing turned out to be false, though, as Turkey doesn’t have a ‘Chamber of Commerce’ as such (though there are similar organisations), and search engines identify ‘Mr Sharif Said’ as head of the Chamber of Commerce of Tajikistan. The whole thing turned out to be a scam.
‘All these claims are pure scare tactics, of course’, says Ufa political specialist analyst Stanislav Shkel. ‘The soda company and its supporters will try to frighten people with the threat possible of the closure of the works and the social unrest and so on that would follow.’ Recent instances of online flash mobs showing people trampling packs of soda underfoot are only the latest battles in the information war, though, according to a local NGO protecting the hills, they are potentially sponsored by the factory’s management.
Who will win?
In the past few weeks, the defenders of Toratau are worried about the fact that, although the republican authorities are on their side, the federal government has not yet declared its position. Both sides are all too aware that Moscow will call the shots, as it has plenty of leverage on the leadership of the republic.
Both sides are only too aware that Moscow will call the shots
‘The result will depend on whose side the federal bureaucracy comes down on,’ says Stanislav Shkel. ‘They set the rules for both economic lobby groups and regional government in Russia. I think, however, that Rustem Khamitov might just swing it in this case, as his position vis-à-vis Moscow has been considerably consolidated by his victory in last year’s election and especially the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS countries, both held in Ufa this year.’
‘In the end, the decision will be taken by central government, as ‘Soda’ BSC is a concern of strategically significant enterprise,’ comments Ramil Rakhmatov, a correspondent for the local online platform. He also suggests that the company’s position might be supported by Khamitov’s political opponents, as part of their campaign to topple him at the next presidential election.
'Youth for the Shikhans'. Campaigners in Bashkortostan's Ishimbay Region, December 2015.Aleksandr Veselov, head of the Bashkortostan Ecologists’ Union, also believes that BSC is counting on a change of power in the republic: ‘I can see the confrontation continuing for some time. The Shikhans have a lot of supporters and the soda lobby goes on pushing for the acquisition of the hill in the corridors of power. And unfortunately, all decisions here are taken for the benefit of big business. A zone of socio-economic and political instability could well arise in the region.’
Members of Bashkir ethnic organisations and other local residents have also been adding their voices to the debate, warning of an inevitable confrontation if Toratau is handed over to the soda company.
‘Even if Rustem Khamitov changes his position on the issue, the public will not allow it,’ Valiakhmet Badretdinov of the Arkadashorganisation tells me. Dinar Zainullin of the Protection of Toratau and Yuratau organisation adds: ‘Even if Toratau were to lose its protected status, that wouldn’t give the soda company what it wants. We can use existing federal laws on the exploitation of mineral resources to stop a single blast in the direction of our shrines in the next hundred years.’
Abdrakhman Validov, whose village lies at the foot of Toratau, is also resolute in its defence: ‘We will save the Shikhans. Our young people have already pledged themselves to actively protect them. They’ll set up an Occupy tent camp or form a ‘living shield’ if they have to.’
Images two (Abdrakhman Validov), three (Shakhtau), and six (Youth for the Shikhans) courtesy of the author.