Free Nations League convenes for its first congress in Estonia
North Caspian Report No. 5 (17 April 2024)
Dor Shabashewitz
Two weeks ago, dozens of exiled activists representing Russia’s indigenous peoples and regional movements convened in Otepää, Estonia, to hold the First Congress of the Free Nations League. Established in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Free Nations League is an umbrella association of independence movements whose members want their home regions to secede from the Russian Federation. FNL members include representatives of Tatar, Bashkir, Buryat, Erzya, Moksha, Oirat-Kalmyk, Chechen and Ingrian movements.

While some of the ethnic movements for self-determination have existed in Russia for decades, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has sparked the creation of new secessionist organizations and helped the pre-existing ones gain more popularity and form coalitions. For a more detailed overview of the reasons for this trend, including the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities among Russian combatants and the growing suppression of non-Russian cultures and languages, see my September 2023 article in New Eastern Europe focused on the emerging secessionisms in Astrakhan.

The recent congress in Otepää was not the first public gathering of Russia’s secessionists in exile. In fact, to an outsider, its program may have seemed rather bleak compared to the numerous “Free Nations of Post-Russia” Forums held all around the world over the past two years. Forum speakers would talk about the history of their peoples and engage in heated debates concerning the future borders of their hypothetical states, whereas Congress delegates mostly discussed bureaucratic issues such as designing articles of association for the Free Nation League and registering it as a legal entity.

Some of these technicalities may have been uninteresting to the guests of the Congress, which included the main author of Estonia’s Constitution Jüri Adams and numerous other European politicians, researchers and NGO workers. However, they were a sign of the Free Nations League’s serious approach and maturity. Perhaps the most important decisions made at the Congress were those related to the Free Nation League's communication and public relations strategy.

For now, the Free Nations League may not be the most recognizable organization in its field, but its dedication to diplomatic methods is unparalleled. Unlike some other pro-independence organizations “dividing the skin of a bear they haven’t yet caught”, as per the Russian saying, the Free Nations League has no illusions that small groups of exiled activists will be able to make Putin’s Russia fall apart. Instead, leaders of the association believe that it may be weakened and eventually dissolve due to internal, structural factors combined with the implications of the ongoing war.

With this in mind, members of the Free Nations League strive to establish diplomatic connections with national governments and international organizations and prepare ground for the recognition of their hypothetical independence and the legitimacy of their future states. They have largely succeeded in Ukraine which has established a parliamentary commission for interaction with Russia’s indigenous peoples and explicictly recognized the right of several “captive nations” to self-determination.

At the Congress in Otepää, representatives of the ethnic and regional movements comprising the Free Nations League made the decision to formalize their joint work by registering the League as a non-commerical entity in an EU member state, likely Finland, and working towards opening representative offices in other countries with a special focus on the Baltics as a region especially familiar with the consequences of Russian colonization. Individual members of the League have already held meetings with the Foreign Affairs Ministries of Lithuania and Estonia, and their future cooperation is worth keeping an eye on for all those interested in secessionism in our region of focus.

A more detailed overview of the delegates present at the Congress and the topics they discussed, compiled with the help of the North Caspian Institute, can be found on RFE/RL (in Russian).
Dor Shabashewitz is a co-founder of the North Caspian Institute. He is a journalist and political analyst covering ethnic minority rights, migration and secessionist movements in Russia and Central Asia. Exiled from Astrakhan in 2021 by the Russian Federal Security Service for his journalistic work and activism, he is currently splitting time between Israel and Armenia and working remotely as a contributor to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service.
Made on