Sunday, September 18, 2016

As Ethnic Tensions Rise, Russian Flight from Tuva Accelerates

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 18 – In the 2010 census, the percentage of ethnic Russians in Tuva (16 percent) was lower than in all but three of the republics in the North Caucasus; and now, some in that republic estimate, it has fallen still further to only eight percent, the result of what Russians say is ethnic discrimination against them and what Tuvins say are economic problems.

            Tuva, a landlocked republic of 300,000 people between Russia and Mongolia, seldom attracts much attention, except for its remarkable triangle-shaped stamps issued when it was independent between 1912 and 1944 when it was absorbed by the USSR or when some outside celebrity like Richard Feynman or Bill Gates says he wants to visit it.

            One exception to that pattern was in the late 1980s when Tuva was the site of clashes, some of them armed and with victims, between the Tuvans and the ethnic Russians who had that time formed 36 percent of the population. Those clashes sparked Russian flight at the time, but since then, both the underlying problems and Russian flight have continued.

            In a remarkably detailed 5500-word article, Meduza journal Ilya Azar reports on what is going on now, why Russian flight is likely to continue, what a mono-ethnic Tuva is likely to look like, and why nonetheless there is little interest in secession given the power of China in the region (

                Many ethnic Russians in Tuva feel that they are the victims of ethnic discrimination, Sergey Konviz, the editor of the opposition newspaper “Risk,” says. They live in Tuva “as in their own country but as second-class citizens.”  As a result, they have organized a Union of Russian-Speaking Citizens to defend their rights (

            In some respects, this resembles the Interdvizheniya movements Moscow orchestrated in the Baltic republics at the end of Soviet times. The union has so far unsuccessfully appealed to Vladimir Putin to intervene (, but it has the support of Igor Barinov, head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs (

            Tuvin officials and activists say there is discrimination, but it is discrimination by Russians against Tuvins. The Russians may not get as many positions as they think they deserve but they still get better housing and positions in the local economy and they still have far more publications in their language than Tuvins do in theirs.

            One thing the two sides do agree on, Azar says, is that “the roots” of the current problems lie in the 1990s “when “open inter-national clashes occurred and when the Tuvins supposedly massacred ethnic Russians.  While the details are disputed, ethnic Russians have demanded that this be recognized as a genocide ( and

            Until 1985, Tuva had been relatively quiet, with Russians dominating public life and the Tuvins intimidated into acceptance. But in 1985, there was a major ethnic clash in Kyzyl and Moscow was forced to send in OMON troops from the outside to quell it.  They were quickly pulled out at the insistence of republic leaders who feared the worst if they remained.

            Tuvin activists to this day deny that there was anything like what the Russians say. There were tensions but there were no killings on an ethnic basis.  Nonetheless, Russians have been afraid and have left – and they continue to do so.

            “If the Union of Russian-Speaking Citizens explains this by pointing to discrimination,” Azar says, “local Tuvins see the cause in the horrific economic situation in Tuva.” It is last among the regions of Russia in terms of quality of life and is near the bottom in terms of income and investment potential.

            “Russians, of course, are leaving,” one Tuvin activist says, “but not because I throw shit at them every day or pound on the walls and cry ‘When are you leaving, bastard? I will burn you up.’” Instead, they are departing because of high unemployment and the lack of prospects for the future. And Tuvin officials note that ethnic Russians are not the only ones leaving.

            The economy is in such sad straits that some in Tuva are turning to criminal activities including raising marijuana. Some of them are even arguing that the only salvation of the republic will come from the legalization of that drug and its widespread sale in Russia (

            Tuva’s prospects are truly dire. One local businessman notes that electricity is very expensive, the airport is inadequate, and there is no railroad. But there is opposition to building a rail line because many Tuvins believe that such a line will be used in the way China has used its rail line into Tibet, to introduce outsiders and swamp their culture.

            Another major problem is crime: Tuva leads Russia in terms of the number of murders per capita; and many think that those who the Russians see as victims of ethnic assertiveness are nothing more than those who have suffered from street crime. Local people know not to go out at night lest they too fall victim.

            As the number of Russians has declined so too has the use of Russian,  a source of complaint among Russian speakers. There is a real problem: in some districts of the republic, those who teach Russian now conduct their classes in Tuvin, something that reduces the number of Tuvins who know the language.

            Many ethnic Russians in Tuva are convinced that the final goal of all this is to separate Tuva from Russia. Tuvins think that if they are independent, others will take care of them and all will be well,” the “Risk” editor Konviz says.  They routinely compare themselves to Iceland which has about the same number of residents.

            Such conclusions are fed by those Tuvin nationalists who say that they know independence will be difficult but that they are prepared for anything to escape from Russia and its misguided policies. But most Tuvin officials and most Tuvins, Azar concludes, don’t support independence because they fear that China would swallow them up.

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