Staunton, September 13 – The protests that roiled Buryatia after last Sunday’s elections were the largest and most contentious of any in Russia, and they were suppressed more brutally than any elsewhere, including the pre-election ones in Moscow. There are five reasons for the former and three for the latter, all of which speak to what is happening beyond the ring road in response to Putin’s policies.
Ivan Preobrazhensky, a Russian commentator for Deutsche Welle, lists five factors which explain why the protests arose and spread in Buryatia, a portion of the Russian Federation few people follow regularly or know much about (dw.com/ru/комментарий-протесты-в-бурятии-по-московским-лекалам/a-50373422).
The first reason is that Buryatia is one of the poorest federal subjects and has few prospects for escaping from its current economic depression. The second, Prebrazhensky says, is that its rulers consist of outsiders parachuted in by Moscow who don’t know the language or the culture of the people but insist on having all power and excluding locals.
The third reason is that Buryatia has a real opposition, one larger and stronger than that in almost any other part of Russia. It is led by Vyacheslav Makhrayev, a former law enforcement official, who is quite popular, whose allies almost certainly got the most votes but were deprived of victory by the powers that be.
Fourth, there was massive and visible falsification of the elections; and Buryats came into the streets to demand new ones. And fifth, the people of Ulan Ude had already been stirred up by the Sakha shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, who passed through Buryatia on his way to Moscow to exorcize Vladimir Putin from Russia.
In short, almost the perfect storm of conditions for a color revolution rather than being the clash between Buryats and Russians that many commentators immediately suggested on the basis of little or no evidence. Given the Kremlin’s fears about such events, it is not surprising the powers suppressed the demonstrations harshly (region.expert/ulan-ude/).
But there are three deeper underlying causes for the actions of the authorities in Ulan Ude. First of all, they could act with greater impunity than the siloviki in Moscow because they were out of the public eye and could keep the media or foreign embassies from covering what was going on. And they knew that their careers depended on restoring quiet quickly.
Second, despite what many commentators have suggested, Russia beyond the ring road is increasingly angry at the powers that be; and it is certain that the Kremlin, having failed to intimidate the regions and republics by its suppression of dissent in Moscow wanted another object lesson in a federal subject outside the capital (rosbalt.ru/russia/2019/09/13/1802255.html).
And third, there was a nationalist dimension, but it isn’t the one that most observers in Moscow jumped to immediately, although it is more common than what they assume and likely to cause more problems for the center in the future. That is the isolation and ignorance of elites installed by Moscow with regard to the population they are charged with ruling.
Aleksandra Garmazhapova, a Buryat commentator, says that the current ruler of Buryatia, Aleksey Tsydenov, was the source of most suggestions that Buryat nationalism was involved, suggestions that he encouraged not because that is the case but because “the Kremlin technocrat doesn’t know Buryatia” (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5D7A0E0EDE215).
Tsydenov “was born and shaped in another milieu” and “unfortunately hasn’t noticed that his unwillingness to study Buryat and his condescending attitude toward Buryat culture has offended many.” Such things are even more offensive because they are a departure from the approach of his predecessors who at least learned the language and showed respect.
Because he puts Buryats off, Tsydenov explains all opposition to him by suggesting it arises from Buryat nationalism. That is nonsense, Garmazhapova says. There are real problems and Tsydenov isn’t helping to solve them. But his failure to learn Buryat and his superior attitude toward Buryats may soon produce what he says already exists.