Sunday, February 10, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Anger at Putin’s Amalgamation Plan Surfaces in Places Where He’s Declared Victory

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 10 – President Vladimir Putin’s amalgamation of two small Buryat enclaves with two larger and predominantly Russian oblasts sparked a protest in Ulan-Ude last week, and leaflets disseminated in Krasnoyarsk said that the Evenks, whose enormous territory Putin combined with that kray, are furious and want their autonomy restored as well.

            On the one hand, these developments suggest that the promises Moscow made to these small groups that their situations would improve with amalgamation were empty.  And on the other, this anger in what are some of the most distant places in the Russian Federation may restrain Moscow from trying the same thing elsewhere with larger republics.

            In any case, the two reports this week are interesting in their own right. On February 5, Lyubov Bairova, an ethnographer, picketed the government building in the Buryat capital holding a small placard with the words “Return Ust-Orda and Aginsk to the Buryats” (

(As part of the first wave of regional amalgamations sponsored by Putin, the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous District was combined with Irkutsk Oblast in 2006, and the Agin Buryat Autonomous District was united with the Chita Oblast to become the Transbaikal Kray two years later.)

            Bairova told journalist Irina Nimatsyrenova that she “could have assembled a meeting of like-minded people” but decided against it because of the effort and time that would take, but she added that she knew conditions in the two regions well and thus was “certain that conditions [in them] after unification with the oblasts had become worse.”

            During the amalgamation referendum campaigns, the ethnographer said, the Buryats in these two districts were promised schools and hospitals “but these promises were not kept.” Worse, the districts were left with even less financing than before, and as a result, “stores closed and people ran away.”

            Bairova said she was for restoring autonomy to Aginsk and for giving Ust-Orda more money. That difference reflects their different situations, she said. “In the case of Aginsk, it turned out that a wealthy district was joined to a poor one … and they both became poor. In the case of Ust-Orda, it was just the reverse,” although its residents were marginalized.

            By picketing, the ethnographer continued, she wants to say to the Buryats of these two regions that “we from Buryatia support you and understand your misfortune. Appeal to the authorities for help, to the Council of the Federation and the Council of Nationalities.” In that way, she said, they could get their “freedom back.”

            At the beginning of this month, leaflets appeared in Evenk areas of Krasnoyarsk Kray calling for the restoration of the Evenk autonomy because of the miserable existence members of that ethnic community have had since being combined with the kray.  A photograph of the leaflet with a comment is available at

            Before it was combined with Krasnoyarsk in 2005, Evenkia was equal in size to France, although it had only 17,000 residents, and could claim enormous reserves of oil, gas, and minerals. Local residents saw little of the wealth their land produced then, but they have seen even less of it since amalgamation, the “Nomad” blogger says.

            They were promised “a special status” within Krasnoyarsk Kray, but instead, Evenkia “became simply a district” of that federal subject and “all organs of power were transferred to the capital,” no small thing when the only way for Evenks to get there was by helicopter, a flight that for most would cost 10,000 to 15,000 rubles (300 to 500 US dollars).

            Federal subsidies to Evenkia ended, and the local budget has fallen from two billion to 600 million rubles (66 million US dollars to 20 million US dollars) a year.  But “the most terrible thing” has been that “the local bureaucrats have become little tsars,” answering to no one, “corruption has flourished, and simple residents have drowned themselves in drunkenness.”

Kray officials have neglected Evenkia, “Nomad” says. The former governor visited it only once during his term, and one deputy who represents Evenkia in the kray parliament has been to his constituency once over the last four years.  A second deputy is under investigation for using administrative means to eek out election by one vote.

The blogger concludes his report by saying that “the residents of Evenkia are certain that if no one gets involved in the situation in the region, then, on that basis alone” separatism will “flourish.” And from such feelings to a real challenge to the arrangements Putin imposes is not a great distance in Evenkia.

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