Staunton, December 28 – A Buryat scholar has proposed combining Buryatia and the Transbaikal Kray into “a single production district” in order to address the economic problems of both by attracting the attention of Moscow, an idea that Russian critics see as driven by economic desperation in the republic.
But there is another possibility: such a regional amalgamation from below would bring the Buryat communities in the predominantly Russian Transbaikal together with the Republic of Buryatia, a step toward the creation of the Greater Buryatia which Stalin divided up in the 1920s in order to ensure Moscow’s control of the key transportation route south of Lake Baikal.
Last week, Margarita Namkhanova, a scholar at Buryat State University, said that she believes the creation of a new federal district embracing the two was necessary given what she said was “the peripheral status of Buryatia and the Transbaikal relative to the Siberian and Far Eastern Federal Districts” (baikal-daily.ru/news/19/109675/).
Reaction to this idea, which appears to have been percolating in Buryatia for some time, has been largely negative, at least among Russians. Mariya Blokhina of Polit.ru said it was simply a case of a republic trying to reduce economic risks to itself during the current crisis (polit.ru/article/2014/12/28/top9/).
She cited the argument of Yury Kravtsov, an ethnic Russian economist working in Buryatia, who said that the republic had been hit by four different economic crises – structural, conjunction, intellectual and geopolitical – and was currently looking in every possible direction for help (infpol.ru/ekonomika2/item/8053-ekonomist-v-buryatii-dejstvuyut-srazu-chetyre-krizisa.html).
Blokhina and Kravtsov may be correct that economics is the proximate cause of Namkhanova’s proposal: She herself casts it in economic terms. But it is likely that she and those who share her idea have a broader agenda as well, one that involves recovering Buryatia’s influence over a region which contains otherwise isolated Buryat communities.
Many Buryats were upset when Vladimir Putin engineered the absorption of two Buryat autonomous formations into predominantly ethnic Russian regions almost a decade ago and have been looking for a way to reverse that and expand the influence of the Buryat Republic over its co-ethnics beyond its borders.
It is thus possible and even likely that Namkhanova’s proposal reflects at least in part a belief among some Buryats that they may be able to use the current economic crisis to advance their own national goals as well.