Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Moscow’s Nervousness about Buryatia Highlights Transbaikal Republic’s Importance

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 31 – Foreign intelligence services are seeking to drive a wedge between the various peoples of Buryatia, a Kremlin official told a Novosibirsk meeting on ethnic relations  and national security yesterday, a latest indication of Moscow’s increasing nervousness about that strategically important republic and a signal to Buryats of just how important they are.


            Magomedsalam Magomedov, the deputy head of the Russian Presidential Administration, said that inter-ethnic relations in the Siberian Federal District were improving but that in Buryatia things were going in the opposite direction as a result of the work of foreign intelligence services and diplomats (asiarussia.ru/news/6695/).


            The Kremlin aid added that there were problems as well in Tuva (another Buddhist republic), the Transbaikal kray (where there are numerous Buryats), and Omsk. But Magomedov was clearly focused on Buryatia, and his words have already sparked an active discussion in that Transbaikal republic.


            Arkady Zarubin, a journalist in Buryatia, suggested that what Magomedov had said reflects the fact that “Buryatia is a strategically important territory for the country,” one  through which “all land routes to the East pass through” and in which, thanks to Lake Baikal, there is an enormous reserve of potable water.


            Thus, he said, “stability” in Buryatia must be maintained “at any price.”


            That Moscow doesn’t think that there is such stability now reflects the enormous corruption in the region, the incompetence of the republic’s leadership in appointing a Russian outsider to head the local university, and the work of the Buryat opposition.  But the role of foreign intelligence services is obscure, he suggested.


            Whenever he has been involved in preparing protest meetings, Zarubin said, “no special services besides the local ones have disturbed [him].  Since when did these become foreigners? Or don’t I know something?” he asked.  What is clearly going  on is that somebody feels he or she has to blame outsiders in order to shift blame.


            Buryatia, an enormous republic which sits astride the Transbaikal region, numbers just under a million people, who are roughly divided between the Buryats who form a third of the population and ethnic Russians who form almost two-thirds.  Maintaining tight central control over it has always been a focus of Moscow’s security thinking.


            But talking about this reality may have just the opposite effect that Moscow intends.  That is because comments like those of Magomedov remind Buryats like Zarubin of just how important they are in the mental maps of Muscovites, a reminder that may lead them to make more rather than fewer demands on the center.


            And in comparison to many other non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation, the Buryats have two serious advantages: On the one hand, as a Buddhist people, they are linked to Tuva and Kalmykia, the two other Buddhist nations in Russia.  And on the other, as Mongols, they have increasingly close ties to neighboring Mongolia.



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