Monday, June 15, 2015

Militant Buddhism and Shamanism Could Threaten Russian Control of Tuva, Siberian Scholar Says

Paul Goble


            Staunton, June 15 – The potential for ethnic conflicts in Tuva is relatively low, according to Vladimir Datsyshen, but if economic problems, Russian flight, and increasing localism among Tuvan intellectuals continue, Russia’s control of that republic on the Mongolian border could be threatened by the rise of militant Buddhism and shamanism.


            In a new article that some Tuvans say reflects the situation of the 1990s but not now and that raises questions about the current level of Russian expertise on their republic (, the Siberian Federal University professor discusses Tuva’s past problems and future prospects (


            He concludes that “the relatively low level of conflict in Tuva is a reflection of the absence of organized religious extremism” but asserts that if conditions deteriorate, Buddhism “could be converted into a political instrument of the radicals” much as has happened in other countries.


            Moreover, Datsyshen says, “there have been reports in the press about cases of a barbaric manifestation of shamanism, the other religious system which is widespread in Tuva.” Papers in Krasnoyarsk in the early 1990s, for example, “wrote even about ritual murders of Russians by Tuvans, although the basis for such reports has been subjected to doubt.”


            A major reason for his rather pessimistic assessment about the future, Datsyshen continues is the existence of “negative tendencies in the sphere of integration into a single cultural space as a result of a definite ‘Tuvinization’ of the local intelligentsia.” Many of them never study or work anywhere but in Tuva.


            Many of them do not speak Russian well, but their own link to the Russian world is formed by “Russians who speak Tuvan.”  The number of such people is very small: fewer than one percent of the Russian community in the republic know Tuvan, and they are generally products of mixed marriages.


                Another major problem is the increasing importance of territorially based clans, whose “strengthening is connected with the fact that the former united ‘Soviet’ space of the republic has been destroyed without there being any prospect for the creation of a single space on the basis of civil society.”  And that is leading to the revival of traditional institutions like clans.


            If this trend is not brought under legal control, the Siberian scholar says, there will appear in Tuva “a favorable breeding ground for the intensification of the more sophisticated forms of separatism and other ‘new challenges’ to Russian statehood” in a region bordering Mongolia and near China.


            Most of Datsyshen’s article is devoted to a discussion of the history of Tuva, its absorption by the Soviet Union, and especially to the complicated ethnic situation there in the 1990s.  As he notes, Tuva is “the only region of Siberia from which there was a massive outflow of ethnic Russians after the collapse of the USSR,” a development that reflects, he says, that republic’s “border” status both geographically and culturally.


            By the end of the 1980s, he writes, “in Tuva as in other regions of Russia, inter-ethnic relations deteriorated, criminalization began to have an impact on aspects of the ethno-political process, [and] political forces which raised the issue of the exit of Tuva from Russia were legalized.” Tuvans’ knowledge of Russian and the number of mixed marriages both fell sharply.


            Meanwhile, local leaders put more Tuvans in positions of authority to the point that their share there was vastly larger than in the population as a whole, while the number of ethnic Russians in these posts fell sharply. All this contributed to open clashes, triggered by criminal acts, and more Russian flight.


            Over the last decade, Russian fight has declined, but polls show that “part of the urban Russian population” – there are almost no Russians in rural areas – does not connect the future of their children with the Tuvan land” and that “almost half of the migrants left Tuva because of poor interethnic relations.”


            As a result, Russians now form less than a third of the population; and Tuvans, two thirds.


            Tuvans believe that “Tuva was never conquered but always voluntarily joined other larger states,” the Siberian scholar says. In their view, “this gives her the right of free exit from Russia in the event that Russia’s supreme power doesn’t satisfy them,” something many of them feel given that the economy in Tuva is in trouble and not well connected with the Russian one.


            And Datsyshen concludes that there is another problem on the horizon as well: “new outbreaks of inter-regional contradictions [within Tuva] are possible” as well, including “the appearance of separatism which is especially real for the southern districts [of Tuva] which are drawn culturally toward Mongolia.”


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