Thursday, June 10, 2021

Could Territorial Dispute between Kalmyk Republic and Astrakhan Oblast Lead to Their Unification?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 8 – Since the Kalmyks returned from their deportation and their republic was restored in the second half of the 1950s, some Kalmyks have claimed portions of Astrakhan Oblast as being properly theirs because they were part of the Kalmyk ASSR before Stalin’s actions. In recent months, those who feel this way have again pressed their demands.

            But Moscow shows little sign of agreeing to any transfer of territory from the predominantly ethnic-Russian Astrakhan Oblast to the Kalmyk Republic, and so some in both regions are now talking about the possibility that the dispute between them could be solved by combining them into a single federal subject.

            That would be consistent with Vladimir Putin’s amalgamation plans, but it would create new tensions between Kalmyks and Russians in the area given that the predominantly Buddhist Kalmyks and the largely Orthodox Christian Astrakhan Russians and Cossacks are on opposite sides of a cultural divide. Fitting them together would be hard.

            But if a solution is not found, Kalmyk activism is set to radicalize, with members of its already vibrant civil society ready to add the border dispute to their list of complaints against the current repuvlic head ( and

            The issue heated up this week when the Congress of the Kalmyk People, a group independent of and often at odds with Elista, held a meeting at which it called for a large swath of what is now part of Astrakhan Oblast but was part of Kalmykia before 1944 to be returned to the republic (

            The Kalmyk Republic government, despite the fact that it too believes a smaller fraction of Astrakhan should be returned for the same reason, was outraged and cracked down hard, arresting organizers and threatening attendees.  The difference between the government and the Congress is significant.

            The Elista regime wants the return of 4,000 square kilometers of largely unpopulated area, while the Congress seeks the return of 11,500 square kilometers on which approximately 77,000 people, some Kalmyks but mostly ethnic Russians and Cossacks live. But there is almost universal agreement in Kalmykia that the republic must get some land back.

            The conflict flared in the 1990s and led in 2002 to an unusual arrangement. In advance of the 2002 census, Elista decided that residents in the disputed village of Basy should reregister as Kalmyks and be included within the republic’s population. They also acted to include it in a Kalmyk Republic district even though Astrakhan still includes it within one of the oblast’s own.

            The issue sharpened a decade later when Kalmyks returned to Astrakhan from Mongolia and insisted that they and their lands be included in Kalmykia, apparently what they expected to happen before they left one Buddhist republic for another. And it has continued to roil the republic and oblast medias.

            One solution that is now being mentioned is to combine the republic and the oblast into one federal subject, something Moscow might welcome on the one hand but might fear on the other, not only because of Kalmyk activism but because tensions between Elisa and Astrakhan are likely to intensify in the coming months.

            That is because each hopes that it will control the largest Russian port in the northern section of the Caspian, Astrakhan now and a new port at the entrance to a proposed canal across the North Caucasus within Kalmykia. Any ethnic conflict in the region could make construction of that canal much more difficult (

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