Street protests continue against the leader of the Buddhist province of Kalmykia and look set to escalate, with a large demonstration planned for October 27. The protests concern the appointment of the former head of the self-proclaimed and Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Dmitry Trapeznikov, to the post of mayor of the Kalmykian capital city of Elista. A spokesperson for the liberal party Yabloko, Batyr Boronmangnaev, said Trapeznikov is not suitable since he declared war against his own country (i.e., Ukraine) and, in any case, is not a native of the Russian republic: “[O]nly those people who will spend their old age on Kalmyk land and rest in our steppes should be appointed to key posts in Kalmykia.” Trapeznikov’s appointment as Elista mayor was announced on September 26 (Lenta.ru, September 30). So far, this announcement led to mostly uncoordinated protests on the streets of the city, with the largest rally taking place on October 13, when hundreds took to the streets.
Trapeznikov’s story is interesting for two key reasons. First, it shows how the Russian regime is willing to reward “separatist” Donbas loyalists with state jobs in Russia proper. Trapeznikov was born in Krasnodar in 1981, but his family moved to Donbas in 1982. He was the manager of the Shaktar Donetsk football club and then engaged in business. He became involved with the administration of the DPR in 2016 and served as the deputy chair of this quasi-statelet’s “Council of Ministers.” That position led him to temporarily assume control of the DPR following the assassination of “prime minister” Alexander Zakharchenko, but he left the DPR shortly thereafter, in 2018. Kremlin assistant Vladislav Surkov—who oversees matters connected with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, plus Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and, informally, the Donetsk and Lukhansk “people’s republics”—celebrated Trapeznikov’s appointment with a letter saying he was “proud to see our Donetsk cadres in demand” and wishing him success (Meduza.io, October 8). The influence of such a powerful figure in the Kremlin combined with the lack of any kind of broad base of support for Trapeznikov in Kalmykia suggest the latter’s inexplicable appointment as mayor of Elista must have been the result of a presidential fiat—a way for the regime to protect the careers of loyalists operating in the Russian “near abroad.”
Second, the angry public response to Trapeznikov’s appointment hints at the prospect of a broader and more sustainable protest movement in the Russian regions, gathering around local grievances and bringing them into the national spotlight. In this respect, the issue of corruption, which is central to the Kalmyk protest, closely reflects broader Russian grievances toward the authorities. From the initial protests of a few hundred people acting more or less spontaneously, the October 13 protest drew an estimated 4,000 people, according to Boromangmaev, who claimed the goals of the rally were to force Trapeznikov’s resignation following his “unlawful” power-grab (Gordonua.com, October 13). Demonstrators spilled out into the streets to join the unsanctioned protest despite threats of fines and repressive measures meted out by authorities (Kavkazr.com, October 11). The protest movement submitted a new application for the next protest, scheduled for October 27, and estimated that up to 5,000 people would come out. Considering that the total population of Elista is 100,000, such a protest would represent 5 percent of all residents. Apparently, the impetus for the next rally was specifically the heavy-handed response of the government to the October 13 protest (Kavkazr.com, October 16), thus showing how repressive tactics can backfire to further drive and fuel anti-regime protest actions.
An often-overlooked republic, little Kalmykia just became one of Russia’s new leading regions in protest against local issues, which are inextricably linked to corruption at the heart of the government and the Vladimir Putin administration itself. Time will tell if the protests that began here set a model for the whole country.