On November 29, the Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, visited Kalmykia, a region in southern Russia, that is mainly inhabited by ethnic Kalmyks practicing Buddhism. This visit was difficult to organize, since the Chinese government regards the Dalai Lama as a separatist.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that it was perplexed that Russia had granted a visa to the Dalai Lama (strana.ru, November 30). According to the official statement from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “China is strongly against any activity of the Dalai Lama on any ground and in any form in countries that have diplomatic ties with China” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 29).
The circumstances surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit were unclear throughout all of November. On November 5, the President of Kalmykia announced that the Dalai Lama would arrive on November 17, but Russian Federation officials immediately issued a formal denial of this statement. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, said, “Russia fully supports China in the Tibet issue” (regnum, November 29).
However, the Dalai Lama visited Kalmykia after all. The Russian government allowed him to come despite the fact that his visit broke an informal Russian-Chinese agreement, namely: “We will support you on the issues of Tibet and Xinjiang (a northwestern Chinese province inhabited by Muslim minorities with strong separatist feelings) and you will support us on Chechnya.” Zhan Tsiyue, speaking on behalf of China’s Ministry of the Foreign Affairs, reminded Moscow of this agreement: “Beijing hopes that Russia will meet the commitments to the distinct position on the Tibet issue as they are defined in bilateral political documents” (strana.ru, November 30).
What can the Dalai Lama give the Kremlin that makes it worthwhile to risk damaging relations with China? The answer may be that the Russian authorities simply want to improve the political situation in Kalmykia.
The Kalmyks are a Mongol people who practice Buddhism. Four centuries ago they migrated from China to Russia. In the 18th century the Russian tsar gave them land near the Volga region, which became known as “Kalmykia.” In 1943, the Kalmyks were deported to Siberia, and all the Buddhist temples and monasteries in Kalmykia were destroyed. In 1992, the Kalmyks, who had returned to Kalmykia after Stalin’s death, began to revive their traditions. In 1993, Kirsan Ilumzhinov, a local business tycoon, became president of the republic. He began to finance the reconstruction of temples and sent young Kalmyks to India to learn Buddhism. This made Ilumzhinov a national hero.
These popular gestures gave Ilumzhinov carte blanche to create an authoritarian system in the republic. The new constitution of Kalmykia entitles the president to be elected for a single seven-year term. But in 1995, over the protests of the Russian Central Election Commission, Ilumzhinov was re-elected for a second seven-year term. In 1997, he appointed regional representatives instead of allowing them to be elected by local governments (strana.ru, October 11, 2002). Those representatives received the authority to form local election committees, allowing Ilumzhinov to secure control over parliamentary elections in the republic. Then he forced the central government to replace the local FSB chief and the republican prosecutor-general with men who were loyal to him (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 1). Finally, Ilumzhinov took steps to gain total control over the regional economy. He succeeded. As a result, major Russian companies, even the giant Lukoil, cannot operate in Kalmykia (strana.ru, October 11, 2002).
While Ilumzhinov was grabbing more and more power, the opposition began to create a united front. Nevertheless, the only thing the opposition leaders could really do was to appeal to the Kremlin. On February 2002, on the eve of the new presidential elections in Kalmykia, several political parties, such as Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces, and the Communist party addressed Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing Ilumzhinov of corruption and election fraud (strana.ru, October 11, 2002). Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Following Ilumzhinov’s re-election in 2002, the opposition began to stage street protests. The first serious anti-Ilumzhinov demonstration took place on December 7-10, 2003, following the elections to the Russian State Duma. The opposition accused the Kalmyk authorities of massive electoral fraud and demanded Ilumzhinov’s resignation. The Kremlin backed Ilumzhinov, and the protest had no effect.
On September 20-21, 2004, the opposition organized a larger rally in the republic capital, Elista, which was broken up by OMON special-police units. Eighty-nine people were arrested (NTV, September 21).
Valery Bogdanov, the Vice-President of Kalmykia, said that the participants in the rally were “terrorists” linked to militants in the North Caucasus (regnum, September 23). The opposition again appealed to Moscow. Dmitry Kozak, Putin’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, formed a federal investigation committee, but again to no effect.
At the same time, the Kalmyk authorities started to threaten local opposition leaders. On November 27, a hand-grenade was thrown into the yard outside the home of Vasyly Myrny, a leader of the “Rodnoy Kray” organization (yufo.ru, November 27).
Now that Ilumzhinov believes that the opposition has grown too strong to be controlled by force, he needed the visit of the Dalai Lama to bolster his own fading popularity. The scheme’s strong support from the Kremlin, which had to explain the situation to an angry China, shows quite clearly whose side the central government takes in Kalmykia.