Kalmykia: Russia’s Emerging Powder Keg?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 128

(Source: Geographical Magazine)

On May 29, the third Chuulhn Congress convened in Elista, the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, in southwestern Russia. Nearly two hundred ethnic Kalmyks from the republic, as well as Moscow and Mongolia, took part in the assembly of this highest representative body of the Oirat-Kalmyk nation, which is authorized to make decisions and statements on behalf of the entire people (Kavkazr.com, May 30).

The convocation of the Congress was sparked by numerous problems in Kalmykia, among them: the discrimination of the rights and interests of the local Oirat-Kalmyk people as well as the devastating social, economic and political situation in the republic (Prometheus.ngo, May 31). Kalmykia enjoys a strategically important geopolitical position in Russia, sitting astride both north-south and east-west transcontinental transport corridors; and the republic is a dynamic meeting place of Christian, Islamic and Buddhist civilizations. However, it lacks local energy-generating capacity and industry, while suffering from numerous environmental problems. Thus, in socio-economic terms, Kalmykia is one of the most backward regions of Russia and is regularly included among its top ten poorest federal subjects. With a total population of only 270,139 people, the republic additionally has one of the largest outflows of working-age adults in the country. According to Sangadji Tarbaev, a native of Elista who serves as the deputy chairperson of the republican government and as the permanent representative of the Republic of Kalmykia under the president of the Russian Federation, the situation in his region is quite alarming, and there is a real risk that the republic may soon cease to exist (YouTube, July 23).

Among the main reasons for the catastrophic quality of life in Kalmykia are protracted ecological and water scarcity problems. Batu Khasikov, the head of Kalmykia, noted that insufficient water “hinders the development of life in the republic” (TASS, February 2). More than 30 years ago, vast swathes of Kalmykia were declared an ecological disaster zone. But since that time, the political leadership of the republic appointed from Moscow has been unable to provide any solution to the problem. Today, Kalmykia is considered the Russian Federation’s driest region, with the lowest availability of fresh water (TASS, April 25).

Almost all Kalmyk settlements, including Elista, experience this water scarcity. The average water consumption by households is estimated at 70 liters per day per urban inhabitant and 40 liters for rural residents; while the average consumption in Russia is 140 liters. This situation is aggravated by the fact that the available water in Kalmykia is often not suitable for drinking. Local underground sources often have a mineralization rate of up to 2,000–3,000 milligrams per liter—double or triple the legal permissible rate. Thus, additional purification is required. But due to the deterioration of Kalmykia’s water supply systems and treatment facilities, such purification is not available. Moreover, this arid steppe republic has few surface water sources. In fact, only one river in Kalmykia carries relatively safe water and in sufficient volumes—the Volga River. Yet this long-term solution will require significant investments to build up the infrastructure necessary to tap the waters of the Volga. Fresh water from neighboring regions represents another possibility, but it must be transported either through special conduits, which still need to be built, or via a chain of reservoirs and canals, which would inherently reduce the quality of the water. Many residents of Kalmykia receive water from the Verkhneyashkul and Bayartinsky water intakes. The first has been in use since 1960s and the second since 1980s. Their present infrastructure, equipment, pipes, pumps and water lines have been operating since about the same time and require renovation. As a result, only 7.4 percent of the population of the drought-prone republic is provided with quality drinking water—the lowest proportion of any federal subject in Russia (Rossiyskaya Gazata, February 25).

The Iki–Burul water pipeline was to deliver reserve water for Elista and 29 other Kalmyk settlements. And the construction of 195 kilometers of pipe, costing over 4 billion rubles ($152 million back in 2006), was carried out between 2006 and 2015. However, in 2019, after the pipeline’s formal completion, numerous technical issues came to light, preventing its full commissioning (TASS, February 2).

Prolonged droughts and the desertification of the region have also negatively affected local agriculture (livestock, rice and crop production), one of the most important sectors of Kalmykia’s economy. In 2020 alone, drought led to the degradation of three million hectares of pasture. On July 21, 2020, the authorities announced a state of emergency in eight Kalmyk municipalities (Agroinvestor.ru, January 27). In February, Mikhail Mishustin, Russia’s prime minister, visited Kalmykia to discuss the ongoing water scarcity problems (Vesti-kalmykia.ru, February 2).

The alarming situation led to the decision to urgently convene the latest Chuulhn Congress. According to the Chuulhn delegates, the catastrophic living standards in Kalmykia are pushing young working-age Kalmyks to leave the republic. But after departing their ancestral homes, they struggle to maintain their own ethno-national identity and lose an opportunity to preserve and pass on their unique culture, language and traditions to future generations. In other territories, Kalmyks are doomed to assimilation. The Kalmyk language was even included in the interactive “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” (Baylig.ru, April 12).

In their concluding resolution, the delegates of the May Chuulhn Congress stated that due to the federalism crisis in Russia (see Commentaries, April 4, 2017), the Republic of Kalmykia completely lost its independence. Furthermore, they accused the Russian authorities of a hidden ethnocide of Oirat-Kalmyks, numerous human rights violations, and the persecution of political opponents (several delegates and members of the Chuulhn were actually detained by police just after the Congress) (Ovdinfo.org, May 30). The gathered participants also demanded the end of Moscow’s repressive policies against representatives of the Oirat-Kalmyk people, the protection of their rights, and the return to the Republic of Kalmykia of the status of a democratic law–bound state within the Russian Federation (Prometheus.ngo, May 31).

It is not yet clear how the federal center will attempt to solve the “Kalmykia riddle.” What is increasingly apparent, however, is that even as the Kremlin remains enmeshed in its “foreign adventures” (Syria, Ukraine, South Caucasus, Central Asia), the ethnic “outskirts”—historically, the most rebellious and “incendiary” areas of the Russian empire—are turning into a powder keg. It remains to be seen when this discontent might again light the fuse.