On October 27, several thousand gathered in downtown Elista, the capital of Russia’s Buddhist republic of Kalmykia, to protest the appointment of Dmitry Trapeznikov as mayor of the city. Trapeznikov is a former politician from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), one of the two Moscow-backed separatist “statelets” in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region (see Commentaries, October 21). The crowd of demonstrators not only called for Trapeznikov’s dismissal but also the resignation of the republic’s governor, Batu Khasikov. The latter official had previously declared he would take full responsibility for Trapeznikov’s performance as mayor and had pleaded with the residents of Elista to judge their new city executive by his actions and not by his reputation (TASS, September 30). Trapeznikov’s appointment highlights an apparent Russian policy of finding work for loyal foot soldiers displaced by political and security intrigues that continue to destabilize occupied Donbas.
The unsanctioned October 27 rally, which lasted several hours, drew between 2,500 and 4,500 participants, in a city of little more than 100,000 residents. The protest proceeded without arrests, and organizers posted on Facebook photographs from sympathetic satellite demonstrations around the world, including a picket outside the Russian consulate in New York. The Elista assembly ended with a resolution on behalf of the protesters, stating, “[W]e announce the creation of an initiative group to hold a referendum on the introduction of direct elections of the head of the city of Elista; we demand the immediate resignation of Trapeznikov and recommend that he leave Kalmykia, since his stay in the region destabilizes the situation. We demand the dissolution of the Elistian city assembly, since its deputies have not justified trust in them. We also demand from [Senator Aleksey] Orlov a premature termination of his authority as a member of the Federation Council from Kalmykia” (Znak.com, October 28). Aleksey Orlov, Khasikov’s predecessor as governor, who had held the post from October 2010 to March 2019, was appointed Kalmykia’s representative to the Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) by the current governor, Khasikov, on October 23. Orlov’s appointment was purportedly motivated by a need to name someone with local political-administrative experience (Kommersant, October 23). But in practice, the republic’s entire political structure is now controlled either by appointees from Moscow, or by those they have appointed in turn.
Apparently, the authorities took measures to try to ensure the Elista protests would not be a success, even including attempts to disrupt the stability of the stage, which was to serve as the focal point for the demonstration. The night before the rally, individuals associated with the city administration reportedly removed some nails from the stage, making it prone to collapse. The regional authorities also tried to prevent earlier rallies, like the one on October 1, by outlawing them outright. Nonetheless, the earlier protests were ultimately allowed to proceed when the courts declared the ban contravened the constitution of the Russian Federation (Snob.ru, October 27). While the intervention of the courts in a country without a strong tradition of the rule of law is itself noteworthy, so too is the fact that the republican authorities—determined as they were—actually backed down.
Some local observers have speculated that Senator Orlov was behind the current protests. However, the founder of the newspaper Modern Kalmykia, Valery Badmaev, argues that the closeness of Orlov’s and Khasikov’s views, not to mention the two men’s subordination to Vladimir Putin and the Presidential Administration, make such a charge counterintuitive, to say the least. Indeed, Elista resident Badma Burchiev suggested that those rumors were actually being spread by agents of Moscow in order to make Orlov’s standing in the republic seem greater than it is. Additionally, Kalmykian rapper Adyan Ubashaev speculated prior to the October 27 rally that there would be more voices there opposed to Orlov than to Trapeznikov—an opinion bolstered by the chatter on Instagram (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 26). Whatever the truth of Orlov’s local standing, the protesters’ motivations demonstrated that the rally was as much about restoring local control as it was about resisting someone coming in from war-torn Donbas specifically.
The protests come at a confusing time in the history of Kalmykia, where there have been previous signs that the Russian authorities are trying to use the republic to integrate the de facto statelets of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics (DPR, LPR). At the end of 2018, Batu Khasikov (now governor, but then an ordinary resident), himself a world kickboxing champion, visited the DPR with the aim of introducing a program of “physical culture,” a Soviet term referring to sports. Khasikov reportedly told DPR authorities that he wanted to establish an international youth culture and sports festival there. Khasikov also repeatedly held gymnastics and martial arts meetings in the DPR (EADaily, September 26). It is therefore surely not a coincidence that the DPR has been so heavily involved in the politics of the Kalmykian republic in recent times.
Khasikov’s use of physical culture to promote the recognition of the DPR and LPR as legitimate state entities resembles broader Russian efforts to increase its international influence through the use of sport (see EDM, February 10, 2014, June 22, 2016, June 21, 2018). However, the recent protests in Elista suggest there may be limits to the ability of the Russian government to use culturally and ethnically distinct regions to further the recognition of Moscow’s proxies.