This year saw a growing power struggle in the Russian southern republic of Kalmyikia where President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who has been in office since 1993, is trying to get rid of his main political rival, Rady Burulov, the mayor of the capital of Elista.
In early March a criminal case was initiated against Burulov. The mayor was accused of corruption based on the allegation that he had granted a company headed by his wife the right to supply lubricants to some municipal agencies. On March 29 Burulov was temporally suspended from this office for the duration of the investigation (Interfax, March 29). He appealed to the Kalmyikian Supreme Court asking them to cancel this ruling by the City Court. On April 4 Burulov was expelled from the presidium of the council of the Kalmyikian branch of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party (www.regions.ru, April 4).
There is almost no doubt in Kalmyikia that the criminal proceedings against the Mayor of Elista were politically motivated. The standoff between Radi Burulov and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has been going on for more than two years. According to Alexander Kyinev, a leading local political observer, “the main reason for this conflict is the power struggle in the region. Ilyumzhinov views Burulov as a strong competitor. There were rumors that the Kremlin would choose Radi Burulov as the new head of the republic.” “There are also economic reasons for the fight between the regional leader and the Mayor.” Kyinev added. “The main cash flow runs through the capital, so certainly one could say that there is struggle for control of the resources” (Rosbalt, April 10).
Last December Kirsan Ilyumzhinov demanded that Radi Burulov resign as mayor, but he refused. In March the Kalmyikian President achieved his goal by using the criminal proceedings against Burulov.
Considering, however, that Ilyumzhinov is very unpopular in Kalmyikia after 15 years of rule, any political leader who confronts him appears to be a national hero in the eyes of a population tired of the economic depression and poverty (Kalmyikia has one of the least-developed economies in Russia). On April 11 and 12 the anti-Ilyumzhinov opposition composed of Communists, deputies to the Elista parliament loyal to Burulov, and a public organization called The Emergency Congress of The Peoples of Kalmyikia (ECPK) held a protest rally in the center of Elista demanding the resignation of Ilyumzhinov (Kavkazki uzel, April 12). On April 24, seven deputies representing the Communist Party tried to initiate an impeachment of Ilyumzhinov in the republican legislature; but the majority loyal to the Kalmyikian President did not support it. The republican parliament voted down the opposition Communist’s proposal even to include this item in the agenda (Kavkazki uzel, April 24).
The opposition’s attack against Ilyumzhinov succeeded on the municipal level, however. On April 25 the municipal assembly of Elista was convened for an emergency session and, with only one negative vote, endorsed a resolution of no confidence against Ilyumzhinov. The resolution stated that the 15 years of Ilyumzhinov’s presidency had culminated in economic collapse and was marred by egregious human rights violations (Kavkazki uzel, April 25).
The opposition also initiated a campaign against Ilyumzhinov in the federal media, trying to get the support of the Russian central authorities. Rumors started circulating that Ilyumzhinov’s resignation was imminent. On April 10 the political observer Alexander Kyinev told Rosbalt news agency that the Kalmyikian President would resign soon because the conflict between Ilyumzhinov and Burulov damaged the image of the republican leader in the eyes of the Kremlin and demonstrated the instability of the region. On April 18 a seminar was organized in Moscow entitled “Fifteen Years of Mirages: Is the Ilyumzhinov Era Coming to an End?” The political scientist Mikhail Tulsky spoke at the seminar about negative social and economic trends in Kalmyikia including a steep decline in oil production from 445,000 tons per year in 1990 to 71,000 tons in 2007, and a steady migration out of the republic (Rosbalt, April 18). First Deputy Mayor of Elista Aleksander Yermoshenko, Burulov’s henchman who heads the city while Rady Burulov is under the investigation, made these numbers public and used them in the campaign against Ilyumzhinov.
On April 29 Regnum news agency quoted an anonymous source as saying that Ilyumzhinov would soon be replaced as the leader of Kalmyikia by one of the following candidates: the tycoon Alexander Ledzhinov, Mayor of Elista Rady Burulov, or Hero of the Soviet Union and famous Kalmyikian pilot Valery Ochirov. It is worth noting that the review of Burulov’s appeal to the Republican Supreme Court against his suspension as Mayor of Elista during the investigation was postponed three times in April at the request of the mayor himself. Most likely, the mayor was waiting for a signal from Moscow about Ilyumzhinov’s resignation, but this signal was given to his opponent. On April 28 Sergey Stepashin, the head of the Russian Audit Chamber, visited Kalmyikia to monitor the implementation of so-called National Projects designed to stimulate the Russian economy and improve the social infrastructure. On April 30 Stepashin said in Elista that Kalmyikia had succeeded in developing its agriculture. A day before, on April 29, the Russian Agricultural Bank (Rosselkhozbank-rus) had announced that it would provide the Kalmyikian government with financial support for the further development of the local agricultural industry (Regnum, April 29). Moreover, Stepashin and Leonid Tagachev, the Chairman of the Russian National Olympic Committee, signed an agreement with Ilyumzhinov for building some facilities in Kalmyikia to be used during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games that will take place in the Russian city of Sochi. Stepashin also promised Ilyumzhinov to help organize a professional soccer club, “Dynamo,” in the republic (Regnum, April 28, May 6).
Clearly, such optimistic declarations of the federal officials can only strengthen Ilyumzhinov’s position. On May 6 Ilyumzhinov met with Grigory Rapota, then the Russian president’s envoy to the Southern Federal District, to discuss the future economic development of Kalmyikia, but not his resignation (Regnum, May 7).
At the same time, the United Russia faction in the State Duma attacked the Communist Party, accusing it of “extremism.” At the protest rally in Elista on April 11 and 12 the local communist leaders proposed two resolutions, one demanding that Ilyumzhinov resign and the other in support of Tibet in its struggle for independence from China (Buddhism is the predominant religion in Kalmyikia). According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the resolution enraged the Chinese embassy in Moscow, and United Russia used this fact to force the Communists to stop their attempts to topple Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, May 13, Novy Region, May 14).
As one can see, no matter where in Russia people want to replace a regional leader, the Kremlin always acts the same way: It supports the leader even if he is clearly weak and extremely unpopular. The reason for such policy is to demonstrate to everyone that only Moscow can decide when and whom to replace in Russian regions. This is what Putin called “the vertical of power.”