The mouse that roared: Kalmykia’s young president makes waves
by Igor Rotar
Since the rebirth of the Russian Federation in 1992, local aswell as federal politics has attracted new practitioners as honeyattracts bees. But among the thousands of political newcomers,none has had a more unusual career than Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, presidentof the tiny Russian republic of Kalmykia.
The Kalmyk Republic, situated on the Trans-Caspian lowland, borderson the Astrakhan and Volgograd oblasts and the Dagestan Republic.Forty-six percent of the population are Kalmyks and 44 percentare Russians. The remaining ten percent are primarily Dagestannatives. Kalmyks are descendants of a Mongolian tribe which movedfrom Western China to its current location in the 17th century.Kalmyks are the only European ethnic group which practices Buddhism.The republic has no industry to speak of–its agrarian-based economyrequires subsidies from the Russian Federation.
It is truly amazing that such a poor and inconspicuous provinceof Russia has recently become a center of media attention. Withouta doubt Kalmykia owes her popularity to her enigmatic president.No other leader of a small faraway province has met with PopeJohn Paul II, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and President DanielMoi of Kenya. No other Russian provincial leader was includedin the diplomatic calendar which is published by Britain’s QueenElizabeth II. And the most recent feather in Ilyumzhinov’s cap: this year he was named president of the International Chess Federation(FIDE).
A Provincial Prodigy
Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, born in 1963 in the town of Elista, wasan excellent student and a one-time chess champion of Kalmykia. After completing his army service, he studied at the Moscow StateInstitute of Foreign Affairs. Following graduation he won a plumjob as manager of a Japanese company, which paid the incrediblesalary of $3,000 a month. In 1991, Ilyumzhinov became presidentof the International Sun Corporation.
In 1993 Ilyumzhinov nominated himself to be a candidate in thepresidential elections of Kalmykia. There were two other candidatesin the campaign: a former secretary of the oblast Communist partycommittee and an air force major-general. During the electioncampaign Ilyumzhinov made promises to turn Kalmykia into a prosperouscountry — "the second Kuwait." He promised that Boeingjets would take off from the Kalmyk airport, and every steppeshepherd would own a cellular phone.
Ilyumzhinov emphasized that for the transition period Kalmykianeeded a strict authoritarian regime. "Kalmykia needs a khan,and he will come to power by way of democracy," he oftensaid.
In April 1993, Ilyumzhinov was elected president of the republicwith 60 percent of the vote. Not surprisingly, his campaign promisesto make the republic prosperous have not been realized. Thereare no cellular phones for the shepherds — in fact, the totalsheep population is a third of what it was two years ago. Notonly did Kalmykia’s airport fail to become an international hub,but the local pilots have been unemployed due to the lack of fuel.
But there was one campaign promise which the Kalmyk presidenthas managed to keep: There is no organized opposition to his government.The only existing anti-Ilyumzhinov newspaper, Sovetskaya Kalmykia,is published outside of Kalmykia, and is not available at anykiosks or libraries inside the republic.
The president’s work day begins at 8:00 a.m. and ends at 3:00a.m. the following day. "I sleep four hours a night. Itis the Chinese gymnastics that help me stay in good shape,"Ilyumzhinov told Prism.
It is widely known that the Kalmyk president indulges in mysticism.The Bulgarian clairvoyant Vanga is an honored citizen of Kalmykia.Sorcerers and prophets come from far away to visit Ilyumzhinov,who receives them like honored guests.
"You know, irrespective of what I tell people, I give theminstructions on a subconscious level, a code. I do the same thingwhen I communicate with Russian citizens from other regions–I’mcreating around the republic a kind extra-sensory field, and ithelps us a lot in all our projects," the Kalmyk presidenttold Prism.
Ilyumzhinov also believes in astrology, and is convinced thatthe world will soon encounter aliens from outer space. His governmentseems to be actively preparing for the latter event. The republic’sstate secretary for ideology, Aleksei Nuskhayev, has developeda concept called "Ethno-Planet" thinking, which hasbecome the official ideology of the republic. Nuskhayev writes:"The notion "ethno-planet" consists of two words:’ethno-‘ meaning tribe, nation or a people; ‘planet’ means theEarth. From these two meanings we get ‘people’s planet’ thinking…Kalmykia will go its own way to the Common Planet Home, firstby creating the Kalmyk Ethno-Planet Home by way of formation ofthe Kalmyk Ethno-Planet state."
Ilyumzhinov’s unorthodox spirituality has appeal among voters. An epic Kalmyk poem called "Jangar" tells of an imaginaryland called Bumba, which is run by Khan Jangar. Rivers of milkflow in this country, no one is hungry, justice reigns, and everyoneis happy. And as academicians E. Guchinova and V. Khanumiam pointout in their book Myth and Politics, Kirsan Ilyumzhinovhas a lot in common with Khan Jangar, who was wise and had thepowers of clairvoyance and great endurance.
And like a khan, Ilyumzhinov’s regime is expected to be long-lived.Despite his 1993 election to a five-year term, the Kalmyk presidentdecided to hold elections early. Since the incumbent wasthe only candidate in the October 15, 1995 election, it was hardlysurprising that he was re-elected to a seven year term (Kalmykia’slegislative assembly had extended the presidential term from fiveto seven years last August).
It is not clear why Ilyumzhinov felt compelled to hold electionsthis year. The Kalmyk president gave Prism an unconvincingexplanation: "I was elected under the old constitution. NowI have to make myself legal under the new conditions. Besides,the transition period in the republic is over, and I have begunto notice signs of stagnation. In order to stir people up, I decidedto hold elections."
There might be another more plausible explanation for the Kalmykpresident’s actions. A commission of the Russian President’sControlling Directorate recently concluded that most of the subsidiessent to Kalmykia are being spent for purposes other than thosedesignated by Moscow. The experts estimated that in the last twoyears a total of 9 billion rubles was misspent. It is thereforepossible that Ilyumzhinov needed the elections to protect himselffrom retribution from Moscow.
Ilyumzhinov has established what could be classified as a moderatelytotalitarian regime in Kalmykia. There are no political prisonersin the republic and the people do not fear to speak freely onthe streets. However, most of the Kalmyks who criticized the presidentagreed to speak to me only on the condition of anonymity. Andmost people whom I attempted to interview in the offices in Kalmykiawere not very forthcoming. "Certainly I do not risk beingput in prison if I tell you the whole truth, however, I may welllose my job," a woman who worked at the Central Library toldme.
There has been only one documented incident of a politicallymotivated dismissal in Kalmykia. The executive director of a collegein the capital of Elista refused to cancel classes on Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’sbirthday, which, although it has not yet been declared an officialholiday, it was decreed to be a day free of labor this year. Shewas fired a few days later.
To be fair, some residents with whom I spoke were willing toopenly criticize their president. For example, several researcherswith the Kalmykian University were uninhibited in their vehementcriticism of Ilyumzhinov: "I am paid 200,000 rubles a month[approximately $30]. How is it possible to live on such a wage?While television constantly broadcasts programs feeding us talesabout a ‘special Kalmykian way,’ they are feeding us promisesthat soon we will live in a real capitalist paradise. I have gottensick and tired of these tales! I fear nothing. If you wish youcan record my name!" researcher Nina Kulikova told me.
Despite these complaints, President Ilyumzhinov remains quitepopular among the people. Most of the voters who supported himin the October elections did so sincerely. Even if there hadbeen multiple candidates, Ilyumzhinov would most likely have wonanyway because he has a very high approval rating in the republic.The population of the republic regards his power as somethingGod-given and does not feel empowered to change the situation. Like it or not, the fact is that the majority of the Kalmyksstill have faith in their "Khan Jangar."
In general, President Ilyumzhinov permits the free practice ofreligion in Kalmykia. "My conviction is that all peopleson the planet have one single God. When I happen to be in a Catholiccountry I enjoy praying in a Catholic church, in Moscow I enjoyvisiting Orthodox churches and in the Buddhist countries I amequally glad to enter their pagodas," the president toldme.
Buddhist churches are under construction in Kalmykia and Ilyumzhinoveven plans to establish a permanent residence in his republicfor the Dalai Lama. In addition, the president himself fundedthe building of an Orthodox Church in the republic. "Onlyone Catholic has been registered in Kalmykia," Kirsan Ilyumzhinovremarked, "however, I am ready to allocate a plot of landfor a Catholic church to be built for this person!" Finally,construction was recently begun on an Islamic Cultural Center,thanks to assistance from the Iraqi government.
Ilyumzhinov and the Center
Strange as it may seem, the Kremlin remains almost obliviousof the peculiar policies pursued by the Kalmykian president. There is only one case of official criticism from Moscow in thepublic record. Russian Central Elections Commission chairmanNikolai Ryabov stated that the 1995 elections in Kalmykia violatedthe Russian Constitution because Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was the solecandidate. Not surprisingly, this statement has been ignoredin Elista. The only reactions to Ryabov were numerous letters
from Kalmykian residents, published by the local newspapers, whichprotested the center’s interference in their local affairs. This was the beginning and the end of the confrontation betweenElista and Moscow.
Moscow’s tolerance of the eccentric Ilyumzhinov is understandable: Kalmykia is far and away the leader among the provinces of theRussian Federation with regard to making declarations of loyaltyto the Center it has made. Ilyumzhinov never tires of repeatingthat Kalmykia is an unalienable part of the Russian Federation.
Moreover, Kalmykia is the only republic of the Russian Federationwhich has relinquished its local constitution. On March 11, 1994,Ilyumzhinov declared that the Kalmykian nation denies self-determinationand nullifies the republican constitution. A "Great SteppeStatute" was introduced in lieu of the constitution. In fact,this act made only one real change in the republic’s legal status:Elista officially declared Kalmykia an unalienable part of Russia.Explaining this political move, Ilyumzhinov remarked: "Anexplosive situation currently exists in the North Caucasus. Afragile peace can break up at any moment. Should that happen,Kalmykia, which currently manages to remain afloat, would perishin the flame. To be able to continue moving forward we must havea strong state. Moscow efforts ‘from the top’ encounter the resistanceof the regions. Therefore, we have no other option but to unite’from the bottom,’ i.e., the initiative must come from the regions."
In fact, Ilyumzhinov is a more rigid "statist" thanis Russian president Boris Yeltsin. "As a matter of fact,"Ilyumzhinov confessed to Prism, "I am a hardened monarchistby conviction. Zhirinovsky is right when he says that the nationalrepublics should be abolished and guberniyas (provinces)should be established instead. In many respects I agree with thispolitician. Take, for example, his idea of a ‘Thrust to the South.’Certainly, this must not be done in the rough manner proposedby Zhirinovsky. However, the idea itself is interesting."
Central Asian Parallels
Kalmykia’s political system resembles the Central Asian countriesin a number of ways. For example, throughout Central Asia, regionaltribes play the role of political parties — the political strugglehas been on an inter-tribal level. The same is true in Kalmykia,as Ilyumzhinov pointed out in an interview with Izvestiya:"During the elections of 1993, political struggle soon turnedinto an inter-tribal opposition between Kalmyks."
Ilyumzhinov’s style of rule is also not inconsistent withpost-Soviet political developments in Central Asia, where allcountries except Kyrgyzstan have authoritarian regimes. The degreeof infamy of the newly formed regimes is in many respects determinedby the personal characteristics of the victorious leader. Thus,Turkmenistan has a classical Eastern despotic state similar tothe political system of North Korea. In Kazakhstan, where powerbelongs to the tough pragmatist Nursultan Nazarbayev, a moderateauthoritarian regime works toward market reforms.
Kalmykia is not the only ethnic republic with an Asian cultureon the territory of the Russian Federation, and, consequently,the Kremlin can expect more renegade provincial leaders in thefuture. The case of President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov demonstratesthat the Kremlin is ready to pardon the local elites for anydeviations except one: they must not show signs of separatism.The specter of the Chechen war is a vivid reminder to any provincialleader who thinks otherwise.
Igor Rotar is a correspondent for Izvestiya.