Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 18

Tuva: Rejoining the Fold

By Maria Eismont

Few Russians know of the existence of the Republic of Tuva withintheir enormous state; still fewer would actually be able to locateit on a map. Nevertheless, this republic has three unique distinguishingfeatures: first, its capital, Kyzyl, is seen by some scholarsas the geographic center of Asia (the exact place is marked bya stele); second, Tuva is the only Russian region on whose territoryboth camels and reindeer are raised; and finally, the republic’sconstitution contains a provision guaranteeing it the right tosecede from the Russian Federation.

At the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, Tuva, likemany other regions of the former Soviet Union, was swept by awave of nationalism. The idea of secession from Russia and thecreation of an independent state dominated the minds of the localpolitical elite. Attacks on Russians sometimes extended beyondemotional speeches and small-scale hooliganism to real crimes:several Russian families were killed. Tuvans don’t like to recallthe events of that time, and euphemistically call them "disorders."But such "disorders" led to a mass exodus of the ethnicRussian population from the republic, and if, in Soviet times,ethnic Russians made up 70 percent of Tuva’s population, at present,they number only about 100,000 out of Tuva’s population of 308,000.As happened elsewhere, it was the best specialists who left Tuva,and this took its toll in local production, which, even withoutthis, was operating at a loss.

The Constitution

The People’s Republic of Tuva, an internationally recognized independentstate, became part of the Soviet Union only in 1944, the lastof all of its republics. But unlike the Baltic states, which reallywere separate states before the Soviet occupation, Tuva, whileofficially a sovereign state, had been a de facto partof the Soviet Union for thirty years: people’s commissariats operatedon its territory, and the war against "enemies of the people"was waged in full force. More than 360 of the most prosperousTuvans were shot by Stalin’s regime long before Tuva officiallybecame part of the USSR.

The events of 1944 linked the Tuvans with the Balts, and at thedawn of perestroika, delegates from the Baltic states oftenvisited Tuva with proposals of assistance in the cause of secessionfrom Russia. But in spite of the hostility of the native populationtowards local Russians at the time, the idea which the Balts broughtwith them of appealing to the World Court to resolve the questionof Tuva’s status did not strike a responsive chord among the localpopulation. By 1992, Tuvan nationalism had run its course, whichwas made clear by the election of Sherig-ool Oorzhak, a fervent(in words, at least) supporter of Russian president Boris Yeltsinand an active participant in the Federation Council’s sessions,as president of the republic. As regards the advocates of an independentTuva, at the beginning of the 90s, they rallied around one oftheir leaders, the chairman of the republic’s Supreme Khural[Parliament] Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, who remains to this day theleader of the opposition to President Oorzhak, and intends tochallenge him in the presidential elections scheduled to be heldon March 16, 1997.

Bicheldei’s activities really are reminiscent of those of RuslanKhasbulatov, the ex-speaker of the Russian Supreme Soviet — theyboth fought their respective executive branches, with the helpof constitutions. But if Mr. Khasbulatov waged his fight by introducingamendments into the then-existing constitution of the RSFSR, Mr.Bicheldei preferred to write his own — the same constitutionof the Republic of Tuva which speaks, in its first article, ofthe republic’s right to secede from the Russian Federation.

Article 1 of this constitution states that: "The Republicof Tuva, a sovereign democratic state within the Russian Federation,has the right… to secede from the Russian Federation by republic-widereferendum." and Article II says that "In extreme situationsof political crisis in the Russian Federation…, power will betransferred to the Supreme Khural, the president, and thegovernment of the Republic of Tuva." Mr. Bicheldei explainedthese articles in terms of the fear that the situation in Moscowcould change fundamentally and unexpectedly, as almost happenedin October 1993 at the time of Yeltsin’s abolition of the SupremeSoviet and the attack on the Russian parliament building. Tuva’sConstitution was adopted a short time afterward.

Reaction from the federal center followed almost immediately:a delegation from the Ministry of Nationalities arrived in therepublic and found that at least a third of the articles in thenew Tuvan Constitution conflicted, to one degree or another, withthe Russian Constitution.

There were four fundamental points of disagreement, including:

* the first article of the Tuvan Constitution, according to which,the republic had the right to secede from Russia;

* the provisions of the Tuvan Constitution according to whichland could not be bought or sold;

* the provisions according to which the kozhuun (district) chairmenwere given the status of ministers in the republican government,whereas the Russian Constitution forbids local government leadersfrom also holding positions in federal government organs; and

* the provisions of the Tuvan Constitution which treated the appointmentof prosecutors and judges as a prerogative of the republican government,while according to the Russian Constitution, prosecutors and judgescan only be appointed with the consent of the Russian ProsecutorGeneral’s Office and the federal authorities.

Article 68 , section 8 of the Tuvan constitution also states that:"Based on the recommendation of the Great Khural [Congress]of the Republic of Tuva, the republic’s Security Council, andon the proposal of the President of Tuva, the Supreme Khural[the parliament] will decide questions of war and peace."

Work to bring the republic’s constitution in line with the RussianConstitution promises to be a long and complicated job: accordingto the text of Tuva’s Constitution, amendments to Articles 2 through18 can be made by the local parliament, but as regards Article1, which concerns the basis of the republic’s form of government,any changes or additions to it can be made only after they areapproved by a republic-wide referendum.

The chairman of the Supreme Khural thinks that the constitutionwas written "with a clear head," but he is convincedthat fundamental changes in it are needed: "We have recoveredfrom our separatist sentiments. It was a case of the ‘democraticflu,’" says Mr. Bicheldei, "and I hope that we willsoon get to work on a new draft constitution."

Confident that he is being understood correctly and approved inMoscow, the head of the Tuvan parliament is still cautious aboutopenly declaring his intention to rewrite the constitution andrenounce the principle of independence, particularly insofar ashe helped introduce it. "Everyone understands our economicdependence on Russia, but still, the memory remains in our people,on a subconscious level, of when we were an independent state,"says Bicheldei, "so I am in no hurry to speak publicly ofany intention to change the constitution. We have to get somehelp from the federal center first."

The chairman of the Supreme Khural will most likely getthis support in the near future: it would be of great benefitto Moscow to resolve this constitutional confusion as soon aspossible and remove all contradictions between federal and locallegislation. Mr. Bicheldei looks like the best partner for this,taking into account his interest in maintaining good relationswith the center on the eve of presidential elections in the republic.The head of the Tuvan parliament recently sent a letter to BorisYeltsin and Viktor Chernomyrdin, in which he assured the Russiangovernment of his sincere desire to bring his republic’s constitutioninto harmony with that of the Russian Federation immediately.

There is a reason why Mr. Bicheldei, formerly a firm supporterof Tuvan sovereignty, has exchanged these convictions for diametricallyopposite ones. By the time people had begun to speak of changingthe Tuvan Constitution to bring it into line with the Russianconstitution, nationalist sympathies in the region had significantlyweakened, and the financial stabilization, brought about by reducingthe money supply, and the budget crisis in Russia which came aboutas a result, graphically demonstrated to the Tuvan authoritiesthat they could not exist without Russian help. The reductionof subsidies from Moscow was immediately reflected in the region’seconomic situation, and Mr. Oorzhak began to spend a third ofhis time in Moscow in hopes of getting federal assistance anda promise to send to Tuva at least the money which the republichad been allotted in the federal budget.

His supplications are complicated by the fact that Tuva, whichin recent times, has produced almost nothing, "eats up"more than many other regions since it now receives increased subsidieslike those received by regions of the Far North. According tolocal inhabitants, the special commission which arrived from Moscowin 1994 to define Tuva’s status as a "northern" region,came at a very opportune time, at the coldest time of the year.The temperature was -57, and the delegation, without spendingeven a whole day in the republic, made their decision immediately.

Tuva’s "northern" status, which entitles it to increasedsocial payments, has brought back many people who had previouslyleft the republic. For the most part, these are retired peopleor people who are close to retirement age, who consider it beneficialto work until retirement in Tuva, and get compensated accordingto "northern" standards. By the middle of the nineties,the number of people leaving the republic and those who are arrivinghas almost leveled off, although Russians continue, just as before,to make up little over a third of Tuva’s population.

Most of the republic’s population, both Tuvan and ethnic Russian,works in the traditional agricultural sector, which helps themmaintain a relatively decent standard of living, independentlyof the economic situation in the region and in Russia as a whole.This subsistence economy is strengthened by local barter trade:in many taiga regions, the local inhabitants exchange fursfor flour and gasoline. Inhabitants of the taiga rememberthe existence of money only when foreigners arrive or rich touristsfrom central Russia come there to hunt.

Drafting a new constitution and bringing it into harmony withthe Russian constitution seem, in Oorzhak’s opinion, to be minorproblems, compared to the task of solving the republic’s presenteconomic difficulties and securing the financial and raw materialresources it needs. If the former nationalist Mr. Bicheldei hasbegun to flirt with Moscow before the election, then Oorzhak,who has always been loyal to the Kremlin, has, on the contrary,begun to express more and more dissatisfaction with Russia’s policytowards the regions as a whole, and towards Tuva in particular."All they ever talk about in Moscow now is disagreementsin constitutions, instead of working out a conception of organizingrelations between the center and federation subjects. It shouldbe a common policy, based on the fact that we are all equal subjects.It should be a well-thought out national policy, which Moscowdoes not have now." Mr. Oorzhak cites the Swiss cantons,which he visited as a member of a Federation Council delegation,as an example of a reasonable regional policy.

Another problem for the Tuvan leadership is that it has not yetsigned a treaty with the federal government defining the powersof each side. "We are ready to sign such a treaty, and itis very important," says Oorzhak. "Let the center takecare of the borders, and technology. We respect Mother Russia,but she needs to respect us too. We need to divide up institutionsand enterprises, and understand what needs to be financed by us,and what will be financed by Moscow. We need the center to financewhat comes under its jurisdiction, so that we don’t have to rackour brains to come up with money which doesn’t exist."

Tuva has virtually no sources of independent financing, and isnot likely to find any in the near future: both in Soviet timesand at present, the republic has lived on subsidies from the center.At the beginning of the 1990s, subsidies from Moscow made up 92-95percent of the republican budget. In 1994, due to financial problemsin Russia and cutbacks in subsidies to the regions, Tuva financed25 percent of its own budget through spending cuts, first of all,in social payments. In the draft federal budget for 1997, it isprojected that federal subsidies will make up 90 percent of Tuva’sbudget. According to the draft budget, 984.2 billion rubles inexpenditures, and 102 billion rubles in income are projected.In 1995, the federal government decided to subsidize only 50 percentof the regions’ budget deficits, which clearly irritated the leadersof super-subsidized regions like Tuva. The remaining deficit willbe covered by means of transfers from the regional support fund,formed by the donor regions. Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdinrecently admitted that his government "was unable to fullyfinance the regional support fund in 1996."

To make it easier to support Tuva, which operates at a loss, thefederal government issued a decree "On Measures to ProvideGovernment Assistance to the Social Sphere in the Republic ofTuva," the first point of which provides for the creationof a free economic zone there, like that in the republic of Ingushetia,which was also heavily subsidized, and now lives by attractingfinancial resources which are not subject to tax, resources which,as opponents of such zones point out, frequently come from criminalsources.

Due to the absence of the necessary infrastructure, Tuva cannotcount on getting big foreign or domestic investors to invest inits unprofitable industry. According to the local elite, the onlyreal project in the works is the participation of a German firmin the modernization of the republic’s fur industry.

In 1958, Gosplan included the Tuva ASSR in the all-Unionlabor distribution scheme, and organized the mining and processingof cobalt and asbestos on its territory. After the beginning ofperestroika, these clearly unprofitable enterprises wentinto decline: it turned out that the concentration of cobalt saltsin the ore obtainable in Tuva was significantly lower than inCuba, and the absence of a railroad made the supply of Cuban cobaltby sea, through the Arctic port of Dickson, to Norilsk, more profitablethan that of Tuvan cobalt. As regards asbestos, if earlier, thisfiber, which has unique heat-insulation properties, was used inproduction in enterprises of the Soviet Union’s military-industrialcomplex, with the coming of new times, these enterprises havefound themselves in a deep crisis, and the demand for asbestoshas fallen sharply, since a cheaper and more ecologically-friendlysubstitute was found in the 1980s.

Tuva’s other industry, for the most part, is there to satisfythe needs of the republic’s population, since the lack of a railroadmakes shipping raw materials from Tuva unprofitable. The exceptionis the export of lumber: logs can be floated up the rivers thatempty into the Yenisei basin.

And there is another thick chain binding Tuva to Russia. The republicis almost 100 percent dependent on neighboring Khakassia and Krasnoyarskkrai for energy. Tuva’s coal reserves are enough to keep Tuvawarm in the wintertime, but coal is not used to generate electricity.The republic’s entire energy system is tied to the gigantic Sayano-Shushenskoehydroelectric plant in Khakassia. All fuel, oil, and lubricantsin Tuva are likewise imported. Agricultural and other producersreceive them in the form of commodity credits, which, as a rule,are not paid back to the federal budget.

Tuvans have understood for a long time that Russia does not particularlyneed their remote and non-producing republic, that it is simplyan extra burden for her. Some politicians think that the timefor requests and entreaties has passed, and that the only wayto wring the necessary finances out of the center is blackmailand the threat of secession. "Russia is forcing us to becomea second Chechnya," some Tuvans say.

But it is obvious that Tuva cannot become a second Chechnya fora number of reasons: no strategically important oil or gas pipelineslike the Baku-Novorossiisk oil pipeline pass through the republic.Tuva borders Mongolia, where Russia has much fewer strategic intereststhan in the countries of the Transcaucasus, which border Chechnya.The absence of a railroad makes it unprofitable for Tuva to exportits raw materials, and any foreign trade would be impossible ifTuva seceded. If Chechnya was helped, albeit unofficially, byTurkey, Jordan, and several other countries of the Muslim world,no one will give Tuva any serious support in a battle with Moscow.

The Election

The fight for the presidential chair in the republic’s upcomingelections, set for March 16, 1997, will most likely be a two-candidaterace, although local analysts bring up three names: the incumbentpresident Sherig-ool Oorzhak, the chairman of the Supreme Khural,Kaadyr-ool Bicheldei, and the chairman of the republic’s consumers’union, Khonuk-ool Mongush. The latter, according to analysts,has good chances, first of all because his Mongush clan is thelargest in Tuva, and second, because his job gives him a widenetwork of regional ties in the republic.

The aforementioned system of clans, which has existed in Tuvafrom ancient times, was forgotten during Soviet times, and revivedwhen President Oorzhak came to power.

The president has surrounded himself with representatives of hisown clan, and has given them jobs in the republic’s government."If you take a look at a list of our public officials, allyou see are Oorzhaks," says Mr. Bicheldei, "althoughthey’re not the largest clan in Tuva. Our president has simplydecided to ‘elevate’ his clan."

But the outcome of the elections will depend more on Moscow’sposition than on relations between the candidates and their clans:obviously, the people will vote for the candidate who can getat least firm promises of financial assistance from the Kremlin.Not one of the candidates even mentions the idea of Tuvan independencein his program, considering the outbreak of nationalism of thelate eighties-early nineties to be a mistake of the past. Thefuture — or at least the near future — of all of Tuva’s politicalforces is tied to Russia.

Translated by Mark Eckert