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Special Report: Europe's Only Majority Buddhist Region Fights Back Against Kremlin Appointed Mayor
14 December, 2019

"He fled the [‘Donetsk People’s Republic’] for unknown reasons. How can be a patriot of our city if he’s not even a patriot of the ‘Republic’ where he lived and worked?" asks Natalya Manzhikova, the leader of the political party A Just Russia in the southern region of Kalmykia. 

She is referring to Dmitry Trapeznikov, an alleged war criminal from the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People’s Republic," a region in eastern Ukraine under the control of separatists backed by the Russian government.

This fall, the Kremlin “awarded” Trapeznikov the job of heading Elista –  the capital of Russia’s sparsely populated and traditionally autonomous southern region of Kalmykia, which is the only majority Buddhist region in Europe.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

In response, protests have been going on in Elista for a month, without coverage from Russian state media. In a special report from Kalmykia, Hromadske’s partner Novaya Gazeta meets with the protest leaders in the regional capital, who share their desire for increased autonomy and the hardships they face living in a region that is in decline.

The ongoing limitations on regional self-governance in Russia have made remote and economically under-developed regions like Kalmykia almost entirely reliant on the leadership in Moscow. Protests venting frustrations over the lack of self-governance and the centralized state broke out in Buryatia in September — part of a prolonged wave of political turmoil that Russia experienced over the summer, in the lead-up to local elections this fall. 

READ MORE: Indigenous Spiritual Leader Takes on Kremlin Amid Anti-Government Protests in Siberia

In Elista, Protestors are demanding that Trapeznikov step down from his post, on the grounds that he has nothing to do with Kalmykia and has never worked in Russia before (he didn’t even hold a Russian passport until April 12, 2019). Locals also object to his reputation as a former official in the so-called "Donetsk People’s Republic".

Before the war broke out in Donbas, Trapeznikov worked for the local football club in the city of Donetsk. He later rose to become First Deputy Prime Minister of the “Republic” but fled his post after just a week in power. He resurfaced in the Kalmykian capital a year later, only to become the Mayor of Elista seemingly overnight. 

Around 3,000 people came out in protest on October 13, 2019, in what was an unprecedented show of discontent for Kalmykia’s tiny, remote capital. Two thousand people later attended an unsanctioned rally on October 27, 2019.

Meanwhile, acting Mayor Dmitry Trapeznikov says that the rallies cannot be banned — the people should express their opinion!” He also has big plans for Elista, including figuring out public housing and developing municipal transport. 

That being said, past leaders in Kalmykia have consistently faced accusations of corruption. Vyacheslav Namruyev, the former Mayor of Elista (2010-2011), was even arrested on bribery charges, Caucasian Knot reported on November 18, 2019.

And although the Head of the Republic, former world kickboxing champion Batu Khasikov, is popular among the people, even his supporters admit that there are problems in all sectors. As such, the current political crisis runs the risk of becoming an economic one and bringing on the collapse of the region as a whole.

Backstory

The Russian government’s push for centralization dates back to 2004. At that time, Putin canceled direct elections for most provincial governors, while strong fiscal centralization made local self-governing elites directly economically dependent on the Kremlin. 

The authorities backpedaled slightly in 2011, resuming direct elections in the provinces through a party nomination process – which effectively put the candidate selection under the tight control of the ruling party. As a result, dissatisfaction with the lack of self-governing powers has been brewing in the regions for years. 

Meanwhile, Russia has been embroiled in the War in Donbas from the very beginning. Russian military forces intervened in Ukraine in 2014, backing separatists forces in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The armed conflict has since affected around 5.2 million people, according to United Nations reports

Like Trapeznikov, a number of the former separatist “leaders” – who are often accused of war crimes – are now living in Russia or Crimea; a peninsula on the Black Sea that Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. 

While some of the former separatist “leaders” have received similar “promotions” back in Russia, others are responsible for leading organizations and volunteer movements that support the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic or Russian fighters who participated in the conflict in the Ukrainian Donbas. 

The war in Ukraine’s Donbas has killed over 13,000 people since it began five years ago and disabled an estimated 60,000 more. These numbers include over 3,000 civilian casualties and 9,000 civilian injuries, the United Nations reports. Meanwhile, an estimated 1.5 million people have become internally displaced because of the conflict, says the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). 

The Foreigner

Trapeznikov is best known for taking the place of the former head of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People’s Republic", Aleksandr Zakharchenko, after his death at the end of August 2018. Trapeznikov “led” the Russian-backed separatist region in eastern Ukraine for about a week, before leaving for Russia and going off the grid. A year later, he appeared in Elista, where he became the acting Head of the City’s Administration. 

Dmitry Trapeznikov in his office. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Nobody was expecting Trapeznikov’s “appointment.” Formally, deputies from the City Council elect the Head of Elista’s City Administration and the position had been vacant since May 2019, when the previous Mayor of Elista, Okon Nokahshkiyev, fled the city and was declared wanted. 

The leader of Kalmykia, Batu Khasikov, recommended Trapeznikov to the city’s deputies, presenting his “protege” with the phrase “Elista needs a real anti-crisis manager.” Although most of the deputies had never heard of Trapeznikov before the council meeting on September 26, 2019, this did not prevent them from voting almost unanimously in his favor following Khasikov’s endorsement. 

Trapeznikov’s “election” sparked outrage from the citizens of Elista for three reasons, which the opposition voiced publicly: 1. He has no connection to Kalmykia, 2. He has never worked in Russia and 3. He has a bad reputation.

“We do not need such a comrade at the head of the city. He does not know the Republic’s problems, the specifics of the city. This is a person with a dubious reputation, judging by the information on the Internet and on social networks,” says Natalya Manzhikova, the local leader of the A Just Russia political party.

The local leader of A Just Russia party Natalya Manzhikova in her office. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

“Elista is not a training ground! Why should we employ him? No one understands, on what merits?” she continues. “We have enough competent and trained people in Elista and the Republic who can take this post. No matter how bad the previous leaders were, they formed a government from local cadres.”

“This news blindsided us!” says local journalist and protest organizer Badma Byurchiev, explaining why Trapeznikov’s appointment was so hurtful. “There is not a single good review of this person and for some reason, he was made the head of our city. It angered us that he was brought in and brazenly plugged. We don’t want our city to be associated with him.”

Journalist and rally organizer Badma Byurchiev. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Although Byurchiev had never participated in protest demonstrations before, after Trapzenikov became Mayor of Elista he decided to act and called upon a well-known Kalmyk opposition leader; the head of the local branch of the Yabloko political party, Batyr Boromangnayev.

On September 27, 2019, they submitted a request to the city administration, calling for Trapeznikov’s dismissal before October 1, 2019, on the grounds that “this person has no connection” to Kalmykia. That same day, Boromangnayev, Byurchiev and three other opposition politicians recorded a video calling on locals to come out to Elista’s central square to discuss the new Mayor. 

The head of the Kalmyk branch of Yabloko Batyr Boromangnayev. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

From that day forward, demonstrations took place in squares across Elista. And although they started out small, the rallies grew exponentially. The protest movement was catching on.

The Protest Movement’s Head Designer

Aldar Erendzhenov in his workshop. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

“A basic Google search revealed that [Trapeznikov] had a super-uncool biography from the [‘Donetsk People’s Republic’]. I was outraged,” says local fashion designer Aldar Erendzhenov, when asked what made him become a protest organizer. “I saw Badma’s video message and reposted to my group [about clothing], to 6,000 people.”

Erendzhenov sews hoodies and sweatshirts with national patterns and inscriptions in the Kalmyk language. Before the demonstration on September 29, the designer came up with a symbol to give the protest movement. 

“It was too late to order a banner so I printed Elista’s logo on a piece of fabric for t-shirts, wrote ‘this is our city’ under it and dragged them to the square,” Erendzhenov tells Novaya Gazeta. 

One of the bags created by Aldar at a rally for the resignation of the mayor who was previously the acting head of the "DPR" Dmitry Trapeznikov. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

The demonstrators liked Erendzhenov’s logo and he joined up with the protest leaders, as well as veteran opposition members who he calls “politically savvy grandpas.” The designer even spoke at the rally: “I said that all our state institutions have rotted and we need to organize ourselves. I explained to the older generation that with the help of the internet they can express their thoughts and not be afraid,” Erendzhenov recalls.

The older generation, known as the “old opposition,” are experienced dissidents who have been involved in Kalmykia’s democratic movement since the 1980s. Although they are known for their separatist rhetoric, Kalmykia has not experienced the type of ethnic conflict that characterized neighboring regions in the North Caucasus in the 1990s. 

The Kalmyks do, however, have very real grievances about their relationship with Moscow – both past and present. Under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1940s, the entire Kalmyk population was deported from the region and thousands died. The Kalmyks were later rehabilitated in the late 1950s and able to return to the reconstituted Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, which had been abolished and divided up during the deportations.

The breakup of Kalmykia’s territory and population had a detrimental effect on the Kalmyk language, which was hardly spoken during the late Soviet period because Russian was the Republic’s official language. Attempts to revive the Kalmyk language are ongoing since the 1980s and the linguistic revival is more popular among the younger generation than talk of separatism. 

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Kalmykia became part of Russia but maintained its traditional autonomous status. And it is still home to a majority Kalmyk population with a strong Buddhist identity. That being said, the region has suffered economically and many are resentful of the fact that Moscow does not treat Kalmykia as an equal partner. 

“When three grandmothers go to Red Square with [a copy of] the Constitution, [they] dedicate news stories to it on Dozhd [Russian independent television channel, TV Rain – ed.], but here 3,000 come out and no one is interested,” Erendzhenov complains. For some reason Muscovites think in colonial terms, forgetting that Russia is a federation.” 

Nevertheless, talk of separation from Russia is presently taboo, especially among young people. While they are open to protesting against the local authorities in Elista, no one wants to get into a confrontation with the federal government. As well-known opposition politician Batyr Boromangnayev put it: “People shy away from one word, ‘independence.’” 

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Although Erendzhenov had never participated in rallies before, last year he accompanied his 80-year-old grandmother, a former teacher, to protest against a law that would make teaching the Kalmyk language optional. After the authorities tried to detained his grandmother, Erendzhenov found out that he had also been blacklisted for alleged “extremism.” 

“They told me that I was registered at the [Center for Combating Extremism], because the clothes that I make with Kalmyk themes could be considered nationalism,” he says. “It’s absolute nonsense.” 

When Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent asked around, both the opposition leaders and city officials agreed that there is no nationalism problem in Kalmykia. But as Byurchiev explains “there is mutual distrust,” in part because of the separatist rhetoric of the “old opposition.” 

A “Democratic Approach

Meeting of organizers of protests on the eve of the rally on October 27. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

On October 1, 2019 – the day by which Byurchiev and his colleagues wanted Trapeznikov dismissed – an unsanctioned protest took place at Elista’s Seven Days Pagoda.

“The night before the protest, we urged people to come out to a prayer meeting, so that the authorities wouldn’t have time to organize. We printed the mantras, distributed them to everyone, then we read the prayers and walked through [with] the prayer drum... Then in another corner of the square, they were talking about Trapeznikov,” Byurchiev explains. 

Byurchiev received a 20,000-ruble fine (about $313) for organizing an unsanctioned protest, but the Republic’s authorities didn’t resort to dispersing the gathering by force. 

“This is the position of the head [of the Republic] and law enforcement, we believe that Kalmykia is our home and we try to solve all problems peacefully,” explains the Head of Khasikov’s administration, Chingis Berikov. 

But when 3,000 people showed up to the next rally at Victory Square in Elista’s Druzhba Park on October 13, 2019, it became clear that something unprecedented was happening in Kalmykia. For the small, sleepy capital, seeing 3% of the city’s population in one place was a lot. Still, the police did not intervene.

“This is Our Land

Police rush to the temple on the eve of the rally. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Ahead of the next demonstration, the situation began to change. At first, the Mayor’s Office refused the application to hold a 5,000-person rally, but when the district court sided with the opposition Kalmykia’s Supreme Court overruled its decision two days before the demonstration was set to take place. 

Nevertheless, the opposition went forward with the “unsanctioned” demonstration. 30 minutes before the start of the rally on October 27, 2019, police officers and organizers began to gather at Druzhba Park. The organizers quickly started to broadcast the rally on Instagram. 

“It’s good that are expressing their opinions,” one of the policemen told Novaya Gazeta. But when asked his thoughts on Trapeznikov, he said, “We are not supposed to think.” 

A policeman explains that a rally cannot be held, but protesters chase him away. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

More and more people arrived at the square. Three Kalmyk grandmothers scold the police officers loudly as they try to pass them by: “What does Batu want, a war? The police against the people?” they ask. One police officer shrugs. “Open your mouth, you are Kalmyks!”

The police officers read out a warning to the organizers – holding an unsanctioned demonstration is a liability. But the protestors literally tell them to go to hell. 



Urgent roof repair at a rally on October 27. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Activists lower the sound equipment from the stage, which authorities began to repair before the rally began. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

With the stage they wanted to use for the rally suddenly under construct, the protestors set up an improvised stage on a park bench. Organizer Badma Byurchiev was the first to take the microphone:

“The shameful actions of the authorities confirm that we are doing everything right. They want to introduce legal chaos here. No one can remove Trapeznikov except for us! We will go until the end and will stand for six months if necessary, but this person will not be here anymore, Byurchiev cried, as the crowd broke into applause.

"Wake up, wake up, Kalmyks" - translated into Russian refrain of the main song of the Elista protests. Aleksandr Lot is squatting. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Over the course of the next three hours, there were many other speeches. The people applauded, chanting “Get out!” and “This is our land.” At the end of the rally, the organizers read out a resolution demanding not only Trapeznikov’s resignation, but also the dissolution of the City Council that “elected” him to the post.

About 2,000 people came to the rally on October 27. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

The organizers then played a Kalmyk protest song and the protestors marched to Lenin Square, where they beat prayer drums until 6 a.m. to honor the birthday of Kalmyk Buddhist spiritual leader, Telo Tulku Rinpoche.

After the rally, its participants went to play a prayer drum in the pagoda of Seven Days in honor of the birthday of the Shadzhin Lama of Kalmykia. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Khasikov “Would Not Lose

The rallies cannot be banned  – the people should express their opinion,” Trapeznikov says in response to the demonstrations. But judging from his reaction it’s clear that the protestors' words have hurt him. 

According to Trapeznikov, the organizers of the rallies did not say anything about the problems in Elista and Kalmykia during a meeting with the Head of the Republic on October 5, 2019. 

“The youth that we spoke with are patriots. I consider myself a patriot, but everyone has their own understanding,” the Head of Batu Khasikov’s administration, Chingis Berikov, affirms. “I am worried about this group [of people] most of all, that’s why they were singled out and we tried to establish a dialogue with them – because their motives are partly understandable, but their actions are not.” 

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

According to Berikov, the opposition movement “have not even considered” the proposals from the authorities. He claims that those who spoke with Khasikov demanded Trapeznikov’s removal because of “indecent information” about him on social media, but would not listen to their arguments as to why this information was a lie. 

Byurchiev, who also attended the meeting, describes it differently: “Khasikov made it clear that he would stand his ground and that he would not lose,” he recalls. 

Dmitry Trapeznikov, Prime Minister Yuri Zaitsev and Governor Batu Khasikov are listening to complaints from residents of Elista. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

They argued about the “Donetsk People’s Republic” during the meeting. Byurchiev told Khasikov that he considers Trapeznikov a war criminal. The Head of the Republic then offered a deal, suggesting they give Trapeznikov a year. But the protestors who attended the meeting refused.

“We said that we do not understand this appointment and wanted to be consulted, that he had not convinced us and we would continue,” Byurchiev tells Novaya Gazeta. This was the last time the authorities came in contact with the protestors. 

A New Generation of Dissidents

A one-man picket near the building of Kalmyk Government. The inscription on the poster reads "Kalmyks, wake up!" Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

On his days off, Aleksandr Lot holds a single-person picket by the pedestrian crossing between the Elista City Administration building and the Kalmyk Republic’s Government building.

“I’m a beginner. I never used to follow politics, but Trapeznikov, in particular, became the impetus for me to start taking action,” Lot tells Novaya Gazeta. “I was against what happened in the [‘Donetsk People’s Republic’] from the beginning. The Russian government is against the separation of its subjects from Russia. Why then can a region be separated from Ukraine?

“Nobody normal approves of the war in Ukraine,” he continues. "That’s why I was outraged when I found out one of the former leaders of the ‘DPR’ was appointed head of the city here. I told [my] classmates that I was going [to hold] a one-man picket."

Along with Erendzhenov (the fashion designer) and Byurchiev (the journalist), Lot is part of a narrow circle of protest organizers. There are also lawyers, a young member of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, who is disappointed in Khasikov’s leadership, and even a veteran from the Second Chechen War. In total, there are about 30 people in their group chat and usually half of them attend organizational meetings.

At their meeting on the eve of the October 27, 2019 rally, the only ones missing were the experienced opposition politicians – who the new generation of Kalmyk dissidents are trying to keep at a distance. As previously mentioned, the separatist rhetoric of the “old opposition” holds little appeal for the younger protest organizers. 

At a rally for the resignation of Dmitry Trapeznikov on October 27. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

“The youth did not want to join forces with them. They seemed to radical, since for them everything always ends with Kalmykia’s independence,” explains Byurchiev, who says young people in Kalmykia are more pragmatic than politicized. “You can fight Putin unsuccessfully for a long time, but they are more interested in solving a specific problem.”

Meanwhile, the seasoned oppositions are a little jealous, because it has been many years since they managed to gather thousands of people protesting on the city square. That being said, some of them are just glad that the younger generation is becoming more politically active.

At the meeting of the organizers of the protests: the first on the left, Aleksandr Lot, the third on the left, Valery Badmayev, to the right of him is Semyon Ateev. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

“I see from the mood of the people, especially the active part of the youth, that they are starting to understand that they have entered into a serious political struggle,” says Valery Badmayev, an “old opposition” human rights defender and the Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper Sovremennaya Kalmykia. 

“Behind Batu [Khasikov] and Trapeznikov there is a system formed by Putin. It’s called the power vertical,” Badmayev continues. “Not all of these people have to become oppositionists or politicians, but some are maturing in order to join the opposition and engage in political activities.” 

Valery Badmayev speaks at a rally against the former acting head of the “DPR” Dmitry Trapeznikov, who became the head of the Elista administration. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

Now, the opposition in Kalmykia is deciding what to do next, but it’s a race against the clock to hold the population’s attention and enthusiasm. The number of protestors dropped between the first rally on October 13, 2019 and the second (unsanctioned) demonstration on October 27, 2019. And as the organizers put it, “getting thousands out on the square and achieving nothing is frustrating.”

At a rally for the resignation of Dmitry Trapeznikov. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

“Disillusionment [with the protests] will set in soon so we are thinking of new approaches. For example, we are going to form an initiative group on a referendum for the return of direct mayoral elections,” says Byurchiev. 

But not all of the protest organizers are feeling optimistic. For fashion designer Erendzhenov, leaving Kalmykia seems like his only option. Although he has delayed his departure several times due to the demonstrations, being blacklisted as an “extremist” makes it nearly impossible for him to make a living in Elista.

Aldar Erendzhenov shoots a lookbook for the Faces and Laces contest at a rally against Dmitry Trapeznikov. Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta

“They already told me: ‘that’s it, bro, you’re an oppositionist.’ So you have to leave, because you need to have something to eat and to develop further,” he explains.

“Even if we win the protests, I don’t think that the situation will change fundamentally,” Erendzhenov adds. “This is just the last words of a Republic that is already on its last legs, to be honest.” 

/Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart. Based on materials by Novaya Gazeta special correspondent Ilya Azar. Courtesy of the Russian Language News Exchange.