Friday, June 8, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Who is ‘Playing with Fire’ in Buryatia?

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 8 – President Vladimir Putin has named an ethnic Russian to head the Buryat Republic in the Transbaikal, the first time the Kremlin leader has appointed someone to head of a federation subject who lacks ethnic ties to or experience in the federal subject he is to lead.
Many Buryat officials anticipated Putin would do take this step because of his recent push to fold in two smaller Buryat regions into neighboring Russian territories. And consequently, a group of them signed a public appeal urging him not to do so and threatening widespread protests if he ignored their warnings.
But one commentator in Buryatia has argued that by threatening resistance, the Buryats had virtually guaranteed Putin would go ahead – the Russian leader could hardly back down in the face of a challenge. He added that their actions could be characterized as “playing with fire,” something that will end by harming the Buryats themselves.
The Buryat legislature almost certainly will rubber stamp Putin’s nominee: In all six cases in which the Kremlin leader has named an outsider to head a federation subject, the local government has gone along however unhappy its members may be. But Buryatia case could be different, and the question of who is “playing with fire” thus remains open.
On Wednesday, Putin nominated Tomsk Vice Governor Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn, 53, to serve as head of the Buryat Republic, following pro forma confirmation by the Buryat popular assembly. Unlike any other nominee, however, Nagovitsyn lacks any link to the non-Russian republic he is to head.
The United Russia member was born in the Udmurt Autonomous Republic, graduated from the Tomsk Polytechnic Institute and Academy of Economics. Since 1978, Nagovitsyn has worked in Tomsk, first as an engineer then as an industrial manager, and finally as deputy governor and first vice governor.
Buryat officials refused to comment on his nomination, saying that they had not had been officially told about the nomination or that they were traveling and thus unavailable for comment, Moscow’s “Kommersant” newspaper reported yesterday (
That alone signaled that there is widespread official unhappiness with the appointment of someone who only now is “flying to Ulan-Ude to familiarize himself with the situation in Buryatia” even though he was highly recommended by his former boss, Tomsk Governor Viktor Kress.
But in fact, opposition to any outsider and especially to an ethnic Russian outsider as head of Buryatia appears to have been crystallizing over the last few months. A group of members of the Buryat legislature took the unusual step of publishing an open letter to the Russian leader in which they warned him not to take this step against their nation.
“We were silent when the unification of the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous District was combined with Irkutsk oblast, and the Agin Buryat District was folded into Chita oblast,” they said. “We hoped that after unification would be preserved the integrity of the republic and it would be led by a representative of the titular nationality.”
But, they warned, “if this does not happen, then we will not be silent any longer.” In the past, they continued, Buryatia has been one of the most peaceful regions. But appointing an outsider and a non-Buryat as well could easily “provoke nationality-based conflicts” (
In the article reporting this appeal that appeared in the local Russian-language newspaper “SM-Nomer Odin,” Petr Sanzhiyev suggests that these deputies had no right to speak on behalf of the entire legislature let alone on behalf of the entire Buryat population of the republic.
He suggested that the reason these officials were angry now and had not been angry before is that the appointment of a new governor, as opposed to the transfer of two territories with which they were only connected by ethnicity, could threaten their own power.
And Sanzhiyev argued that because that was so, these Buryat legislators were “playing with fire” by threatening a popular action that they were unlikely to be able to cause and by challenging Putin in a way that would guarantee he would ride roughshod over them.
The Moscow newspaper “Kommersant” suggested one indication that Putin may have done just that. According to its journalists, Putin selected not only an ethnic Russian without any ties to Buryatia but also one that was not among those on the list of possible appointees that had been prepared by the regional presidential plenopotentiary.
What will happen next is unclear, but the possibility of danger ahead is suggested both by postings on Buryat websites (See and memories of what happened in 1986 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev appointed an ethnic Russian outsider to replace an ethnic Kazakh as party chief in Kazakhstan.

UPDATE ON JULY 14 – Tatyana Mudrova, a Molodaya gvardiya activist in Irkutsk who recently completed diploma work on President Vladimir Putin’s drive to consolidate some of Russia’s federal units, says that officials in government institutions in the Transbaikal are talking about pushing for the creation of a “super region” there consisting of the newly expanded Irkutsk oblast, the Transbaikal kray and the Buryat Republic ( She says that such a structure would have increased bargaining power with the center and thus is something that she is “sympathetic” to. But it is also an indication of the dangers involved in reordering the country’s structure: regional officials may be inclined to try to hijack this process to enhance their positions vis-à-vis Moscow.

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