Vienna, September 23 – Tuva, a place known to stamp collectors and fans of the late U.S. physicist Richard Feynman, is now posing a separatist challenge to Moscow, one driven not only by longstanding nationalist resentment but also by the attention of foreign governments, the interests of oligarchs and drug dealers, and divisions within the republic’s political elite.
In an article in “Moskovsky komsomolets” yesterday, Aleksandr Khinshteyn argues that the situation in Tuva now resembles the situation in many parts of the Russian Federation in the 1990s and thus presents challenges that many in the Russian government have forgotten how to identify (www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2008/09/22/society/371940/).
In recent months, the Moscow journalist notes, Tuvans have put graffiti on the Orthodox church in Kyzyl saying “Russians, Go Home!” And during the presidential elections last spring, many Tuvans received leaflets saying that “The Russians are Our Enemies!” and “By voting for Medvedev or Zyuganov, you are voting against Tuva!”
Like so many non-Russian autonomies in the Russian Federation, Tuva combines immense natural wealth (nickel, uranium, cobalt, and copper) and equally striking poverty, a situation compounded by its distance from Moscow and its lack of direct transportation and communication links with European Russia.
A predominantly Buddhist region, Tuva or Tyva was part of China until 1914, when it became a Russian protectorate. In the 1920s it achieved formal independence although under Moscow’s total control and began to issue the diamond-shaped stamps so beloved of collectors like Feynman. Then in 1944, it was absorbed by the USSR as an autonomous republic.
Given that history, the declining share of Russian speakers in the population, and an opposition media filled with stories about Chechnya and Ingushetia, which Khinshteyn says do not “forget to draw analogies,” it is perhaps not surprising that anti-Russian and even separatist attitudes have grown.
But according to the “Moskovsky komsomolets” journalist, those attitudes have been fanned by three groups that he suggests are intentionally or not playing with fire. First, despite its distance from Moscow, Tuva has been the recipient of the attention of American diplomats, Western NGOs, Protestant missionaries, Turkish educators, and Chinese officials.
Some of these groups, like the American diplomats and Western NGOs, are interested in promoting an “orange”-style revolution, he says. Others like the Protestant missionaries and Turkish educators are destabilizing the situation by pushing radical social change. And the Chinese have still not accepted that Tuva is not part of their country.
And even if these groups are not actively promoting separatist ideas, the Moscow journalist continues, the attention they are giving to the 300,000-strong Tuvan people has led many of the latter to assume that they could separate from Moscow, go it alone, and enjoy the support and protection of outside powers.
Second, both oligarchs and drug dealers have an interest in weakening the power of the state in Tuva, something that plays into the hands of radicals and separatists as well. On the one hand, the oligarchs, now that a rail line is being built, recognize that they can make enormous fortunes by exporting Tuva’s wealth and will find it easier to do if the state remains weak.
On the other, the drug dealers, who by their purchases of locally produced marijuana provide much of the income for the poorest groups of Tuvans, have an obvious interest in keeping the powers that be as weak as possible so that the dealers can ply their illegal trade without interference or the need for massive bribes.
And third, the government in Tuva is still living with a constitution and laws from the 1990s that emphasize its independence and that have not been brought into line with all-Russian ones, Moscow’s repeated claims notwithstanding, and is very much divided between the legislative and executive branches.
That division sometimes leads to deadlock and sometimes to clashes resembling October 1993 in Moscow, but more important, it has opened a bidding war for popular support, forcing each side to pose as the true defender of Tuvan interests and thus promote nationalism and separatism.
Sometimes this takes the form of an open proclamation of a nationalist agenda – some officials argue that only they and not Moscow can help Tuva grow rich – and sometimes it involves a clever but perhaps ultimately unsuccessful defense by those who are loyal to the Russian government.
But together, Khinshteyn says, these factors are combining to push Tuva in a dangerous direction. Shortly before he arrived there, the journalist continues, “a group of Tuvan youth shouting ‘death to Russians!’ attacked a Russian couple who were leaving a bowling alley.” The man died; the woman was crippled.
And in perhaps the clearest indication that Russia is losing control of the situation, a senior FSB officer told Khinshteyn that he did not bring his wife and children with him when he was posted there because in the officer’s words, “I did not want shudder from fear every night” about what might happen to them.