By Paul Goble
Historically, Buddhism has presented Moscow with fewer problems than have any of the three other “traditional” religions in Russia, in large part because its followers are concentrated in two republics, Buryatia and Kalmykia, whose leaders have over the last two decades cultivated and even deferred to the leaders of the Buddhist communities
But now a conflict has arisen in Buryatia, one that may soon spark larger ones for Moscow domestically and internationally. On the one hand, any conflict in one Buddhist area has a tendency to spread to others. And on the other, Russian Buddhism’s relationship with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism is a problem for Moscow in its relations with Beijing.’
The appearance and contours of the latest clash between the leader of the Buddhist community in Buryatia and the head of the Buryat government is described today by Artur Priymak in NG-Religii (ng.ru/ng_religii/2018-04-04/12_440_buriatia.html).
The problem began with Vladimir Putin’s appointment of Aleksey Tsydenov as republic head in February 2017. Tsydenov, an outsider who had a Buryat father and a Russian mother, does not speak Buryat and is Russian Orthodox in religion, two things that have put him at odds with the national community.
Tsydenov paid a visit to Damba Ayushev, the head of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia, shortly after taking office; and the new republic head declared that he was learning the national language and has even used it on some occasions. But for many Buddhist Buryats, his Orthodoxy means that few are likely to accept him as a Buryat, even if he learns the language.
According to local media, Ayushev is among them. He has reportedly told those close to him that he doesn’t like “the neglect” of Buryat culture and traditions by Tsydenovand does not approve the republic head’s appointments, some of whom while Buddhist, look to Tibet and the Dalai Lama and support an independent dastan in Buryatia itself.
In December at a public meeting, Ayushev and Tsydenov clashed; and after that, Ayushev and his dastan began to suffer difficulties, Priymak says, with the republic head’s people even threatening to call a meeting at which Ayushev’s continuing as head of the dastan and “official” Buddhism would be called into question.
Russian observers like sociologist Yury Moskovsky say that the ethnic Russian origin of Tsydenov and his ignorance of Buryat should not be the basis for a conflict. “In the regional policy of Russia, questions of language and religion are on third or fourth place” after power and economics.
He concedes that in places like Buryatia, however, “they can be the occasion for the exacerbation of certain attitudes in society via the media, social networks, activists and so on.” Given how tense Buryatia has been at various points over other issues, this emerging conflict between the Buddhist and the outsider governor could trigger bigger things.