By Paul Goble
The Buryats, who have already experienced the results of Vladimir Putin’s earlier regional amalgamation drive, are reacting to new talk in Moscow about combining regions and republics by talking about their need to develop even closer ties with China and Mongolia, yet another way in which this Kremlin policy may backfire.
In a commentary on the AsiaRussia portal today, Gleb Ryumin reviews the current discussion in the Transbaikal about amalgamation and suggests that it raises two important questions: Who benefits from all this? And what consequences will the implementation of such a policy have? (asiarussia.ru/articles/12235/).
Almost a decade ago, Ryumin recalls, Buryats watched the absorption of Agin Buryat AO by Transbaikal kray and the Ust-Orda Buryat AO by Irkutsk oblast after Vladimir Zhirinovsky had called for this, a call many Buryats first viewed as a bad joke and then as an indication that their republic would soon be suppressed.
Over the last year, he continues, the issue of unifying Buryatia and Irkutsk oblast has been raised again, first and foremost by Irkutsk news agencies in an action some political analysts say represents “a unique form of ‘trolling’ of the residents of Buryatia in the interests f the Irkutsk authorities.”
Federation Chamber head Valentina Matviyenko’s recent more general suggestion about amalgamation has divided Buryats, with some experts suggesting that it can be safely ignored as no more than her personal opinion and others as a worrisome indication that the earlier amalgamation effort is about to restart.
But there is general agreement, Ryumin says, that any amalgamation effort will begin “with small but closely connected regions in the west of Russia or with those which are less well-off than Buryatia.” If Moscow decides to do something with the Buryat republic, experts say, it will do so only much later.
The experts base that conclusion on the fact that any unification of Buryatia with “any of its neighboring federal subjects” would not be useful because “it would give rise to too many problems” and have only “doubtful” value. It would open too many questions and provide few answers, they say.
Ryumin notes that “Buryatia has a close ethno-cultural and socio-economic similarities with both Irkutsk oblast and the Transbaikal kray. But the main pretender for ‘fusion’ in Buryatia itself is traditionally considered to be Irkutsk oblast because it is economically stronger.” No Buryat wants to unite with the Transbaikal kray.
It is “strange,” the Buryat commentator says, that some media outlets in the republic have listed Sakha as a possible candidate for unification given that it doesn’t have any common border with Buryatia and that they have ignored completely Tuva even though it does.
In large measure over the last decade the idea of amalgamating Buryatia with Irkutsk oblast has gained some favor in the republic because of the lower energy prices in the predominantly ethnic Russian region. Indeed, in Buryatia’s troubled Tunkin district, the idea of combining with better-off Irkutsk is “very popular.”
Buryatia head Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn is dismissive of the idea that there will be any amalgamation of any kind, but some observers see the latest discussion of the possibility as opening the way for what could be an even more radical reordering of borders in the Transbaikal and more generally.
Oleg Ayurzanayev with the Siberian Post-Modern Political Observers Group suggests that regional amalgamation has been raised in order to “test the reaction of the population” and “prepare it for much more significant transformations,” including possibly the inclusion of Mongolia within Russian borders or the formation of a broader Mongol-Chinese state.
Such things may sound “fantastic” today,” he acknowledges, but argues that “several years ago the idea that Russia could fight with Ukraine would have been considered insane. But now it is a reality” given that “we live in an era of the post-modern in which customary ideas and borders no longer are as clear … not only in art but among states.”
Given the possibility of Mongolia becoming part of Russia or Mongolia and Buryatia becoming part of an expanded China, Ayurzanayev says,“all fears about the unification of the autonomy are in themselves senseless,” nothing more than a testing of the waters for “a new economic formation controlled by China” in the region by 2020.
Taking all this into consideration, Ryumin argues in conclusion, “Buryatia must strengthen its business and cultural connections with these states given that the republic is a unique ‘buffer’ between Russia as a special Orthodox Slavic civilization and the Central Asian world.”
“As far as the role of Buryatia within Russia itself is concerned,” he adds, “it should pursue a course to raise its significance in view of the special characteristics of its situation so that Buryatia will be not a faraway province dependent on the center but one of the key subjects of the federation, not a border-region administrative unit” but “a bridge from Russia to Asia.”