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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Torn Kalmykia United on Putin

ELISTA, Kalmykia -- If anyone should be expected to defend local self-rule against a new Kremlin bid to centralize power, it is the people of Kalmykia -- the only predominantly Buddhist region in Europe.

A group of Mongols who migrated from western China 400 years ago, the Kalmyks brought Tibetan Buddhism, formed an alliance with the tsar and settled in a patch of open steppe near the Volga River. During World War II, dictator Josef Stalin grew suspicious of their loyalty and exiled all 100,000 of them to Siberia. After 1957, they were allowed back -- but by then their temples had been razed and their traditions tattered.

Since the Soviet breakup, this southern republic has undergone a cultural renaissance led by its elected president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. The multimillionaire has rebuilt temples, encouraged the revival of the Kalmyk language and sent youth to India to study Buddhism.

Yet when President Vladimir Putin announced plans recently to eliminate direct elections for the presidency of Kalmykia -- and 88 other governorships and similar posts -- there was hardly a word of protest in this Scotland-sized region perched on the Caspian Sea.

The republic's ruling elite and its main opposition largely are united -- each for their own reasons -- in a chorus of support for Putin's proposal.

Kalmykia's leaders gave the plan "a very positive reaction," said the republic's deputy prime minister, Valery Akuginov. "I think it's a good idea. There should be a vertical structure of power."

Politics in Kalmykia swirl around Ilyumzhinov, 42, who came to power in 1993 as one of Russia's new breed of fabulously rich capitalists, backed by voters who hoped he could do for them what he had somehow done for himself. Those dreams have been dashed, for the republic remains among the poorest in Russia.

Among Kalmykia's claims to fame -- other than being a piece of Asia that wandered into Europe -- is that the flamboyant Ilyumzhinov does double-duty as head of the World Chess Federation. Another is that the paternal grandmother of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin was a Kalmyk.

Today, Kalmyks are divided between those who support Ilyumzhinov, largely for his cultural contributions, and those who oppose him on political or economic grounds, charging that he is an authoritarian leader who has ruined the local economy through the corrupt privatization of state and collective farms.

The main opposition force in the republic, a group called the Emergency Congress of the People of Kalmykia, has staged protests demanding that the president resign.

Leaders of the group tend to define democracy by whether Ilyumzhinov stays or goes, rather than by whether the people of Kalmykia can elect their own leader. If Putin removes Ilyumzhinov, they say, it will be a step forward for democracy. "We believe that Putin truly aims to build a democratic society in Russia, and what we witness today is the moment of truth," said Basan Gorodovikov, the group's vice chairman. "By watching Putin's actions and what happens in Kalmykia, we'll know whether Putin truly intends to build a democratic state or whether what he has in mind is a police state. If he puts Ilyumzhinov on trial, and starts to approach every governor and every region with the same standards, then we'll know he's truly building a democracy."

Akuginov, the deputy prime minister, blasted the protesters as simply out for a power grab. He acknowledged that the source of Ilyumzhinov's wealth was not clear but defended the president.

"He propagates Buddhist teaching, and he believes in it. He thinks not only about the Buddhist part of Kalmykia's population," he said in an interview. "He cares about all people of Kalmykia."

The globe-trotting Ilyumzhinov has tried to win popularity through his support of cultural and religious activities and his effort to raise Kalmykia's international profile through chess. His youthful face smiles out from billboards showing him with either the Dalai Lama, who heads Tibetan Buddhism, or Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II. Most residents recognize one or the other as their top spiritual leader.

Ilyumzhinov announced Friday that he expected the Dalai Lama to visit Kalmykia from Nov. 13 to 17. The Foreign Ministry would confirm only that a trip was under consideration.

Much in Kalmyk culture was lost during the Siberian exile, said Pyotr Nembrikov, 66, a retired construction worker who brought his grandson to a recent service at the Gendun Shedrup Choekhorling Buddhist Monastery on the outskirts of Elista. "When we came back to our homeland, and especially after President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was elected, a revival of Buddhism started," Nembrikov said. "Now we have to make sure our children know how things were done in the past, so they can pass it on to their children."

Kalmykia had more than 100 Buddhist temples in the pre-communist era but lost them all. The monastery is one of 29 temples built in the last decade largely because of Ilyumzhinov's support, said Erdne Ombadykow, a U.S.-born ethnic Kalmyk assigned by the Dalai Lama to be the top Buddhist leader in Kalmykia.

Ombadykow, 31, studied Tibetan Buddhism in India as a child. The Dalai Lama declared him the reincarnation of a religious figure of the past, giving him the Buddhist name Telo Rinpoche. Ombadykow became a monk, then left the monkhood and got married. But he is still considered to be Telo Rinpoche, and he is still in charge of promoting the development of Buddhism in Kalmykia.

"I don't really make a big deal about the Rinpoche thing," Ombadykow said in a telephone interview from Colorado, where he spends most of his time when not in Kalmykia.

He said he sees himself as an administrator, not a teacher or guru. "I connect people, between Kalmykia and Tibetan people who live in exile," he explained.

He has helped arrange for more than 100 Kalmyk boys to study Tibetan Buddhism in India, including 33 who are there now, he said. The students go to India rather than Tibet because that is the base for the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese Communist rule.

Ombadykow said Buddhism was reflected in the cultural identity of even those Kalmyks who did not consider themselves Buddhist believers.

"In their daily lives there's always some kind of Buddhist seed in themselves that they cannot escape," he said. "Nowadays, Buddhism is playing a very big role. The younger generation is taking a bigger interest in it. They're wondering what this religion is all about."

And that's what matters, not politics, he said, expressing a lack of concern about Putin's centralization plans.

"As long as our rights are not violated, as long as our traditions are given the right to revive, as long as we have these freedoms, I don't think we'll have any problems even if Putin appoints the president," he said.