Since the end of September, the southern Russian republic of Kalmykia has been home to a protest wave. After news broke that a new mayor with a scandalous past was to be appointed in Elista, the republic’s capital, city residents began organising public meetings - three of which have not received permission from the local authorities.
Dmitry Trapeznikov, a political and military leader from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic", was appointed mayor of Elista in September - much to the anger of local residents. As a result, many activists with the “Elista is our city” initiative have been brought up on repeated administrative charges, receiving fines and community service orders.
More pressingly for some of them, Russian legislation states that, after a citizen receives three administrative charges, the fourth charge can turn into a criminal case.
With this threat in mind, protest organisers in Kalmykia have had to invent new forms for continuing their struggle against top-down decision-making - and re-evaluate their views on politics.
A direct line of our own
The first innovation came in the form of an online rally held on 22 December - a video conference broadcast via two YouTube channels (Elista is our city, Zaan Online). While 2,000 people tuned in to the live broadcast, the streams had 12,000 views by the end of the week.
I’ve been involved in the Elista protests from the beginning, and have organised and moderated the online meetings we’ve held. At the start, the idea was to mock Vladimir Putin’s famous “Direct Line” press conference, due to be held on 20 December last year. Our online meeting was also held a day before Russia’s communication ministry started testing its protocols on “isolating the Runet” - and perhaps this was why the internet was turned off in my apartment at exactly 5pm on the day of the meeting, just as it was about to begin. Perhaps the half-hour it took me to find another apartment impacted the number of views, but in general, our first online meeting was successful.
This new form of protest brought together Kalmyks in North America, Europe and Mongolia, Moscow and, of course, Elista itself. The event’s guests included Vyacheslav Markhayev, a senator from Irkutsk, and civic activists from nearby Ingushetia and Dagestan. Prominent public figures such as opposition politician Lev Shlosberg, political commentator Valery Solovey and sociologist Denis Sokolov also sent in videos for broadcast.
All of this helped our story get pick up in the press - and to engender interest (and, most importantly, trust) in virtual protest. Elista’s experience could be used elsewhere, in other regions, and in the future become a tool for civic cooperation across the country.
Furthermore, our online protest highlighted the fact that, for people born in Kalmykia but who live outside it, it’s still important to feel involved in what’s happening in Elista and the republic as a whole. Thanks to the ease of communication these days, those who leave still maintain close contact with friends and relatives in Russia - and their response to the Trapeznikov appointment shows that they’re concerned about maintaining national identity as a resource.
To be sure, this interest from emigres is a possible resource when it comes to resisting the policy of over-centralisation which Moscow conducts towards Russia’s regions. But to use this potential, we need to use online platforms in a wider sense - not just for discussion, but to make an alternative political reality.
Between time and space
Dmitry Trapeznikov is a flyby character in Kalmykia’s political scene - it’s unlikely he’ll stay in Elista for long. But the consequences of his appointment are already historic - in the republic’s recent history, mass protests have never lasted this long before.
The last protest on 5 January gathered 500 people - a lot less than the protests in Elista in the autumn, when 3,000-4,000 people out of a possible 100,000 came on the central square. It’s still impressive, though, given that before Trapeznikov’s appointment, the opposition could usually get around 200 people out - even for sensitive issues like the 2018 pension reform or changes to language use in the public education system.
Kalmykia is a place where, for the most part, older people, children and those who don’t want to leave their comfort zone live - and so the republic, of course, needs good contacts with its most active and ambitious representatives. And those who leave for different cities and countries need a reliable homeland - a place to which you can always return, where you can leave your family in safety, confident of good healthcare, education and environmental conditions.
So if the situation in Russia doesn’t suit us, when residents of Kalmykia have to leave to find work in all corners of the world, then why shouldn’t we make a more functional, global republic - a meta-republic of Kalmykia? This global project, involving “earthly” and virtual practices, could become a space where we can realise our common interests - a corporation with shareholders or a polity with direct citizen democracy. In any case, this new entity should follow global trends, be more mobile than the current regional political machine and create a certain competition for ineffective state institutions.
This project would allow the people of Kalmykia to decide for themselves whether they need national and regional identities - rather than relying on the will of politicians. We cannot trust the question of the Kalmyk people’s survival to a rotten state whose institutions - apart from the apparatus of violence - no longer work. The dominant political system has no future - it acts only according to its own sense of teleological time. Both the authorities and the opposition continually debate the past, leaving people hopeless about what the future could really look like.
Kalmykia’s “angry city dwellers” are looking for a real alternative. Elista’s online meetings are a small, forced but intuitive step towards an “open space” at the global level. After all, for nations facing the question of “to be or not to be” head on, the problem is simple: either create your own space to realise yourself as a political nation, or slowly drift into the River Lethe.