Altay Nations Struggle to Unite Against Kremlin-Appointed Governor

July 8, 2015
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Staunton, July 5 – Since the peoples of Altay learned that the elections staged to ratify the Kremlin’s choice of their governor showed that he failed to win in electoral districts dominated by the non-Russians, their leaders have been struggling to unite in order to put pressure on the government there in the name of their own national interests.

But both because the non-Russians form a minority of the population in the Altay Republic and because they are divided among various ethnic and religious groups, this process has been slow and difficult, with Moscow and Gorno-Altaysk playing up inter-ethnic, inter-religious and inter-personal conflicts to limit its progress.

The latest attempt at unity occurred last week when Altay activists convened an Ulu Kurultay or “Great Congress,” a meeting that failed to attract as many delegates as its organizers hoped and that was marked more by divisions than by unity as both Altay government and Moscow outlets have stressed.

Nonetheless, this meeting, like its predecessors over the last several years, is important because it shows how election results, even if the population does not believe they have been falsified, can trigger public activism and how voting in multi-ethnic regions and republics can both reflect and deepen ethnic divides.

And despite the assertion of Regnum that last week’s congress represented a failure, there is every reason to believe that that meeting is not the last chapter in this story and that those who have been organizing such meetings in the past will continue to do so, whatever Russian commentators think.

Located at the intersection of Siberia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia, the Altay Republic seldom gets much attention. On the one hand, it is often confused or conflated with the neighboring Altay Kray; and on the other, its small size – its area is only 35,800 square miles and its population numbers 206,000 – mean that events there seldom get much coverage in Moscow.

Ethnically, Russian predominate, although their share has declined since 1989 from 60.4 percent to 56.6 percent in 2010, with the Altay nation increasing from 33.6 percent to 34.5 percent over the same period. These figures do not perfectly reflect the ethnic situation there: Many smaller non-Russian groups, like Telegits, Tubalars, Kumandins, Chelkans and Shors, aline with the Altay people. And it appears the last census was falsified to boost the number of ethnic Russians there.

The Kurultay of the Altay People was established in 1997, and its first head sought to become the governor. But he failed in his bid. The governor who was elected at that time was replaced by a Putin appointee in 2006, and the future of the Kurultay as a political actor has been the subject of much discussion.

As Regnum correctly points out, “there is no unity either among the representatives of the indigenous numerically small peoples.” They have gone through a period of institutional development since the 1990s marked by divisions and attempts to reunite. At present, they are split into two groups.

Over the last five years, there have been kurultays in 2011, two in 2012, and now this past month. The first has sometimes been called the “bureaucrats’ kurultay” because it was controlled by officials of Altay nationality; the second and third were explicitly “alternative” and opposed to the authorities.

Last year, the governor named the man planning last month’s meeting to be the chairman of the republic’s committee on information and nationality policy; and many in the Altay Republic thought that represented the final subordination of the Altay movement to the republic leadership.

But the meeting last month showed that has not proved to be the case. Instead, in another twist, those who did attend the Ulu Kurultay chose a leader of the White Bone movement, a pagan group that has often criticized Russia for colonization and destruction of the environment but also one that is opposed by other members of the Altay nation.

What will happen next is far from clear. According to the Regnum commentary, “the idea of unifying public movements of the Altays” to put pressure on the authorities in advance of the Duma elections “has turned out to be discredited.” There have simply been too many kurultays for people there to trust the results of any one of them.

Regnum suggests that “it will be necessary to wait another couple of years in order to return to the idea of unity.” But that projection is likely to be wrong given that politics seem to be speeding up even in places as remote from world capitals as the Altay Republic.