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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Kalmyk Gambit

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 19 November 1998 RFE/RL) -- A threat by the leader of the Kalmyk Republic to secede from the Russian Federation unless Moscow provides more aid to his region threatens to exacerbate an already unstable situation -- regardless of what either side now does.

Twice so far this week, Kalmyk President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has said that Moscow's failure to provide assistance was forcing him to consider declaring independence for his republic, a poor, land-locked region of 317,000 people in the southern part of Russia. Unless more aid is forthcoming and soon, the Kalmyk leader warned on Russian central television Tuesday night, "We shall urge Moscow to give us the status of an (internally autonomous) member or simply secede from Russia."

The Russian media gave prominent play to the Kalmyk leader's remarks, but most reports downplayed their importance, dismissing them as simply the latest version of the complex negotiations that have been taking place between the Russian capital and its regions.

And in a move that appears to give support to such a position, Ilyumzhinov himself on Wednesday suggested that no one should see his statement as anything but an attempt to call attention to the difficulties his region currently faces.

Such conclusions may prove correct, but the reaction of President Boris Yeltsin and his government suggest that at least some are taking Ilyumzhinov's statements far more seriously, even if the Kalmyk leader appears to have disowned them.

Not only has Yeltsin summoned a special session of his Security Council to consider how to respond, but his press spokesman said on Wednesday that the Kalmyk leader's statements "threaten to destabilize" Russia. Meanwhile, the State Duma asked its speaker to refer the remarks to the prosecutor-general, and Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov called them "anti-constitutional".

This perhaps unexpectedly dramatic conclusion reflects three fundamental facts:

First, the Kalmyk threat to secede is the first by any regional leader since Moscow's ill-fated war with Chechnya. Many in both Russia and the West have assumed that no other region in the Russian Federation would risk a Chechen outcome.

Until this week, none had. But by breaking the taboo on this subject, Ilyumzhinov has made it easier for other regional leaders to take this step, something at least a few may now consider doing.

Second, by threatening secession to gain aid, Ilyumzhinov deepens Moscow's difficulties with the regions in two significant ways.

On the one hand, his demands seem certain to draw the attention of other regional leaders to the central government's growing inability to deliver on its promises.

And on the other, precisely because Ilyumzhinov threatens secession in order to get assistance rather than to maximize a nationalist agenda, his words are likely to resonate with some leaders of poor Russian regions as well.

At present, fewer than a dozen of the country's 89 regions send more taxes to Moscow than they receive back. Consequently, some of these poorer regions are likely to see Ilyumzhinov's threat as one they should make as well.

And third, Ilyumzhinov's gambit puts Moscow once again in an almost impossible situation. If it provides more assistance to Kalmykia in the wake of this threat, other regions and republics will almost certainly adopt the same strategy.

But if Moscow seeks to use force against the Kalmyks, a position some Russian nationalists might endorse, the central government seems likely to generate another kind of backlash, one potentially just as serious as giving in.

Even though a military operation in Kalmykia would likely be less daunting than the one in Chechnya, few Russian military leaders and even fewer ordinary Russians are likely to view such a military operation as an attractive option.

And consequently, if Moscow decided to take a dramatic step against the Kalmyks, it would likely face opposition both within the military and among the population at large.

For all these reasons, Moscow seems likely to move with great caution, trying to balance carrots and sticks to force Ilyumzhinov to back down. But it cannot hardly avoid responding and thus showing its hand.

And as a result, like the chess player he is famous for being, Kalmyk President Ilyumzhinov has launched a gambit that may ultimately work against him and his cause but that could in fact sweep the entire board.