A land dispute between a band of Buddhists and a mining company part-owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich is coming to a head following years of stalemate.
After talks broke down between Evraz, a London-headquartered mining company, and a small group of Russian Buddhists occupying a mountaintop in western Siberia, local authorities have vowed to "resolve the issue as soon as possible."
Meanwhile, the Buddhists decry what they say are underhanded tactics to force them off the disputed land.
Shad Tchup Ling was founded in 1995 by Mikhail Sannikov, a former Soviet soldier who saw heavy action during the 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan. He converted to Buddhism soon after his return to the U.S.S.R.
Evraz claims the land Sannikov chose to build on sits atop a vast deposit of iron ore, which the mine needs to expand their business and keep thousands of locals employed. Sannikov and his followers never received a permit to build on the isolated mountaintop and have no legal recourse to stop Evraz taking over the site.
But with its photogenic, Himalayan appearance, Shad Tchup Ling monastery has become Instagram-famous, and each year the nearby town of Kachkanar hosts thousands of mostly Russian tourists who come to make the hike to the mountaintop monastery.
The issue of removing the monastery has been further complicated by the building of several stupas, sacred Buddhist shrines, at the site. The optics of Buddhist monuments being crunched into rubble by a demolition crew has the potential to spark an international outcry.
After talks with local authorities broke down in 2020, the Kachkanar Buddhists say a step-by-step campaign to remove them suddenly intensified over the past two months.
In an e-mail sent to RFE/RL on January 13, the Buddhists say they are in "a state of siege" atop the mountain and that both roads toward the monastery have checkpoints with guards that block any entry on weekdays and require a pass from weekend visitors.
The Buddhists say Evraz workers and "an unknown man with a video camera" patrol the mountain attempting to catch the Buddhists illegally collecting firewood. At the same time, the Evraz men prevent vehicles from carting legally obtained firewood up the mountain.
Evraz, for its part, says that despite having no legal obligations to do so, they have made repeated offers to the Buddhists, including a payment of 26 million rubles (about $350,000) and plots of land to resettle in a nearby village. But after a November deadline passed and the Buddhists remained in the monastery, a local official told reporters the Buddhists "are not behaving as partners."
Semyon Zagorodny, one of the Kachkanar Buddhists, told RFE/RL that it's "impossible" to relocate any of the monuments in the monastery. "Religious structures can't be moved -- they have to remain in place." In an apparent reference to Roman Abramovich, who has Israeli citizenship, he added, "It's our land, not the land of those people sitting in London and Israel making money from Russian resources."
More than 5,000 people have signed a petition calling for the removal of the monastery. The petition claims that "according to experts, from 2021 Evraz will begin to drastically lose production volumes from existing quarries" if they cannot expand operations toward the monastery. As a result, the petition claims Kachkanar locals "will not be able to pay mortgages or plan their future."