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A Warrior Shaman And A Disputed Mayor: Russia's Buryatia Is A Region On Edge

Yakut shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev goes to Moscow to "exorcise" Putin
Yakut shaman Aleksandr Gabyshev goes to Moscow to "exorcise" Putin

ULAN-UDE, Russia -- From the arrest of an anti-Kremlin shaman and protests over a disputed election that were brutally put down by police to the arrests of local activists -- at least one allied with the opposition politician Aleksei Navalny -- signs of public discontent are on the rise in the often-overlooked Russian region of Buryatia.

The protests in this corner of Siberia were sparked by the detention earlier this month of supporters of Aleksandr Gabyshev, a shaman trekking since March across the country to Moscow on a self-appointed mission to drive the "demon" President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin.

But they gathered pace after a pro-Kremlin candidate won the mayoral election of Ulan-Ude, the regional capital, on September 8 amid claims of blatant vote rigging. The subsequent police crackdown on protesters only fueled the outrage, even prompting one National Guard officer to issue an appeal to colleagues not to use force against peaceful protesters in a video that went viral.

Amid these simmering tensions, a group of armed, masked, uniformed security personnel apprehended Gabyshev at his tent camp early September 19 in a village on Lake Baikal, on the Buryatia side of the administrative border with Irkutsk, witnesses told the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"The highway was blocked by special service units, they quickly surrounded our camp and directly went to the shaman's tent. There were probably several dozens of people," a Gabyshev supporter told RFE/RL.

The Interior Ministry in Buryatia, according to Current Time television, later confirmed Gabyshev had been detained on "suspicion of committing a crime on the territory of Yakutia," without giving additional details.

Trekking Across Russia

Gabyshev, who describes himself as a "warrior shaman," has been trekking across Russia on foot pulling a two-wheeled cart loaded with his meager personal effects after setting out from the Far Eastern city of Yakutsk in March. He says he is heading for Moscow to, according to conflicting accounts, either expel Putin from office or exorcise a demon inside the Russian leader.

Amid fears the situation could escalate further, Buryatia Governor Aleksei Tsydenov urged all sides to "slow down" in a Facebook posting.

The unrest in Ulan-Ude has coincided with a summer of opposition rallies some 5,600 kilometers west in Moscow, the biggest wave of sustained protest in Russia in several years. Unlike in Moscow, Kremlin-backed candidates dominated other local and regional elections held across the country on September 8. They won, for example, in all 16 regions that were electing governors.

In Ulan-Ude, the United Russia party candidate won by running as an "independent," a strategy adopted by ruling party candidates in Moscow and elsewhere, apparently to hide their affiliation with the increasingly unpopular party.

Shaman On Trek 'To Topple Putin' Seized By Masked Men
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WATCH: Shaman On Trek 'To Topple Putin' Seized By Masked Men

United Russia's approval ratings have plummeted after it passed a law raising retirement ages, increased the value-added tax rate, adopted a program to tax long-haul trucking, and cracked down on local protests in many cities against numerous controversial proposals for coping with solid waste.

Buryatia is one of the poorest of Russia's 83 regions, with unemployment hovering just under 10 percent in 2017, according to the Rosstat state statistics agency, despite the fact that Buryatia has some of Russia's largest deposits of key natural resources. It is home to 48 percent of the country's zinc deposits, as well as substantial gold deposits.

Shutenkov's victory in the Ulan-Ude mayoral election was overshadowed by accusations of widespread voter fraud and ballot stuffing, not least from Vyacheslav Markhayev, a Federation Council member representing Irkutsk Oblast from the Communist Party, who finished second in the September 8 poll.

Markhayev made headlines in August when he became one of only a handful of Russian politicians to criticize the authorities' handling of the protests in Moscow. A former OMON riot-police commander, Markhayev called the capital's response "unlawful and professionally incompetent."

In Ulan-Ude on September 9, some 200 protesters joined Markhayev, who called the mayoral election "the most devious and dirty among all of those I have taken part in," to demand a new ballot. The protesters remained in the center of the city overnight until police violently dispersed them the next day. Two alleged protest organizers, local lawmaker Bair Tsyrenov of the Communist Party and activist-cum-blogger Dmitry Bairov, were detained.

The protest lingered on until September 12, when police detained 17 more activists. According to Novaya Gazeta, police fired tear gas into a bus to force activists out, although police claimed the protesters threw a tear-gas grenade.

'Various Cases Of Lawlessness'

Before a planned protest on September 15, a local commander of the National Guard issued an appeal to disobey "obviously illegal orders" to disperse the protesters.

The video by Viktor Khorzhirov went viral on social media, attracting 80,000 viewers in just nine hours.

Khorzhirov told RFE/RL he was called in by his superiors on September 16 to explain his actions.

"I was prepared for the worst, thinking I would go in and they would fire me under some statute," he said. "But I didn't say anything bad [in the video]. I just said: 'Please, guys, people just like us are gathering at the demonstrations. Let's not resort to unlawful excesses.'"

Khorzhirov later took down the video not because of pressure from on high, he said, but because the September 15 demonstration went off without violence. His video appeal was "explicitly recorded for this protest," Khorzhirov explained.

The National Guard officer admitted frustrations have been "building up" in Buryatia, where he said people have endured years of "various cases of lawlessness," capped by the "blatant" fraud in the mayoral election.

But the authorities don't appear in any mood to compromise the protesters' demands for a new election and the release of the detainees. Instead, one of their leaders, Pyotr Dondukov, who also heads the local branch of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, was jailed for 10 days on September 17. He was accused of organizing a protest on September 10 for holding a one-person picket, his lawyer, Maksim Barlukov, told RFE/RL.

The blogger and activist Bairov, who had just been released after serving six days for his role in the protests, was rearrested on September 17. This time, authorities charged him with allegedly failing to pay 1 million rubles ($15,600) of alimony dating back to 2013.

Bairov and Dundukov had also spearheaded protests against the detention and treatment of supporters of the shaman Gabyshev.

Shamanism, traditionally practiced in the area and suppressed in the communist era, was revived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the local religious organization of shamans, Tengeri, is a legally recognized collective of practicing Buryat shamans located in Ulan-Ude.

Members of the Tengeri confronted Gabyshev in August not far from Ulan-Ude to urge him to end his journey to Moscow, telling him he "would stop being a shaman" if he continued.

Gabyshev has preached a political message along his journey. In the city of Chita in July, he addressed an estimated crowd of 700 under the slogan "Russia without Putin!" and said the Russian leader was not human, "but instead a demon."

He also suggested he was ready to use "other methods" if peaceful means -- namely, rallies -- did not lead to Putin's exit.

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting from Ulan-Ude by Maria Chernova of the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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