Aginskoye, Russia -- For more than a decade, Bair Zhamsuev oversaw a tremendous social and economic transformation in this remote, cattle-breeding region of Siberia. In 2008, though, before he was transferred to the Kremlin, Governor Zhamsuev encouraged the largely Buddhist population of the Aginsk Buryat Autonomous Region to support a referendum that effectively stripped its independence and allowed it to be swallowed up by the surrounding ethnic-Russian territory. Following a two year transition period, on January 1, 2010, the region officially ceased to exist, as it merged into the surrounding region, newly named the Transbaikal Region. The merger is one of several in Russia in recent years where regions with high populations of minority groups have been combined with majority Russian territorities. Some experts believe it¹s part of an effort begun by President Vladimir Putin to further cement Moscow's control over its vast territories. The Buryats, a formerly nomadic people of Mongol origin, with their own language and strong ties to Buddhism and shamanism, now fear a loss of their unique culture and reversal of recent economic gains. Before merging with the Chita region, Aginsk "had its own budget, its own economic projects, its own lobby in the federal government. In a short period of time, it managed to provide very favorable conditions for its economic development," says Nikolay Tsyrempilov, Chairman of a regional union of young scholars and a member of the Buryat human rights group, Erkhe. After the merger passed in a 2007 referendum, Mr. Tsyrempilov says Aginsk "became part of a very weak and ineffective big economic region. They are complaining now that the economic prosperity vanished very quickly." Pressure from the Kremlin to merge Despite the fact that 94 percent of voters in Aginsk supported the merger, people interviewed on the matter were almost uniformly against it. Government employees spoke of pressure and monitoring from their workplaces. Some cited the influence of then-governor Zhamsuev, who reportedly told residents that if the referendum didn¹t pass the first time around, Moscow would make it happen, but with less goodwill to the people of Aginsk. Media reports indicate that Zhamsuev¹s commitment to pursuing the merger was central to his re-nomination by Putin as governor in 2005. In 2004, government leaders in both the Chita and Aginsk regions were quoted in Russian newspapers declaring they had no interest in merging. A few years later, apparently under pressure from Moscow, they were lobbying their citizens to vote for the merger. Not Moscow's first effort at controlling the Buryats Moscow has long felt threatened by Buryats, despite their Buddhist nature and a history of peaceful ethnic relations. In 1937, Stalin accused the Buryats of Asian sympathies and pan-Mongolism. He divided the Buryat-Mongol Republic into three non-contiguous entities. Since then, the Buryats in all three regions have struggled to maintain their cultural identity. Despite the difficulties, Aginsk has maintained the Buryat language, become a center of Buddhism and Tibetan medicine, and maintained traditional Buryat customs. In 1993, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Supreme Soviet of Buryatia declared the division of Buryat territories illegal, but didn't take further action. In 2005, some 2,000 young Buryat intellectuals signed an open letter to then President Putin proposing to restore the pre-1937 borders. The signatories claimed that ensuring the preservation of Buryat language and culture without autonomy from the national government was nearly impossible. Two months later, the Kremlin responded, saying that uniting the three regions is considered unconstitutional because they don¹t share a common border. History of mergers Since 2005, five mergers have taken place between Russian regions. Each has involved combining regions with small populations, but sizeable indigenous groups, such as Koryaks, Komi-Permyaks, Evenks, and Buryats into majority-Russian territories. Though home to only a small fraction of Russia's 400,000 Buryats, the largest indigenous group in Siberia, the Aginsk Buryat Region was the only place where the Buryats formed a majority. Out of Russia's 89 regions prior to 2005, it was one of only two in Siberia where natives outnumbered Russians. Moscow argues that these mergers promote government efficiency and economic development. Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, Senior Research Scholar at Stanford University¹s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, says greater efficiency might be driving the merger push, but she also suggests another motivation.³ In the malignant view, Moscow is trying to force recentralization,² she says. "The mergers represent an incursion on regional rights and the stomping out of local cultures. There is that possibility. A more benign interpretation ... is that it makes little rational sense for some of [these regions] to exist." Aginsk a rare success story Aginsk is notable among the autonomous regions that were merged in that it had both experienced economic development and cultural revival in recent years. Its former leader, Governor Zhamsuev, established an offshore zone, allowing large companies to register their businesses in this remote area and pay their taxes to the Aginsk budget. The zone resulted in notable transformations for the population of 72,000 people spread out across an area the size of New Jersey. Residents, most of whom use outhouses and carry water into their homes, acquired cars, cellphones, and computers. New hospitals, schools, daycares, museums, roads, and housing complexes were constructed. In Aginsk, the most striking effect of the merger has been the need to lobby for funds from the Chita administration, which has become doubly salient as Russia experiences the global economic crisis. Money that used to flow directly from Moscow to the Aginsk District, now goes through Chita. Many projects that had been planned are now on hold, such as a school with the foundation already laid and a paved road to a national park. Teachers and other government worker salaries are arriving a month late. A slow but steady decline in the knowledge of the Buryat language is likely to continue. Meanwhile, residents try to adapt. Some leave Aginsk for the civil service jobs that have been transferred to Chita, others seek advice and comfort from local monks and shamans. Cultural activists, such as Mr. Tsyrempilov, are now focusing their attention on maintaining the autonomy of the Republic of Buryatia. The last of the three Buryat areas to remain independent, it is slated to be merged with the Irkutsk or Zabaikalsk regions in coming years. "We are a small nation and there are not so many scholars among Buryats," he says. "Buryats look at us and say, We gave you education, please do something to protect our rights."
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