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Europe's Buddhist dictatorship

In the Russian Republic of Kalmykia, south and east of Moscow, close to the Caspian Sea, the only peoples left in Europe after the Genghis Khan's migrations.


[elista] A sweet blanket of smoke from hundreds of incense sticks fills the temple from the red carpets to the green cassette ceiling covered with Tibetan characters. Three purple-clad monks sit with a bowed neck under the huge golden Buddha statue. Under the statue is the portrait of the Dalai Lama, covered with flowers.

The monks' shaved heads rock back and forth as they recite a tone-less prayer, and their hands rotate rhythmically on the small prayer drum, which sends a rain of hypnosis-like blow over people sitting together on the low floor benches.

Not everyone in the congregation is equally bewitched by the ceremony. A little girl with black braids takes a nap until she is discreetly poked in the side of her mother.

It is just over eight on Saturday morning in a small Tibetan temple on the Russian steppes. We are in Kalmykia, a Buddhist republic in the Russian Federation, and the only Buddhist republic in Europe. The country almost unknown to the West lies far north in Kakasus, on the European side of the Ural Mountains and Volga, with borders south to Chechnya and coast east to the Caspian Sea.

It is only 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed and this temple could reopen, having been closed since Stalin's time.

The Buddhist legacy of the Calm Jews was tried to be crushed under the common Soviet socialist culture. Stalin was one of the Soviet leaders who went the farthest in trying to undermine the population when he deported all calms to Siberia and leveled their temples with the earth. The Kalmykmen led the camps in Siberia for 14 years, and when they returned they had lost their monks, much of their language, many of their myths, stories and other traditions.

Now the Buddha has been reborn in the capital Elista. The resurrection of Buddhism in Kalmykia is noticeable only on a short stroll in the center of Elista. Along the Lenin Boulevard are – in addition to the old statue of Lenin himself – pagodas, buddha altars, Tibetan wheels of fortune, blue and yellow flags with lotus on them and sculptures of small, Mongolian sages counting a prayer wreath.

Kalmykia, in short, is experienced by the visitor as a small piece of Tibet or Mongolia that has remained on the Russian steppes following the ravages of Genghis Khan. Here the Mongols have been Russified and sacrificed vodka to their Buddha. Each time a vodka bottle is opened, the calamity throws the first sip into the ceiling.

From countless posters, the Dalai Lama smiles down, or he fraternally embraces the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of the Caucasus. On the surface, Buddhism is so present that it seems almost suspicious to an outsider. And when you lighten the veil, the suspicion is confirmed. Buddhism serves more purposes than just the spiritual here in Kalmykia. It also creates tourism and legitimacy for the board.

In December, what is now Europe's largest Buddhist temple opened. It is named after the Kalmyks' somewhat mysterious, pagan nomadic god "Belyj starets" – "the white old man", and the authorities hope that tourists will flock to from Western Europe, the USA, Japan and China.

In addition, President Kirsan Iljumzhinov constantly plays on the fact that he was the one who gave Buddhism back to the people.

Deep poverty, high Buddha

Kirsan does not have anything else to say after 15 years of mismanagement. For the everyday life of most softeners is far from nirvana, the Buddhist paradise. Kalmykia is among Russia's poorest and underdeveloped regions, and politically one of the most oppressed and unfree. In recent years, people have emigrated in the tens of thousands to escape poverty. Unemployment is high and enthusiasm for the future is low.

- No one can live a real life out here. As soon as people can afford it, they move as far away as they can get, says 64-year-old Fjodor. He is retired in the village of Lóla, an hour's drive from the ostentatious center of Elista.

The landscape of the cold and windswept steppes of Kalmykia testifies to a society in ruin: displaced houses, truck wrecks standing and rusting in grass that has grown too high.

Of what used to be the leisure club, only the brick wall remains. Ceilings, doors, windows and fixtures are gone. The old man with his furry face and hoarse voice had to say goodbye to his son last year. He went to Moscow to find work. Fjodor itself has not had a job since the collective farm was closed down in the mid-1990s.

It was this poverty in the wake of communism that brought young Kirsan Iljumzhinov, the "chess president," to power. He was an enterprising businessman with good contacts everywhere in 1993. As an election pledge, he would have to procure all the calm jewelery $ 100 if they voted for him, and in addition his own cell phone to all herders.

The steppe herdsmen who guard the herds of horses are still waiting on their mobile. Kirsan, on the other hand, has become the country's richest man. He owns 56 luxury cars and uses his country's frugal budget for his own hobbies and spectacular investments.

He is popularly called "Hans Kirsan Andersen" – because he tells too many tales, especially those about the many times he has been kidnapped by Martians and traveled with UFOs around space. Fortunately, the president is always put off the spaceship well in advance of important government meetings.

The biggest waste of the president is the "chess town" he built. He spent a sum equivalent to three-quarters of an annual budget for a new district to be used during the chess World Cup in 1998. After the championship, the district has been riotous and dead. Kirsan is also president of the World Chess Federation, and he has personally introduced chess as a compulsory subject in all primary schools.

His second passion is football, and ten years ago he offered Diego Maradona $ XNUMX million to play a single match for the president's private football club, which is in the Russian Second Division. But Maradona was on drug addiction in Cuba and had to break the contract.

In the fall, he offered Putin five million dollars to have the body of Lenin moved from his mausoleum at Red Square in Moscow to Elista.

All of this is good investment for Kalmykia, says Kalmykian Minister of Industry Valeriy Bovaev in his spacious office where two Kirsan portraits, one buddha and one Dalai Lama look down at the meeting table.

- Before, no one knew about Kalmykia and now we are known all over the world. People are grateful for this and willingly put their fate in the hands of Kirsan.

And it almost seems as if the minister is right. There is a long way between opposition and critics in the Land of the Chess King. At least after his most likely challenger, Larisa Yudina, was stabbed to death outside her editorial office ten years ago. She was the editor of the largest opposition newspaper Kalmykia Today and was one of the leaders of the opposition party Yabloka. One of Kirsan's schoolmates was convicted of the murder, but all the suspected culprits received mild penalties.

Today, the newspaper lives a life of exile. It is being printed outside Kalmykia and is being distributed secretly in certain stalls in a few markets, and this year has been nominated for the Norwegian Fritt Ord Award. All other newspapers are censored by the government.

- The opposition today is almost gone. People are afraid to say anything. Anyone who says something critical risks losing their job. And what are you going to live on then? asks Olya, who is a social studies teacher at the city's only private school. Almost all jobs in Kalmykia are either public, or in some way dependent on licenses, permits and good relations with the public sector.

Olya speaks from experience. Her husband and her son were both active opposites. The man lost his job, and his son never got any, after showing off voting slots broken up to CNN. It was one of the many choices Kirsan has manipulated to retain power.

One of the few opposition politicians in Kalmykia is Communist leader Nurov Erdichevich in the North Caucasus regional parliament. He moves the index finger in circles around the temple to announce what he thinks of Kirsan's many colorful UFO stories. But he doesn't laugh.

- People think he is insane, but I think he does it only to attract attention, and possibly to be able to declare himself insane if his card house falls one day, Erdichevich says.

He criticizes Kirsan's government for ignoring poverty and neglecting the development of agriculture, where most people work. He complains about pensioners who do not receive pensions, public employees who do not receive a salary – other than in election years – and patients who do not receive free medical treatment. He also believes that unemployment, which is officially only seven percent, is in reality 55 percent or more.

Until last year, the Kalmyk state profited grossly as an inner-Russian tax haven for large Russian companies, including Yukos, whose pro forma has placed its offices here in exchange for very low taxes.

The opposition's major complaint against Kirsan is not only the failure of politics, but also the huge undercutting of the money coming into the country.

- The president and his men are thoroughly corrupt. They take money from the budgets and invest in their own businesses, Erdichevich claims.

Among other things, Kirsan has its own vodka production, and his latest new industry venture is tourism. At the same time, he is spending the state's funds on a temple that will get tourists to Kalmykia.

The Democratic opposition has little hope of getting Kirsan removed first. The president has fingered every election for the past ten years, removing demonstrations against him with police assistance from neighboring states. With his border with Chechnya, he can always shout "terror" and claim that protesters are Islamist terrorists, although the opposition in the country is not even Muslim, but Christian and Buddhist.

The opposition had hoped Putin himself would get rid of the corrupt president. Ordinary regional elections are no longer held after Putin's "terrorist reform". Now Putin himself is appointing regional presidents.

- I thought I would be insane if Putin actually reappointed Kirsan, says journalist Valeri Ulyadvorv, in Kalmykia's only opposition newspaper.

But Putin did, and justified it with "stability in the region". So now the Chess King is in power for at least 2009.

The opposition's only hope now is that Kirsan is officially accused of being involved in the scam of the oil-for-food program in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Kirsan was a pronounced good friend of Saddam, and strong clues indicate that he was involved in the scam.

- Maybe it's me there is something wrong with it, but I refuse to give up the fight for a free Kalmykia, says Ulyadvorv, who now only manages to publish one newspaper a month, and must trust that Buddha helps with the rest. n

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