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The spontaneous protest on Soviet Square in Ulan-Ude. September 10, 2019

How a shaman, a vlogger, and a communist deputy helped trigger massive election protests in an eastern Siberian city

Source: Meduza
The spontaneous protest on Soviet Square in Ulan-Ude. September 10, 2019
The spontaneous protest on Soviet Square in Ulan-Ude. September 10, 2019
Anna Ogorodnik / Kommersant

In Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia, a spontaneous protest has devolved into mass demonstrations that have now been ongoing for several days. Residents of the eastern Siberian city are demanding a new mayoral election and the release of 15 protesters who were arrested during the very first demonstrations. Among those detainees is the local video blogger Dmitry Bairov: The protests began when he confronted the city’s acting mayor about an incident involving the self-labeled warrior shaman Alexander Gabyshev, who was traveling from Yakutia to Moscow in order to perform an exorcism on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Gabyshev had been riding through the city in another individual’s car when the driver was stopped by police and ultimately arrested for insubordination. After Bairov was confronted by police officers and called for help, a number of Ulan-Ude residents joined him on Soviet Square. They included Russian Communist Party officials, who have supported the city’s protesters in part because their candidate took second place in its recent mayoral election. On September 13, Buryatia’s branch of the party announced that it had received a permit for a new protest in Ulan-Ude. Meduza spoke about the situation with People’s Khural Deputy Bair Tsyrenov, who has taken part in the demonstrations since they first began.

Bair Tsyrenov is a member of Russia’s Communist Party. Vyacheslav Markhaev, a communist candidate, took second place in Ulan-Ude’s recent mayoral election with 36 percent of the vote. He lost to acting mayor Igor Shutenkov, who won 53 percent of the vote. Because protesters in the Buryat capital have demanded a new mayoral election, Communist Party members have a vested interest in the demonstrations.

Buryat Governor Alexey Tsydenov has responded to communist support for the protests as follows: “Bair Tsyrenov is demanding that the elections be cancelled. Excellent! So we should just ignore the 54,000 people who voted for Mr. Shutenkov?! So they’re not people and their opinions don’t matter, and only the opinions of the people who yell the loudest matter?! Is that how it is?!” The regional governor’s statement can be found in full in Russian here.


How did the protests in Ulan-Ude begin?

This is a case where nothing in particular preceded the uprising. It was a tiny spark that caused a fire. On Sunday, we held a mayoral election here, and on Monday, I was at work at the regional Communist Party office, and I was getting ready to go home early. When I got outside, an acquaintance of mine walked up to me and asked whether I’d seen a video that was made by an activist and blogger named Dmitry Bairov. He showed me the video (see below): Bairov was talking to the newly elected mayor, Igor Shutenkov, in a pretty harsh and emotionally charged way. You could even say he was being a bit too rude. But people are allowed to ask government officials harsh questions.

Note: This video includes uncensored profanity.
Acting Ulan-Ude Mayor Igor Shutenkov and video blogger Dmitry Bairov. September 9, 2019
The Republic of Buryatia

Then, Bairov started livestreaming from his car. He had barricaded himself inside, and there were police officers standing all around it. He started asking for help. I decided to go over there and figure out what was happening. Fortunately, I wasn’t far from the main square [Soviet Square], where Dmitry Bairov’s car was. When I got there, I saw that a group of police officers had surrounded the car, and it was blocked from behind by a fire truck. The police officers couldn’t give me a straight answer to the question “What’s going on?”

Gradually, people started gathering around who had responded to [Bairov’s] calls for help. It turned out that another young man had approached the police before I did, but he didn’t have deputy status, so he was arrested. The next day, he got a fine for insubordination to the police.

In the video, what Bairov says is pretty disjointed. What exactly did he want from the mayor?

A driver who was giving a ride to the shaman Alexander Gabyshev has been put in jail illegally here for 13 days. He’s been accused of insubordination to the police. His Gazel car disappeared, too. That’s what Bairov was interested in.

How did people start gathering in the square?

I can speak for myself on that count: I had a lot of concerns about the situation, and I was worried that Bairov was in danger. So I decided to stay in the square overnight, and I parked my car next to his. In the meantime, people just kept coming. There were a few dozen people in the end.

When it got dark, we were told that OMON [riot police] vehicles were already nearby. I checked and saw that they really were — there were two “Pazik” buses and a Kamaz truck. That night, everybody just talked about the situation. Nobody chanted anything or held up signs. Everything was very calm. One of the people in the square had gotten there by bus — another Pazik — and we also brought in an official Communist Party car.

At eight in the morning, firefighters started asking for the vehicles to be moved, but the drivers weren’t there anymore, so I started looking for them. All of a sudden, without any warning, the police officers started pulling me somewhere, and people in civilian dress joined in to help them. The crowd started trying to pull me away, and they managed to succeed. I barricaded myself in my car and started calling the police and the prosecutor on duty to report that someone had tried to kidnap me. I have deputy status, so the police are supposed to respond quickly, but there still hasn’t been any response even though I even contacted the chair of the People’s Khural, who also called the prosecutors’ office.

In the end, I decided not to leave the car until the heads of the regional FSB and the police and the governor and the chair of the Khural would come and explain what was going on. I was scared — no joke: I’m in the street, and somebody comes up and grabs me and pulls me toward their car, and the police don’t do anything. In any normal situation, people would be bending over backwards to help.

Russian National Guard troops disperse a protest on Soviet Square in Ulan-Ude. September 10, 2019
Anna Zuyeva for OTR Buryatia

Nobody from the government ever responded?

One of the governor’s deputies, who [like me] is also named Bair Tsyrenov, did talk to me. He suggested that I persuade the crowd to disperse. But how could I do that? I didn’t bring them together. In the end, we were promised a violent dispersal. I warned the crowd that anyone who was afraid for their lives would do best to leave.

Sure enough, not long after that, people started screaming, and armored riot police started jumping out with their batons ready. They broke the windows in my car and Bairov’s car and started violently arresting people. We were taken to the police station, and then we had a court hearing. They tried to charge me with organizing a protest without a permit, but they didn’t have any proof, so they fined me 15,000 rubles ($232) for participating in an unpermitted public event.

In that time, the Communist Party had gotten another car into the square, and I decided that the safest place to be was the square itself. At least there, you’re visible, and it’s not so scary for that reason. The next night, everybody was in the bus, so there wasn’t any kind of unpermitted protest. I went into the bus, too, and then two people wearing hoodies came in right afterwards. I think they were police officers. Because in the arrest papers, it says that 17 people were arrested in the bus, but only 15 were taken to the police station. Two people got lost in there somewhere.

At some point, Russian National Guard officers surrounded the bus, and we heard the sound of gas being released. I think they wanted to smoke us out of the bus. They pulled people out of it very violently. Senator Vyacheslav Markhaev’s sister was pulled out by her arms and legs, and they hit one of the young women over the steps of the bus several times. They broke a lot of people’s phones. That was on the night of September 11. I showed them my deputy’s papers, but that didn’t help me any. They violently arrested me once again.

What’s going on with the protests in Ulan-Ude now?

I’ve announced that tomorrow, there’s going to be a permitted protest. We applied for a permit before the protests started, and our old application is still in the negotiation process. But they obviously won’t give us the main square. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have smoked us out of the bus that way. It looks like there’s going to be some kind of celebratory event there that City Hall organized at the last minute.

What are the protest’s demands going to be?

To free political prisoners — [the video blogger] Dmitry Bairov and the head of [opposition politician Alexey] Navalny’s local office, who was also arrested. Now, they’re also accusing a young man of releasing gas into the bus, though I think the police did that.

During the previous protests, people were calling for new mayoral elections. Is that the main slogan here?

That was on the first night. People gathered spontaneously and called for various things, and that included conversations about the election. In many ways, that became a kind of unifying topic.

Did the question of ethnicity come up?

Any talk of ethnically motivated slogans is a provocation. Dmitry Bairov said in his video, “Buryats, where are you?” But here, when we say “Buryats,” we mean everybody who lives in the republic: Buryats, Russians, Ukrainians. Dmitry asked for support from everybody, and there was no ethnic subtext there. In that sense, our region is very calm all around: In the 1990s, the question of interethnic relations came up in the Northern Caucasus and even in Yakutia and Tyva. In Buryatia, we didn’t have any of that at all. Our governor was Russian. And so what? Every once in a while, somebody tries to ignite that situation, but they just can’t make it happen!

How are the protests going to develop?

It’s very hard to say. I think the permitted protest will attract a lot of people. Like many residents of this republic, I’m waiting for a response from the government on the problems that have piled up in the last few days. Strangers are grabbing people in the streets, beating them up, and the government isn’t doing anything. Does the government even exist? They should at least say, “Yes, those were police officers and OMON officers,” and explain why there were such violent arrests. Until that happens, nothing’s going to calm down. I’m a human being — I have an instinct for self-defense. I’m going to call on people to defend me if I feel like I’m in danger, and I’m prepared to defend them, too.

Interview by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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