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‘This isn't the Donbas’ A kickboxing world champion becomes governor, a former Ukrainian separatist leader becomes city manager, and Kalmykia's capital devolves into protests
In late September, protests broke out in Elista, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Kalmykia. Elista’s residents were angry that Dmitry Trapeznikov, who formerly led the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic in Ukraine, had been appointed their city’s acting manager. Hundreds of demonstrators have taken to the streets so far, and local opposition activists have applied for a permit to hold a larger protest on Sunday, October 13. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev reported on how a pro-Russian politician from eastern Ukraine turned up in a southern Russian republic and why his appearance has put a stop to what seemed to be the glorious political rise of former world kickboxing champion Batu Khasikov.
“A prayer meeting with elements of a protest”
A commission of Elista city councilors appointed Dmitry Trapeznikov acting city manager on September 26, 2019. Batu Khasikov, fresh off the September 8 election that made him governor of Kalmykia, recommended Trapeznikov for the job. The champion kickboxer gave no explanation for his choice, and to many locals, it seemed like a strange staffing move: Trapeznikov had never been politically involved in Elista, Kalmykia, or even Russia as a whole. He was born in Krasnodar, Russia, in 1981, but just one year later, his family moved to the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. There, Trapeznikov, grew up, went to school, and built his career until the fall of 2018.
In a past life, Dmitry Trapeznikov was the manager of Donetsk’s Shakhter soccer team. Then, for a while, he worked as a businessman. After war broke out in the Donbas, Trapeznikov became the governor of the Telmanivskyi District in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). In 2016, he moved up to become the deputy chair of the DNR’s Council of Ministers. When DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko was killed in August of 2018, Trapeznikov spent about a week as the head of the whole region’s breakaway government.
Almost immediately after Trapeznikov was appointed as Elista’s acting city manager, he received a message of congratulations from Vladislav Surkov, a central political advisor for Vladimir Putin who curates the administration’s relationship with the Commonwealth of Independent States, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Unofficially, Surkov also controls policy in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, both of which are heavily dependent on Russia. “I’m happy and proud that our Donetsk personnel are in demand. Wishing you success,” Surkov’s letter to Trapeznikov reads.
A source in the Kremlin told the business newspaper RBC that it was also Surkov who recommended the former Donetsk official to Batu Khasikov for Elista’s top job. However, a source familiar with Surkov doubted that possibility: “Surkov hasn’t poked his nose into domestic politics since the moment he left his job as first deputy chief of staff [at the end of 2011].”
Soon after Trapeznikov’s appointment, from September 29 to October 1, about 500 people demonstrated in Elista. For a city where the total population is just over 100,000, that’s no small number. The protests had not received a permit, but local government forces did not interfere with them. Protesters themselves were also careful to avoid provocation: They gathered next to the city’s downtown Buddhist religious structure, the Pagoda of Seven Days, and billed their gatherings as a series of prayer meetings. Local journalists cautiously dubbed one demonstration “a prayer meeting with elements of a protest.”
Batyr Boromangnayev, who leads the local branch of the opposition party Yabloko, said Elista’s citizens reacted harshly to the new city manager’s appointment because “it’s not just that this outsider Trapeznikov isn’t from Kalmykia; he’s not even from Russia.” He continued, “People are tired of the constant presence of outsiders on Kalmyk territory, these appointees for federal office [within the republic], republic-wide office, and now they’re pushing an outsider onto the city, too.” Boromangnayev stressed each repetition of the word “outsider.”
After the first demonstration on September 30, Batu Khasikov posted a video message on social media telling his constituents that “we all know and understand perfectly well the state our beloved capital, our Elista, is in.” He listed numerous problems plaguing the city, from corruption (“every signature you have to get from a bureaucrat carries a price tag”) to infrastructure degradation and a budget deficit. “In my opinion, corruption and criminality have become the primary obstacle on the path to Elista’s development and the development of the republic as a whole,” Khasikov concluded. He then added that “the situation we’re in requires unusual, creative decisions.”
The newly elected Kalmykian governor argued that recommending Dmitry Trapeznikov was one of those decisions. He explained that the DNR official has “colossal experience revitalizing the Donbas.” That same day, September 30, Khasikov met with Elista City Council members and told them, “To judge [the city manager] by his actual deeds, we need time. Give us a year, and we’ll see what happens.”
In the following days, Khasikov and the protesters carried on something of a dialogue by proxy. During the October 1 protest, one demonstrator responded to the governor’s request to wait a year by arguing, “It’s like we’ve been given a mongrel ram, and they’re telling us it’s a horse, a purebred English horse.” Talking over a wave of laughter from the crowd, he extended his analogy, arguing that taxpayers are being asked to pay for the “horse’s” food for a year in hopes that “maybe, at some point, it’ll win a derby.” The demonstrators broke into applause, and somebody yelled out “Go get ‘em, you stud!” in approval.
In his September 30 video, Batu Khasikov also tried to respond to protesters’ objections that his protégé wasn’t one of their own. The governor recalled that after the Second World War, many of the officials who worked to restore Kalmykia’s agriculture were also immigrants to the region. He listed off the surnames of several officials (all of them ethnically Russian) and then pointed to the ordinary construction workers who came to Kalmykia from all over the USSR. “Houses were built, roads, schools — everything that keeps life here livable.”
On October 1, the same protester who had joked about the ram the day before addressed that point in Khasikov’s message, too. He reminded the crowd that the governor himself had said in the summer leading up to his election that there should be a “Kalmykian personnel reserve,” a registry of experts who had left the republic to live in other Russian regions and countries around the world. The protester said it would be more logical to invite one of those government officials to lead Elista.
“Mr. Khasikov got up […] with a very threatening expression on his face”
“Frustration has been piling up in [Kalmykia] for a long time. Corruption was flourishing under the previous regime as well. Some advisors to the previous governor, Alexey Orlov, are already behind bars,” Basan Zakharov said in an interview with Meduza. Zakharov, an active social figure in Kalmykia, chairs Tengrin Uidl (Milky Way), The Center for Contemporary Oirat Cultural Development.
Frustration aside, Zakharov is convinced that the appointment of an unfamiliar politician as Elista’s city manager was a root cause of the protests, not just a final trigger: After the appointment was announced, he said, “we looked at websites from the DNR and talked to people from the DNR who also had very negative opinions of Trapeznikov. He has no leadership experience in peacetime. There have been instances when Batu Khasikov’s appointments have been well-received. The agriculture minister, the housing and utilities minister, even [newly appointed Chief of Staff Yury] Zaitsev and the other foreigners were accepted all right, but not this guy. Rather a strange type, he is.”
The Donetsk-based political scientist Roman Manekin, who is loyal to the self-proclaimed DNR, also had only criticism to offer where the region’s former leader was concerned. He noted that Trapeznikov received his undergraduate degree from the Donetsk Academy of Construction and Architecture, which he called “one of the least prestigious colleges in Donetsk.”
According to Manekin, Trapeznikov spent the years before the Donetsk war working in companies that belonged to the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. There, the political scientist said, he “screwed up” on multiple occasions before moving on to run oil and gas policy for the DNR. Though he said he could not provide any evidence, Manekin also asserted that Trapeznikov was involved in corruption within the oil and railroad construction businesses.
On August 31, 2018, DNR head Alexander Zakhachenko was assassinated: He died in an explosion while spending time at a café called Separ among his allies and bodyguards. After the assassination, Trapeznikov filled in as the leader of the self-declared republic for a week. Manekin believes the former oil czar wanted to hold onto that role, but he and other members of Zakharchenko’s circles were “extradited to Russia all together” as power shifted to legislative speaker Denis Pushilin with Moscow’s approval.
How Batu Khasikov and Dmitry Trapeznikov became acquainted with one another remains something of a mystery. Khasikov claims that he and Trapeznikov “did government work together” a few years ago. On September 30, 2019, Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov responded to a question regarding that “work” by saying, “The governor has not undertaken any special projects in eastern Ukraine. Perhaps he did some other kind of work.”
One Kalmykian official told Meduza that Khasikov had once been involved in organizing a charity sports event in Donetsk. However, he added that the former boxer “hardly could have evaluated Trapeznikov’s talent for government leadership” on that occasion.
Meduza could only find one news article mentioning Khasikov’s visit to Donetsk: In December 2018, he said he would participate in a youth festival called Here and Now Fest that was set to take place in the summer of 2019. One of the festival’s goals was to promote sports on a mass scale. It’s difficult to tell whether Khasikov and Trapeznikov met then, whether they may have met earlier, or even whether the former DNR head was present in the region while Khasikov was visiting there.
On October 5, 2019, a Saturday, the new governor of Kalmykia tried once again to turn public opinion around: Khasikov met personally with some of the Elista demonstrators. On Instagram, he described the results of the meeting as follows: “In the course of the dialogue, it came to light that mistrust in Mr. Trapeznikov’s reputation and professional abilities is based on information obtained from unreliable sources on the Internet. Unacceptable claims that he is a traitor, a thief, and a criminal have been made. I have also pointed out that the selection process for the city manager is an open competition. I recommended that the demonstrators put forward their own candidates who have their own solutions to our capital’s problems.” The governor also offered the protesters a chance to meet with Dmitry Trapeznikov himself and once again urged Elista’s residents to “give him time,” “judge him by his results,” and not to “believe any fake news.”
Other, less peaceful accounts of the meeting also surfaced on social media. Local singer Adyan Ushubayev wrote on Instagram that one of the protesters tried “very politely” to explain something to Khasikov, and in the process, he reached for a bottle of water to use as a prop and illustrate his point. “Mr. Khasikov got up from his chair, walked up to [the man] with a very threatening expression on his face, went right up to the guy — forehead to forehead — and asked, ‘What exactly do you want to do with that bottle?’” Ushubayev continued, “Goosebumps ran right down my back.” The singer proceeded to criticize the new governor’s behavior: “What’s going on in Mr. Khasikov’s head? How can you behave like that? I’m honestly quite unhappy to see that kind of behavior. It’s unacceptable. Why did you have to show off your nerve and your power like that? Mr. Khasikov, come on, this is laughable,” he wrote. Answering his own question, Ushubayev mused that the governor acted the way he did because his bodyguards were nearby; “otherwise, there would have been 10 of us and one of you, and you wouldn’t have been the one left standing.”
Not all of the most active protesters were invited to meet with the governor. For example, Batyr Boromangnayev, the local Yabloko leader who was among the founders of the demonstrations, was not in attendance. “For the republic’s leadership, I’m a persona non grata, an enemy. The meeting mostly involved young people who attended the protests but didn’t speak,” Boromangnayev told Meduza.
Khasikov’s arguments that he had appointed an experienced leader to head up their city’s administration also didn’t prove convincing to the protesters. “He [Trapeznikov] has a shady reputation. We don’t need somebody from outside — he doesn’t know the city’s economy, and he doesn’t know the specifics of the republic’s situation either. This isn’t the Donbas; we don’t have a war here. The city just needs a professional city manager,” said Natalia Manzhikova, a legislator in the People’s Khural from the A Just Russia Party. She continued, “Trapeznikov has promised a lot, of course — he’s promised that he’ll draw investment. But where will it come from? The Donbas?”
Roman Manekin, the political scientist from Donetsk, shares Manzhikova’s opinion. “Trapeznikov’s no business leader — no business leader at all. To realize that, all you have to do is look at the DNR’s economic statistics for the period when he was working in the republic’s administration. In a word, it’s what you’d call a wreck.”
“You’re the one who’s going home”
Batu Khasikov, the governor of Kalmykia, isn’t just a former world kickboxing champion — he’s also something of a political record-holder. In Russia’s fall 2019 elections, he was among the gubernatorial candidates who won the highest portions of the vote in their respective regions: Khasikov won 82.5 percent of Kalmykia’s ballots, while St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, for example, won 64.4 percent. The protests that broke out in Elista in late September represent the first serious challenge for the young, Kremlin-supported Kalmykian governor’s regime.
A source in the Kalmykia branch of one of Russia’s pro-regime political parties described the mood in the republic and its capital as “very tense.” “The population of Elista isn’t large — 100,000 people — and the petition [on change.org] for him [Trapeznikov] to resign already has more than 3,000 signatures,” he said. “The most spirited folks have gone into the streets and shouted, ‘Trapeznikov, go home, we don’t need terrorists here.’ A lot of people here voted for Khasikov, and most of those people are against Trapeznikov now. We believed in the new governor, but now he’s brought in this comrade who’s pretty suspicious.”
The politician also named another reason for concern among Elista’s residents: Other emigrants from the DNR could be drawn by the city’s new manager to move in as well. “A lot of Ukrainians live here, and they’re afraid. If they go visit their relatives back home, they’ll get hit with ‘You’ve got a mayor from the DNR!’”
Almost all of the activists and politicians who spoke with Meduza about the situation in Elista denied that the capital’s protests have a basis in nationalist, anti-Russian sentiment. “The head of the city should just be local, from Elista,” Natalia Manzhikova from A Just Russia insisted.
Batyr Boromangnayev, the local Yabloko head, suggested that there is a nationalist subtext to the protests nonetheless. “The ethnic identity of the appointee has primarily drawn frustration from [ethnic] Kalmyks,” Boromangnayev said. “Meanwhile, a lot of [ethnic] Russians in Kalmykia favor the appointment of one of their own regardless of that person’s reputation or whether they’re local. What’s making itself apparent here is the ethnic discord that exists in Kalmykia’s social and political life.” The opposition politician added that “there are Slavs, too” among those frustrated with Trapeznikov’s appointment, but “their position isn’t as visible in Kalmykia.”
Boromangnayev also argued that “democratically-oriented people see Khasikov as a puppet for Putin, Moscow, the presidential administration” and his actions as “the opposite of independent, the fulfillment of someone else’s will — and therefore as shameful, suspicious, or undeserving of respect.”
The politician who spoke with Meduza on condition of anonymity explained that accurately estimating the scale and the nature of the resistance to Trapeznikov is difficult because “this is a poor region, and people are mostly busy making ends meet, so most of them are afraid” to speak out publicly.
A Just Russia’s Manzhikova didn’t rule out the possibility that the protests in Kalmykia might grow larger, especially as the process of forming the republic’s government begins to provide even more potential reasons for unrest. Following Batu Khasikov’s election, most of the region’s ministers automatically became acting ministers, and their roles may be handed over to appointees from outside the region, the People’s Khural deputy warned. “Batu Khasikov has already appointed a lot of outsiders whose relationship to him isn’t clear,” she said. “It feels as though he’s not acting on his own, as though there’s somebody else pulling the strings. It’s good for an athlete to do what his coach tells him to, but not for a politician.”
Batyr Boromangnayev expects a large crowd to show up for the permitted protest scheduled for Sunday, October 13. “The official organizers are the Yabloko party, but actually, there are a lot of groups participating and a lot of young people as well. There have never been this many young people involved in protests [in Kalmykia].”
Meanwhile, Kalmykia’s residents have been calling on one another to join the protest on social media. Many of the posts feature the lines, “Brother for brother, we’ll stand as one and beat you at your own game till the war is won. After all, we’re at home, and you’re the one who’s going home.” Those lyrics come from a song called “Too Late”; it was written by Dmitry Trapeznikov himself while he was still a separatist bureaucrat in Donetsk.
Translation by Hilah Kohen
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