An interview with Kalmykian opposition leader Alexander Ledzhinov

A year ago, President Putin reappointed Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as president of Kalmykia. Many Kalmykian residents were skeptical about this move. It’s hardly surprising: life in Kalmykia has become harder and harder in recent years, and many blame Ilyumzhinov for the deteriorating economic situation.

A year ago, President Putin reappointed Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as president of Kalmykia. Many Kalmykian residents were skeptical about this move. It’s hardly surprising: life in Kalmykia has become harder and harder in recent years, and many blame Ilyumzhinov for the deteriorating economic situation. In this interview, Kalmykian united opposition leader Alexander Ivanovich Ledzhinov talks about the immediate political outlook for Kalmykia.

Question: There have been rumors that Kalmykian President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov will soon step down and take up a position in diplomacy.

Alexander Ledzhinov: Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was summoned to the Kremlin recently. To my knowledge, the Kremlin is extremely dissatisfied with the situation in our republic. A year ago, when President Putin signed the document appointing Ilyumzhinov as head of Kalmykia, Ilyumzhinov made many promises to the Kremlin. For example, he promised that Kalmykia – where two-thirds of the people are living below the poverty line – would improve its economic performance. But nothing has come of this, besides many plans. To my knowledge, it is being predicted that Ilyumzhinov will soon move to a diplomatic job.

Question: But everyone seems satisfied with the current situation. At any rate, there’s no outward expression of dissatisfaction with Ilyumzhinov.

Alexander Ledzhinov: That is not the case. These days, people who promise much and deliver little will find themselves in trouble. But none of the things Ilyumzhinov promised to do to improve the situation have been done. Look: he promised to build a port with cargo capacities exceeding the port of Novorossiisk – and he hasn’t done it. He promised to launch a joint venture with the Chinese, to build buses – and he hasn’t done it. The same goes for plans to build a computer production plant and energy windmills. A year ago, Ilyumzhinov promised to improve Kalmykia’s living standards, which are catastrophically low. Nothing has been done.

Question: If that is the case, why is he still the head of the republic?

Alexander Ledzhinov: As I said – there are reports that he won’t keep his job for much longer. Dmitri Kozak, presidential envoy in the Southern federal district, keeps President Putin informed about the real state of affairs in Kalmykia. I’ve heard that the president was simply furious after hearing the latest report.

Ilyumzhinov has just proposed creating a “meat belt” for Russia. Essentially, that’s what he discussed at his most recent meeting with Putin. I won’t give my own views on this – I’ll just note the opinion of the National Meat Association. They had only one word for Ilyumzhinov’s report: crazy.

In 2001, as part of the Russia’s South project, reconstruction work began on the Iki-Burul-Elesta water supply in Kalmykia. The federal budget pumpted 179 million rubles into the project, with 8.5 million rubles from the Kalmykian budget. The water supply still isn’t operating. And now Ilyumzhinov is asking Moscow for 1.5 billion rubles for a new water main.

You see, Ilyumzhinov knows how to talk about new projects – he talks confidently and enthusiastically, and people believe him. But he doesn’t produce any results. The only reason he’s still the regional leader is that Moscow simply hasn’t got around to sorting out Kalmykia.

Question: But the Prosecutor General’s Office is paying attention. Rumor has it that it’s planning some major inspections.

Alexander Ledzhinov: Yes, to my knowledge, the Prosecutor General’s Office is currently investigating reports that Ilyumzhinov has contacts with the Chechen guerrillas. Kalmykia’s opposition politicians have repeatedly drawn the attention of the federal authorities to certain strange circumstances. There are rumors, for example, that Barayev, responsible for the Moscow theater hostage-taking, received money via Kalmykia. Given that Ilyumzhinov has been personally acquainted with many of the guerrillas, all this seems suspicious. And the Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating these rumors.

Question: Let’s talk about that in more detail. You have often said that Ilyumzhinov has contacts with the Chechen separatists.

Alexander Ledzhinov: We have some odd coincidences here. For some strange reason, all the most notorious terrorist attacks in recent years have coincided with “critical days” in Ilyumzhinov’s career. The Moscow theater hostage-taking happened just before the second round of voting in Kalmykia’s presidential election, scheduled for October 27, 2002 – when it wasn’t at all certain that Ilyumzhinov would win. In late August 2004, the Kalmykian opposition was preparing a protest campaign – and the school in Beslan was seized on September 1. The activities of the Islamists in Nalchik last year coincided with Ilyumzhinov’s reappointment request.

There have been reports that Ilyumzhinov allegedly has extensive contacts among the guerrillas. There’s some evidence – people, photographs. I’m not making any accusations. I just want this information checked out and my doubts dispelled. That’s all.

Question: But so far, this is just speculation?

Alexander Ledzhinov: Yes. We hope that the Prosecutor General’s Office will soon clarify the situation and release its findings. They promise to be interesting.

Question: Can you be more specific?

Alexander Ledzhinov: As far as I know, the Prosecutor General’s Office first took an interest in the statistics. According to RosStat’s comprehensive report on regional socio-economic development for 2005, Kalmykia ranks 79th out of Russia’s 89 regions, overall, and has the lowest real incomes in the Southern federal district. The average Kalmykian earns only a tenth as much as the average Muscovite. Yet Kalmykia is a free economic zone, and the federal budget has invested many millions of rubles here. So the prosecutors started wondering: where has the money gone? After all, Ilyumzhinov has nothing to show for it, other than Chess City, built in the 1990s.

Question: Of late, a number of prominent leaders at the regional level (Arkhangelsk region) and municipal level (Volgograd) have lost their jobs and been prosecuted. Is this some sort of nationwide campaign, and is someone setting up Ilyumzhinov?

Alexander Ledzhinov: Why would anyone need to set him up? There is indisputable evidence, after all: in the past three years alone, huge sums have been stolen from the Kalmykian budget. Kalmykia’s taxation authorities, rife with corruption, have essentially cost the state millions of dollars. Kalmykia’s last remaining key industrial assets are behing hastily prepared for bankruptcy proceedings.

Take livestock farming, which Ilyumzhinov proposed to Putin as a suitable development project, citing his own experience in this area. Look: ten years ago, Kalmykia had 3.7 times more cattle than it does now, and 4.8 times more sheep and goats. This sector has been devastated. And that’s the experience Ilyumzhinov is proposing to share with the entire Southern federal district!

Question: All right, let’s assume that Ilyumzhinov is gone. Who will become the head of Kalmykia? After all, Kalmykia seems to have a serious shortage of contenders – many of its politicians have moved away, for various reasons.

Alexander Ledzhinov: It’s a question of political will. Apparently, President Putin isn’t fully informed. Despite repression from the authorities, political life in Kalmykia is active – there’s an opposition which has already formed a united force. It has recognized and respected leaders, such as Valery Badmayev and Basan Gorodovikov. The most important thing is not to fear the word “opposition” – we’re not opposing the federal authorities. On the contrary, we’re prepared to strengthen them by strengthening the economy of Kalmykia. Governing a region in such a way that the Prosecutor General’s Office keeps having to inspect it – that’s unprofessional, and simply unfitting. At this point, it’s simply unacceptable.