Siberia's Buryats Hope for Recovery

An abundance of precious metals, freedom from ethnic tension, and a new measure of independence boost prospects for future

RUSSIA'S deepening economic crisis has rocked cities all along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, causing some officials to worry aloud about the possibility of civil unrest.

But such alarms aren't being sounded in the Buryat Autonomous Republic.

Buryat officials, such as Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Shevchenko, appear far more relaxed than their counterparts in neighboring regions as they discuss such topics as skyrocketing prices or plummeting production.

As Mr. Shevchenko's explains it, Buryatia is a pocket of tranquility in the discontent stirred up in Siberia by the central government's radical economic reforms.

"The situation here is more stable," he says. "The people are not as tense and there are no movements to strike."

The reason for the relatively calm situation has little to do with living conditions. From a material standpoint, Buryats don't have it any better than their neighbors. As in other Siberian cities - Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk - residents here live in crumbling monolithic apartment blocs, shop in stores full of goods low in quality and high in price, and breathe air polluted by smokestacks belching black soot.

In addition, the severe cash shortage in Siberia has had as big an impact on Ulan-Ude as on other urban areas. One poultry factory in the Buryat capital, for example, began paying its workers in eggs, the Tass news agency reported this week.

Though seemingly in the same position as its neighbors, Buryatia has an advantage: It is one of 16 autonomous republics in the Russian Federation.

"Our rights are broader and our possibilities are broader too," says Nikolai Kryuchkov, head of the Buryat trade mission in Moscow.

Back when the Communist Party ran the Russian Federation, there was little difference between autonomous republics and other regions. On paper, autonomous republics, such as Buryatia, were established as homelands for ethnic minorities and were supposed to have limited self-governing powers. In reality, however, officials in Moscow administered the autonomous republics just like any other province, making virtually all the decisions.

But with the demise of Communist central planning, things are changing for autonomous republics. The Russian government is giving powers and privileges to the republics that other provinces can only dream about, says Mr. Shevchenko. "The riches of our republic now belong to us, and to a certain extent we are able to control our own destiny," he says. "It is possible for us, without the central organs, to solve our own problems."

Two treaties signed by Buryat leaders and the central government form the basis for the autonomous republic's growing economic sovereignty.

The first - Russia's Federation Treaty - was signed in March by 14 of the 16 autonomous republics. The pact, which broadly outlines the rights of the republics and of Moscow, was designed to keep the Russian Federation from sharing the fate of the now-defunct Soviet Union. The treaty granted the autonomous regions control of the natural resources on their territories in exchange for commitments to remain within the federal power structure.

Buryatia later became the first autonomous republic to sign a bilateral economic agreement, spelling out ties with Moscow in greater detail.

Under the agreement signed this summer, Buryatia gave assurances that it would not secede from Russia and pledged to promote the free flow of goods throughout the federation. In return, Moscow recognized Buryatia as one of the most economically depressed regions of Russia and promised to cover republican budget deficits with federal funds. Buryatia also was granted a share of international financial credits given to Russia.

Given Buryatia's abundant supplies of precious metals and minerals - including gold, uranium, lead, and zinc - some officials say the two documents open the way for the republic's recovery. "All the conditions [for development] are now in our favor," says Mr. Kryuchkov.

Shevchenko is a little more cautious about Buryatia's prospects. Many provisions in the two treaties are vague, he says, meaning disputes with Moscow are possible in the future.

In the end, it may be something that Buryatia lacks - ethnic tension - that contributes most to its recovery. Other autonomous republics are richer in economic assets, but their ability to utilize them has been hindered by inter-ethnic conflicts. Many ethnic minorities feel Russians are still trying to control the autonomous republics, in spite of Federation Treaty guarantees. In Buryatia, there's little tension between native Buryats and Slavs, who comprise about 75 percent of the region's 1.06 million population, Shevchenko says.

A strong Buddhist tradition is one reason Buryats, who have close cultural ties to Mongols, get along so well with Slavs, historian Galina Naidokova says. Also, Russian rule traditionally has been more mild for Buryats than for some other subjugated nationalities in Siberia, she adds.

"Russians never committed any genocides when they settled here, because they had different interests," Ms. Naidokova says. "The Buryats were hunters and herders, while Russians were busy primarily with agriculture - so there was very little confrontation." Shevchenko says Buryatia's harsh conditions are also a stabilizing factor. "We live in the most difficult of climates," he says. "There's no time to fight among ourselves."

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