The protests that lasted about half a year in the Republic of Kalmykia, Russia’s constituent region located in the extreme south-east of the European part of the country, ended with the splitting of the jobs a mayor and a head of the city administration of the regional capital Elista. The protests were held against the appointment of Dmitry Trapeznikov, one of the former acting heads of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), to the post of mayor in Elista, the capital city of the republic. However, fragile peace around this highly controversial topic had barely been achieved when a new wave of discontent heaved – this time, against regional legislature speaker Vladimir Shtygashev.
Batu Khasikov, the current head of the Republic of Kalmykia, was elected in September 2019 by a wide margin, as 82.5% of the residents gave their votes for him. However, Khasikov’s first decisions on appointees caused an endless series of protests. In particular, people were outraged by the appointment of Dmitry Trapeznikov, one of the high-ranking DPR officials, as the mayor of Elista. Previously, Trapeznikov left Donetsk for Russia after the murder of Alexander Zakharchenko, a leader of secession forces in eastern Ukraine and the former prime minister of the self-proclaimed DPR government.
The first protest action against Trapeznikov was held in late September 2019. A petition filed demanding his resignation gathered about 2,000 signatures.
The protests were carried out until the end of January 2020, and the largest of them brought together more than 4,000 people. The participants said this appointment shows that Khasikov is under the full control of the federal government, and that Trapeznikov has no relevant experience or education – he even received the Russian passport only in spring 2019. In addition, activists recalled that the position of a mayor implies access to the state secrets, and Trapeznikov is still likely to have family links outside of Russia. The protesters demanded his resignation and a changeover to direct elections of the mayor of Elista. Explaining for the expediency of Trapeznikov's appointment, Khasikov claimed in his social media accounts that the mayor of Elista should act as an anti-crisis manager for the city: "In Elista, many problems have not been solved for years, and in order to start addressing them, out-of-the-box solutions are needed. I am confident that Dmitry Trapeznikov meets these requirements. He has scrutinized the city’s problems of the city and has taken the part in the expert analysis of problematic issues. His vast experience of working in extremely difficult conditions of the DPR will be undoubtedly useful.” In response to pressure from the protesters, Khasikov said that he is giving Trapeznikov a probation period for a year.
Badma Byurchiev, one of the protest leaders and a well-known Kalmyk reporter, describes the story of this six-month protest: "An online protest action held on December 22 was the first event steered by the activists. A new form of protests brought together representatives of the Kalmykia expat communities in North America, Europe, Mongolia, Moscow and protesting residents of Elista. All these measures allowed highlighting the story to the media. It attracted people’s attention and, most importantly, helped build trust in the virtual form of protest.” The previous meeting of protest in Kalmykia took place on January 5 and brought together about 500 people. During the entire protest action, participants were constantly detained and, according to their own words, intimidated. However, in the end, most of the detainees managed to avoid any administrative and criminal responsibility.
At the end of January 2020, a meeting of the Elista City Council was held. It adopted two major decisions. Firstly, the initiative to organize a referendum on direct elections of a mayor was rejected. Secondly, the job positions of a mayor and a head of the city administration were split. Nikolay Orzayev, chair of the city council, became the mayor of Elista, and Trapeznikov remained the acting mayor of the city – until the competition commission comes up with its conclusions.
In this regard, the russica2 (Nezygar) Telegram-channel wrote: "On the background of [Kremlin senior aide Vladislav] Surkov's expected resignation, Acting Mayor of Elista Trapeznikov is being tactfully pushed backstage. His rule is again in limbo until selection of the city manager is held. Trapeznikov has already done his job by damaging Khasikov's popularity rating.” Vitaly Arkov, founder of the PolitRUS expert and analytical project, believes that the actions against Trapeznikov's appointment -- by the way, Kalmykia has never faced any lingering protests of this kind before -- may force federal authorities to seriously consider the idea of reverting to direct vote at least in major regional and regional centers.
Commenting on Trapeznikov, Arkov notes that, the results of his work as mayor in the autumn and winter showed that he is quite an experienced and skilled manager. This fact surprised both Elista residents and the region leader. However, the protests have already reached the point of no return; therefore, good performance indicators were not enough to stop them. “The list of demands of the indignant residents includes a return to direct national elections of a mayor of Elista, and the introduction of the duration of residency requirement for the candidates for this position,” reminds Arkov.
According to political analyst Alexander Saygin, the protests against Trapeznikov have actually almost run out of steam, and he got a chance to legitimize his position through participation in the competition. “In February, Trapeznikov’s candidacy will certainly be approved, since there are no other options,” he said. “Any new wave of protests is not to be expected. I don't believe in the conspiracy theory that Trapeznikov's fate depends on that of Surkov because Trapeznikov is allegedly his protégé.” His colleague Arkov disagrees with him: “It is possible that Trapeznikov will be removed at the initial stage of the competition. I think it will be clear already at the stage of candidates’ registration. Or there is a possibility that not only a candidate from the protesters may apply for the contest, but also a candidate from the local elite – the so-called “new team.” While Trapeznikov works as an “acting mayor,” the government has an excuse for the protesters, like we should wait for the results of the contest. The only problem is that the protesters have been already demanding Khasikov's resignation.”
However, before the story of protests against Trapeznikov calmed down, a fresh wave of actions took place in Kalmykia. In February, an unauthorized protest action demanding the resignation of Khakassia legislature speaker Vladimir Shtygashev took place in the center of Elista. As previously reported, on January 29, Shtygashev justified Stalin's deportation of the Kalmyks, a Mongol ethnic group living in steppe-lands between the lower reaches of the Volga and Don rivers, to Siberia and stated that there was not a single family among the Kalmyk people during World War II, at least some members of which would collaborate with the Nazi occupiers. The statement caused a wave of indignation among the inhabitants of the Republic of Khakassia. Surprisingly, Khasikov had almost no reaction to Shtygashev's words, saying that one should not justify the deporting of the Kalmyks to Siberia. In addition, he made a mistake in citing the number of the Kalmyk veterans of World War II who had the title of Hero of the Soviet Union (he named nine of them while there were ten people.) It caused heavy criticism and a series of negative publications in the media against him. At the meeting, the activists demanded the dismissal of Shtygashev and even Khasikov and, on top of that, addressed the leadership of the United Russia, demanding that they be expelled from the United Russia party. A few days after the meeting, its participants began to post on their social media accounts that they had received lawsuit summons in connection with the administrative violation. Batyr Muchayev, a candidate for the head of the republic in 2019, notes that the situation caused “protest” summons in the republic will have further repercussions, including those affecting the forthcoming constitutional referendum: “The referendum will not be delayed until May. [It will be held] in the last ten days of April at the latest. The situation with the referendum in Kalmykia is still tense. Moreover, as the air temperature rises, chances are the degree of protest moods is likely to increase as well because Trapeznikov is likely to stay in Elista for the time being.”