Staunton, November 19 – Russian officials four days ago dispatched a special forces unit to quell a conflict between Tuvin contract soldiers in the Russian army and residents of Nizhneudinsk in Irkutsk Oblast lest the situation get out of control, an indication that civil-military and ethnic tensions in Russia may be growing.
Four trucks carrying 15 to 20 local people came into the city and began to beat the soldiers,” many of whom were ethnic Tuvins. Fighting broke out between the two groups, and the Tuvin soldiers then organized a protest march through the city’s main square (rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/564c323e9a7947df9e8edc2anazaccent.ru/content/18402-smi-v-nizhneudinske-tuvinskie-voennye-podralis.html).
Who was to blame remains a matter of dispute. The soldiers say that local residents “provoked” them while they were sitting in a café and drinking tea. This was “the last straw,” some of them said on their website. Local officials implied that what happened was the result of personal rather than ethnic issues.
The police detained six of those involved, and “approximately 50 spetsnaz troops” ensured that there would be “law and order.” Indicative that the situation may have been more serious than Russian sources indicate, the head of the Tuvin Republic, Sholban Kara-ool issued a statement.
He said that “I know that our boys are patriotic and international. What could have happened and for what cause needs to be clarified and measures taken” so that such “impermissible” behavior – and he didn’t say whether this was by the soldiers or by the population – is not repeated.
Relations between Tuvins and ethnic Russians often have not been good. In 1990, anti-Russian protests sparked the beginning of a mass exodus of ethnic Russians from the historically Buddhist republic. As a result, the share of ethnic Russians in the population fell from 32 percent in 1989 to 16 percent in 1991.
The isolated land-locked republic which has a population of just over 300,000 and is located next to Irkutsk Oblast is known if at all for the remarkable diamond-shaped stamps it issued when it was independent prior to 1944 and for the interest the late American physicist Richard Feynman showed to it, as recounted by Ralph Leighton in his book, “Tuva or Bust!” (1991)