Claude Arpi examines Russian attempts to broker peace between China and the Dalai Lama, in a recent edition of The Statesman:
Startling news often goes unnoticed amidst the daily diet of glamorous cricket. As happened on 13 May when Novosti, the Russian state-owned news agency, quoted the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov: “Russia is ready to help settle the conflict between China and the Tibetan spiritual leader, Dalai Lama."
During a speech in the Federation Council, Russia’s Upper House of Parliament, Lavrov said that Moscow supports the development of inter-religious and inter-confessional ties, though it is “against aspects of religion that have been distorted into politics”. And then, the news: “We are following carefully what is happening between the leadership of China and the Dalai Lama and we know that the Chinese leadership is deeply committed to the Dalai Lama dissociating himself from any kind of political activity and separatist tendencies in regard to one or another territory in China.”
Lavrov explained that the occasional attempts to politicise the Dalai Lama’s role as a spiritual leader have not yielded any results, not even in the context of his relations with Buddhists in Russia. “If all the parties make attempts to separate clearly pastoral contacts from political associations, this would be a solution to the problem. We are ready to assist in this.”
This statement was rather unexpected; first, because Moscow does not interfere in ‘Beijing’s internal affairs’; further, a few days earlier when the Buddhists in Kalmykia asked the Russian Foreign Ministry to issue an entry visa to the Dalai Lama, it was apparently refused, though Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, President of the Republic of Kalmykia affirmed that Elista, the capital of Kalmykia was expecting the Dalai Lama to consecrate a temple.
During a news conference, Ilyumzhinov clarified his personal position: “The Church is separated from the State in our country, but as a person professing Buddhism, I wait for the Dalai Lama’s visit.”
The three Russian Republics of Kalmykia, Buryatia and Tuva have a predominantly Buddhist population. These small, but strategically located, republics have nearly 1 million Buddhists representing about 0.5 per cent of the total population of the Russian Federation.
The Tibetan leader has visited the Buddhist republics several times in the past, but since 2007 the Dalai Lama has been denied entry to Russia. His last visit was in 2004, when he paid a religious visit to Kalmykia to consecrate the land for a Buddhist temple.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche, the Kalmyk Head Lama, recently confirmed that the Russian authorities have declined the request of the Kalmykia Buddhist Association for a visa to the Dalai Lama. He said a letter from the Russian government stated: “The Dalai Lama’s visit to Russia would be taken by Beijing especially sensitively in the current year marking a jubilee of China’s and our common victory in WWII.”
In these circumstances, the declaration of Lavrov is rather surprising. It is true that in recent years academic interest has increased considerably in the Buddhist republics.
Dr Garri Irina from the Institute for Mongolian, Buddhist and Tibetan Studies in the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Ulan-Ude (Buryata) wrote: “Tibet and Buryatia are countries very closely related to each other. First of all, both regions share a common historical destiny of Tibet-Mongolian civilization which is rooted in Tibetan Buddhism and submission to the authority of His Holiness the Dalai Lama . … Both regions passed through a similar history of persecution of religion and its subsequent revival . … There are more than 200 Buddhist communities in Russia now.”
A revival of Buddhism (the Tibetan Mahayana tradition) is visible in these republics located north of Outer Mongolia (Tuva and Buryata) and on the Caspian Sea (Kalmykia).
Recently, historians have discovered several documents showing the close connection between the rulers of Tibet and the Russian Empire. For example, 25 secret letters from Thubten Gyatso, the thirteenth Dalai Lama to his representative in Russia, a Buryat monk called Agvan Dorzhiev have come to light. The letters, dating between 1910 and 1925, demonstrate that the Dalai Lama was interested in getting political support from Russia, mainly to balance the British influence in Tibet and keep the Chinese nationalists at bay. The Lhasa government maintained strict confidentiality in its communications with St Petersburg and till recently, it was not known.
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