The grown-ups, or at least many of the most powerful ones, have disappeared from this provincial capital on the arid Russian steppe.
On Monday, the local government departed en masse, leaving Elista and the Republic of Kalmykia, a Maine-sized Russian province 1,300 miles south of Moscow, in the hands of a group of twentysomething understudies.
It has been proclaimed as an ambitious experiment to give Generation X-ers a lesson in hands-on leadership. But some say this temporary mass abdication is starting to look suspiciously like a cynical attempt to stall a corruption investigation.
Kalmykia’s president, Kirsan N. Ilyumzhinov, a charismatic self-proclaimed billionaire, declared this “Youth Self-Government Week” and ordered about 40 of his republic’s Cabinet ministers and members of Parliament to take a vacation on the Black Sea. Before leaving, each official left a hand-picked “double” in place to carry out functions of state.
Hand-picked, but not necessarily forewarned. As she assumed the post of acting president of this poverty-stricken land of 350,000, Natalya Kulikova, 25, divulged that she had found out about her appointment only the night before and then said she had no idea why she was selected.
“Er, we are not planning any revolutionary moves,” Kulikova stammered during her “inaugural” address, which was broadcast live on local television.
Critics noted that Youth Self-Government Week coincided with the arrival in Elista of a team of investigators from Moscow looking into a list of allegations of financial wrongdoing by Ilyumzhinov and his government.
Officials at the Elista prosecutor’s office confirmed that 15 investigators were in town and had extended their stay to the end of the week. Perhaps coincidentally, Ilyumzhinov ordered Youth Self-Government Week extended from his vacation spot in Foros, Ukraine.
“The commission is here, but there is no one for them to interrogate,” said Larisa Yudina, the editor of the local opposition newspaper Sovietskaya Kalmykia, which Ilyumzhinov has banned and has to be driven in from a neighboring region in the trunk of Yudina’s car. “All of the senior officials they are investigating are gone.”
The investigation is part of President Boris N. Yeltsin’s effort to crack down on the governments of Russia’s far-flung regions, many of which routinely ignore Moscow.
In Kalmykia, the suspicions center on alleged misuse of billions of rubles in subsidies for the region’s moribund collective farms and allegations that much of $12 million in aid for victims of flooding on the republic’s Caspian Sea coast was instead funneled into Ilyumzhinov’s private funds.
Kalmyk officials said Youth Self Government Week was inspired by a different Yeltsin campaign: for young people to get more involved in government.
Or at least to see what it is like to whiz around Elista in a sleek, white Rolls Royce with a contingent of bodyguards, which is mainly what Kulikova did in her first two days in office. There were factories to visit, mock sessions of Parliament to lead, recalcitrant subordinates to upbraid, a “war on garbage” to oversee, and a chess tournament to open.
Not everyone has been willing to play along with Youth Self-Government Week. When Baatr Erdneyev, a 22-year-old television journalist who is the acting head of the local television station, tried to juggle the programming, station employees challenged his authority to make scheduling changes.
“What do you mean, who do I think I am?” Erdneyev barked into the phone to one worker. “I’m the guy who can fire you right now, if you don’t do what I say.”
In fact, Kalmykia’s youth leaders have little real authority. Only the top posts in the republic’s government have changed - some of the real deputy ministers are still at their posts, keeping things under control.
As for Kulikova, the acting president seems to have mastered one facet of Russian civil service - inaccessibility. Asked whether she had spoken with Ilyumzhinov since taking over, Kulikova said he had phoned.
“But when he called,” she said, “I was out.”