Politics has become somewhat of a dirty word in Buddhist life. Sometimes, this is for legitimate reasons. However, if we are to be consistent, then we should welcome and support those who become statesmen with a genuine wish to benefit their people and whose vision has common ground with our Buddhist values. Zoya Sandzhieva, minister for economy and trade in the Russian republic of Kalmykia (one of the three Buddhist republics in the Russian Federation), is one such estimable figure in government.
Recently, Mrs. Sandzhieva was in Moscow to discuss Kalmykia’s future economic direction. As I’ve detailed in a past interview with her, her priority is to improve Kalmykia’s economy: improving the Republic’s investment potential, eliminating unnecessary bureaucratic barriers for red tape, and broadening domestic and international economic relationships. I follow her activities (anyone can on her Facebook page) and from what I’ve seen, she is an extremely hardworking lady who knows the gravity of her duty, but understands that she must be exemplary in behaviour and personality: optimistic, joyful, and energetic. She enjoys fulfilling her calling and this authenticity is a powerful attractor.
A committed public servant and civil leader, Mrs. Sandzhieva sees politics as an activity of restoring hope. It is a view shared by many of her fellow Kalmykians: that there is a need for a restoration of the republic’s entrepreneurial environment, a restoration of traditional Kalmyk culture, and a restoration of optimism in their homeland. Zoya believes that personal empowerment will allow people to be and feel like responsible stakeholders in society, allowing them more social and economic room to move in a selfless manner. She has an accurate understanding of what motivates people to action.
Zoya is well aware of the challenges. Kalmykia, at 76,100 square kilometers, is larger than Ireland or Sri Lanka, yet its population is less than 300,000. Ireland and Sri Lanka have populations of 4.7 million and 21 million respectively. It also has relatively little natural resources, and it only started to recover from the final years of Soviet rule in the 1990s. Kalmykia’s government needs to be ambitious about infrastructure, including the transport links in the capital of Elista and the roads between the republic’s cities (I loved visiting Elista’s Chess City in 2015, although I was easily beaten by one of the casual players). Restoring Kalmykia economically is absolutely tied with its cultural and religious recovery. While I’m personally more knowledgable about the latter, I see Mrs. Sandzhieva’s role in the former as absolutely critical.
Kalmykia is a land steeped in a significance, a greatness, that is not fully appreciated. One is struck by how much history is embodied in not just the Mongol and Russian heritage of Kalmykia’s people, but in the very land itself. Its borders sit just north of the Caspian Sea, smack-bang in the heart of the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. Kalmykia is therefore in the heart of Eurasia, along the ancient Silk Road before there even were routes from China westwards.
It is the Pontic-Caspian Steppe that has been identified as the homeland of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European (the Kurgan hypothesis), which is the crucial hypothetical mother of the Indo-European languages that came to spread all across Eurasia, from Germania to India. For successive world ages, the Pontic-Caspian Steppe was the throbbing heart, the criss-crossing intersection, of the world economy and its Central Eurasian cultures, including the peripheral empires that mutually influenced and were influenced by it: China and its cultural orbit of East Asia, the Ural-Altaic world, the Indo-Aryan/Indo-Iranian and Near Eastern cultural spheres, and Greco-Roman civilization (with all its European neighbours).
Realizing that their homeland was once the centre of the world should be a heavy weight on a contemporary politician’s shoulders, but it’s one that brings great honour and dignity. I feel that Zoya is in this enviable position.
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