Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Private Land Ownership Destroying Russia’s Smallest Peoples

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 2 – Taking advantage of new laws that allow them to purchase land formerly held in common, Russian businessmen are doing more than tsarist or Soviet officials ever did to destroy the foundations of the life of the numerically small peoples of the Russian North, according to one of the leaders of those communities.
In an interview in Moscow’s Tribuna yesterday, Pavel Sulyandziga, a leader of Russia’s Association of Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples and a member of the Social Chamber, argued that these laws are likely to push some of these groups over the edge to extinction soon (http://www.tribuna.ru/articles/2007/10/01/article9973).
Many “negative things,” of course, happened in tsarist and Soviet times, Sulyandziga said, but both the tsarist government and its Soviet successor “supported the traditional economic activities” of these groups – hunting and fishing – by allowing them to continue to use the land and water areas that had traditionally been theirs.
However, in the years since 1991, he continued, the Russian government has allowed private businessmen to purchase land throughout the Russian North, Siberia and the Far East, something that has given the owners the right to dictate to these small communities and forced the latter to use them as if they were poaching.
“We have reduced to the status of poachers on our own land,” he said, noting that in at least two cases – in Primorskiy kray and Magadan oblast, the government’s own forest service has tried to copy the private owners of land elsewhere and to collect rents from the small peoples of the North when they went to hunt in their traditional areas.
The letter of the law specifically gives the local peoples the right to bid on the land, he stressed, but local officials, either corruptly or out of a belief that their regions will benefit economically if private businesses move in, have done everything they can to prevent the Northern peoples from having a chance even to bid.
Because these small peoples live predominantly in rural areas, Sulyandziga said, it is easy for officials in these regions to keep them from finding out about such auctions. “And if by chance they do learn about them,” he noted, then local officials typically do whatever they can to rule the bids by these communities out of order.
When the businessmen owners then arrive, they behave approximately in the following matter, he added. ”’Comrade aborigines,’” they say, “the land is now mine: continue to hunt, but already [not for yourselves but] for me.” And even Russian officials set smaller limits on hunting and fishing than did the tsars or communists.
This is destroying these communities quickly, Sulyandziga said. Some 60 percent of the men and 90 percent of the women are without jobs. Life expectancy over all stands at 48 years, and in one Evenk village in the Amur region, officials say that it is only 27 – as a result of suicides and accidents.
These social pathologies highlight an important aspect of life among these peoples that Russian officials do not seem to understand, he continued. There is no possibility that any of these aboriginal groups would revolt like the Chechens did. Instead, when offended, many of their members simply kill themselves from shame.
When leaders of these communities complain about false Russian claims concerning the aid they have been given, Sulandziga added, “bureaucrats respond that apparently the aborigines want to seize” this or that region and make it an independent country.
To such absurdly hyperbolic suggestions, the activist said, he responds by querying “How do you imagine this will take place? By armed force perhaps?”
Although the 45 ethnic communities generally groups as the numerically small peoples of the Russian Federation live in more than 30 regions of the country, most are concentrated in Yamalo-Nenets, Khanty-Mansiisk, Taymyr, and the Chukchi autonomous formations and in Kamchata oblast, Khabarovsk kray, and the Sakha Republic
And they are very small: Altogether they make up fewer than 280,000 citizens of the Russian Federation, and some groups are now so few in number – there are, for example, only 8 Kereks, 12 Alyutors, and 237 Entsy -- that the impact of Russian land ownershi law means they will likely die out with this generation. .
Even the larger groups in this category – the 41,000 Nentsy, the 35,000 Evenks, and the 28,000 Khanty – are at risk if not in this generation then in the next, especially as their traditional ways of life are made impossible by the spread of private ownership of land and its control by outside business interests.
For many people, of course, the loss of such small groups is the price of civilization and progress, but Sulyandziga’s lament is a reminder that the death of such communities takes away from everyone a significant and irreplaceable part of the human family, one that can’t be restored even if Russian land use laws are eventually changed.

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