Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Saami Follow Lead of Their Co-Ethnics in Scandinavia

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 27 – Explicitly drawing on the experience of their co-ethnic Laplanders in Sweden, Norway and Finland, the leaders of the 1790 Saami in Russia’s Murmansk Oblast want to set up their own parliament to control the dispersal of government funds allocated to their numerically small nationality.
Such a borrowing from Scandinavia, where Saami parliaments have existed for many years and play an important role in government decision making about this community, not only could help to maintain the Saami ethnic group in the Russian North but also become a model for other small nationalities there.
But Russian officials have already indicated that while they will not oppose the formation of this group, they cannot give it the budgetary authority the Saami seek because Russian law prohibits handing over such powers to any non-governmental organization (http://www.b-port.com/info/smi/rg/?issue=3486&article=65294).
Last week, Saami leaders met to discuss the formation of such a body. They did so because many of them believe that the Murmansk authorities are not using the money they have allocated for ethnic minorities in a rational way in large part because they have failed to consult the minorities themselves.
In 2006, the Murmansk oblast government approved a three-year, 65 million ruble (2.6 million U.S. dollar) program to promote reindeer herding and education among the Saami and other numerically small ethnic communities. These funds are being spent on peoples who form less than one percent of the region’s population.
Saami community leaders, like Nina Afanas’eva, who heads the Association of Kola Saami, argue that the only way to guarantee that such large numbers of money – more than 1400 U.S. dollars per person – is to have a Saami parliament be in charge of their use.
Russian officials reject such an arrangement and point out that the Saami already have large number of public bodies, including three social organizations, two national cultural autonomies, and more than 20 communal groups, far more than would appear to be necessary to advise on and then help resolve all current issues.
But what is intriguing about all this is not the objections of the officials but rather the growing awareness of the Saami about what their co-ethnic communities abroad are doing and their insistence that the Russian government give them the same opportunities those in other countries have.
That may not happen anytime soon, but other numerically small ethnic groups in the Russian North are certain to be watching the Saami case in Murmansk and may advance similar demands, especially as both the Arctic and interest in that region heat up over the coming decades.

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