Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian North Deserves Better Treatment and More Respect

Paul Goble

Baku, January 22 – Not only do the numerically small ethnic groups of Russia’s north suffer from poor services and the absence of links to the outside world, despite their region’s contribution to the economy, but they suffer from abuse in the post-Soviet media which appear to treat them all as one enormous and inappropriate Chukchi joke.
Now, however, their representatives in the parliament and the leaders of their NGOs are fighting back, calling attention to the injustice of the ways they are treated in life and in the press and demanding that the Russian state do more, with explicit threats that if Moscow does not, they will appeal to international agencies to force its hand.
At the end of last week, Gennadiy Oleynik, who represents the Khanty-Mansiisk region in the Federation Council and chairs that body’s Committee on the North and Indigenous Peoples, told Scandinavian journalists that “it’s time for Russia to treat the people of the North better” (http://www.barentsobserver.com, January 18).
He called attention to the growing gap between the contribution that region makes to the Russian economy as a whole and the lives of the people in that region. In 2007, he said, the North attracted a fifth of all foreign investments, generated a quarter of company profits, and paid more than 35 percent of the taxes Moscow collected.
But its population continued to decline – it is down by more than two million since 1990 and now stands at only 10.6 million. Life expectancies are more than ten years lower than the national average. Incomes are lower as well but unemployment is much higher. And more than a quarter of the population consists of impoverished pensioners.
This week, his committee posted on its website, http://severcom.ru/analytics/, a report its staff had prepared on just one of the areas in which the Russian North lags far behind the rest of the country and which leaders like Oleynik hope it can somehow get the assistance the region needs to catch up.
That is its abysmally poor system of roads and highways. Although the northern regions of the Russian Federation cover more than 60 percent the country, they have only 15 percent of highways. More than half of the 140,000 km of roads there are not paved, and many do not link many communities to the outside world year around or even at all.
The committee’s report, which was compiled with the assistance of the RF transportation ministry and regional governments, provides a wealth of detail about the roads in each of the regions and about the consequences of the overall weakness of this sector for the country’s economy and the people who live there.
One point the report stresses is that the roads are so bad that they carry very little cargo even though that is the reason many of them were built. Only seven percent of the vehicles on the road are trucks, a share swamped by the increasing number of private cars.
A second conclusion the report draws is the impact of bad roads on travel costs. Poor quality highways across that region mean that the cost of automobile trips because of breakdowns and accidents is “five to ten times higher” than in central Russia and “1.5 times higher than in analogous districts of other countries.
And yet a third is that the roads, paved or not, do not link the places where people live. In the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District, for example, only 35 percent of the 213 population centers have year-round access to the outside world via roads, a pattern that makes it far more difficult for them to get medical treatment or better jobs.
In addition to poverty, cold and the lack of transport, last week the peoples of the Russian North had to suffer the indignity of a snide attack in Russkiy Newsweek on their way of life and their supposed efforts to “blackmail” the Russian government into giving them more money (http://www.runewsweek.ru/them/?tid=149&rid=2310).
According to that magazine, the indigenous peoples in this region are too small to take over the country or pursue separatist agendas and instead “prefer” to engage in “blackmail,” threatening to leave, harm Russia’s economic interests, or to appeal to the UN not because they intend to do so but because Moscow will usually buy them off.
Moreover, Russkiy Newsweek continued, these threats have allowed them to live well by forcing Russian oil and gas companies to pay them enormous royalties and given them disproportionate and totally unjustified influence over the country’s political arrangements.
Three years ago, the journal said, the vice speaker of the Khanty-Mansiisk duma played “a decisive role” in blocking President Vladimir Putin’s plan to unify that small non-Russian region with its larger and predominantly ethnic Russian neighbor, Tyumen oblast.
The vice speaker, Yeremei Aydin, said at the time that Tyumen wanted to get at the wealth of his district and leave it “without a penny.” And he warned that “we indigenous peoples are being deprived of statehood. We will complain to UNESCO and the United Nations.”
In the pre-Internet days, that story, which recalls the racist Chukchi jokes of Soviet times that made often malicious fun of that small ethnic group, would have been the end of it. But now the indigenous peoples are exploiting the web to get their side of the story out and thereby attract attention to their plight.
In an open letter to the editors of Russkiy Newsweek posted on the website of the Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (http://www.raipon.org) yesterday, the leaders of that organization denounced the Moscow weekly for its “inaccurate” reporting and “impermissible” behavior.
The magazine’s portrayal of the indigenous peoples of Russia as backward, fat and happy is simply not true and appears designed to cater to the widespread xenophobia in Russian society and to business interests prepared to ride roughshod over the lives of smaller groups in the pursuit of profit.
We are all equal, the RAIPON leaders said; and the peoples of Russia’s North are neither rich nor happy. They do not get anything like a fair share of the wealth that businesses are generating in their region, and they have never been compensated for the destruction of their homelands.
According to official statistics, they note, industrial development of the North now threatens 40 percent of the reindeer pastures, and with their destruction comes the passing of a people’s way of life and hence of the people itself. And members of these communities are twice as likely to kill themselves as are Russians elsewhere.
RAIPON said that it was “confident that the indigenous peoples of the United States, Canada and Australia will be able to defend themselves from the slander” contained in Russkiy Newsweek. But they said that their organization was “obligated to defend the honor and dignity of the indigenous peoples of the North of Russia.”
And in addition to posting their letter on their own site and those of Northern peoples elsewhere, the authors called on the Moscow magazine’s editors “to print our response so that [its] readers can find out the other truth about the situation of the indigenous peoples of Russia.”

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