Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Gas Development Threatens Survival of Northern Peoples

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 11 – Two numerically small nations of the Yamal peninsula – the Nenets and the Khanty – who together form fewer than 40,000 people have written a letter to President Dmitry Medvedev detailing the ways in which Moscow’s development of gas fields there has put their future survival at risk.
In the letter, which is described in the current issue of “NG-Regiony” as the functional equivalent of a referendum about the impact of the development of gas fields, the representatives of these two small groups say that the corporation is undermining their ability to continue their traditional occupations of reindeer herding and fishing (
Their letter says that “in the region there are no conditions for the normal sale of the production of reindeer herding and fishing.” Instead, the companies pay the Nenets and Khanty far less than the cost of production, something that is increasing poverty, driving many from the land, and leading to the disappearance of their traditional cultures.
And, the letter continues, officials have failed to provide compensation to the local people or at least in amounts meeting the need of the relatively large families among these two people for Gazprom’s destruction of their pasturelands and fishing sites, even though federal law requires such subsidies.
But that is only part of the way in which the gas giant and the Russian government are victimizing the Nenets and Khanty peoples. An even graver threat comes from “the forced resettlement into villages of peoples of reindeer herders,” who traditionally have followed the deer from place to place.
In these towns, “people, lacking the chance of working have begun to drink and to die, and this is a direct violation of human rights,” the appeal to Medvedev continues, something they say they are ready to describe as “a manifestation of genocide in relation to the indigenous residents of the North.
“NG-Regiony” quotes ethnographer Konstantin Kuksin as saing that “if the problems the Nenets and Khanty now face are not resolved now, then 50 years from now they will disappear from the ethnic map of Russia,” a development which raises the question as to whether this is “not too high a price for Yamal gas.”
Three things make this letter noteworthy besides its obvious moral dimension. First of all, it is an indication that even the smallest and most isolated ethnic communities are now exploring ways to express their interests and concerns given that many of the traditional channels they had employed in the past have now been closed or are controlled by large corporations.
Second, by casting this appeal in terms of ethnic survival, the Nenets and Khanty are clearly looking to draw support from countries in the European Union, the primary consumers of Russian gas abroad and ones whose EU charter requires them to extend support to groups threatened with extinction.
And third, this appeal suggests that a large segment of the population of the Russian Federation really does have great expectations for change under newly installed President Dmitry Medvedev, expectations that the government’s failure to meet at least part way could trigger larger expressions of popular anger and possibly unrest.

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