Friday, February 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Long-Range Program for Indigenous Peoples Likely to Spark Conflicts

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 13 – The Russian government this week adopted a 16-year program to promote “the development of communities and other forms of self-administration” among the country’s smallest nationalities, a plan likely to increase activism among these groups and to spark controversies between them and Russian officials in the regions and in Moscow.
The program, released to the media yesterday, calls for amending the law governing these communities now to give them greater control over natural resources in their territories and expanded protections of their traditional languages, cultures, and forms of economic activity (
It mandates expanded subsidies from the federal budget to the regions and republics where these numerically small peoples live in order to support special schools, including nomadic ones, and community programs, including medical support to improve health conditions, reduce mortality rates among all age groups and increase life expectancy.
And the program calls for expanding the voice of the indigenous peoples themselves in all aspects of their lives, cultural, economic and political, ensuring that they make decisions about their future rather than having those decisions made as is often the case now either by Russian officials on the scene or Moscow bureaucrats who often know little about their lives.
The program is intended to help 40 numerically small peoples who live in the Russian North. The 40 have a total of 244,000 people – less than one-sixth of one percent of the country’s population – and range in size from the 240 Entsy to the 41,000 Nentsy. But they sit on top of some of Russia’s most important real estate.
Much of Russia’s immense natural wealth – gas, oil, and other minerals – are located beneath their traditional territories, and many of the country’s key military facilities are situated on them. As a result, numerous outsiders, mostly ethnic Russian, have moved in and dominate the situation often with little regard to the needs of the indigenous populations.
Not surprisingly, such situations have often sparked disputes between members of the local population and the Russian authorities – over issues like the construction of hydroelectric dams or the division of profits between the regions and Moscow from the sale of raw materials – even though the former have almost always lost and the latter have almost always won.
But the new measure and Moscow’s interest in winning the support of other Arctic peoples both directly and through international bodies like the Inuit Circumpolar Conference mean that these controversies are likely to expand because the long-range program gives these smaller nationalities levers that they never had before.
Three examples of this are already on public view. First, there is an intense struggle between the Saami people and the Russian authorities over whether the former have the right to organize their own forms of self-government, something the Saami believe they have and that the Russians say they do not (
The new Russian program makes it fairly clear that Moscow is willing to say that the Saami do have such a right, something that roughly 1,000-strong community is certain to exploit especially given the attention the Saami of Russia have received from Saamis in Scandinavia (Новости/tabid/428/mid/1276/newsid1276/3588/-------/Default.aspx).
Second, the new program is likely to encourage such groups not only to resist any plans to fold them into larger and predominantly ethnic Russian regions but to expect that Moscow will back off from such plans altogether, especially since there is mounting evidence that combining federal subjects does not improve the lives of any of their residents.
Indeed, this week, Russian Academician Sergey Artobolevsky reported that the people of what used to be the Komi-Permyak district had not benefited from being included in a Russian region, adding that the one outcome of this action was that they lost their ability to lobby Moscow directly (
The new program implicitly invites peoples like the Komi to send their own lobbyists to Moscow, something the leaders of Russian regions won’t like in most cases and that the representatives of these non-Russian groups will do in order to get more money from the center and more restrictions on what regional governments can do to them.
And third, there is one additional development that this new government program is likely to promote: the coming together of these groups to speak as one rather than individually. These peoples have created several organizations to do just that, but the new program invites them to do more.
Just how hard these communnities may be willing to push and how Moscow will react is likely to become evident within the next few weeks: In Vladimir oblast, representatives of various minority groups are already cooperating in a way that a paper there suggests represents the formation of “a United Nations Vladimir-style” (
And more important, on March 25, representatives of these small ethnic communities as well as some of the larger nations within the Russian Federation plan to gather to complain jointly about recent Russian government restrictions on the amount of non-Russian language and culture taught in local schools (

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