Monday, April 13, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Heavy-Handedness Pushing a Well-Armed Siberian People toward Violence

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 13 – Moscow’s push for the construction of a hydro-electric dam on the Lower Tunguska in Siberia is having an unexpected and very much unwanted consequence: the transformation of the land of the Evenk nationality into “a hot spot” far from any other, according to a leading Siberian analyst.
In an article posted online on Friday, Dmitry Verkhoturov says that “the struggle around the project of the Evenk Hydroelectric Station on the Lower Tunguska has entered a new stage,” one in which Moscow’s heavy-handedness is pushing the members of the numerically small but well-armed Evenk nation to consider violence (
As it has elsewhere, Russian officials have tended to assume that they can either ignore the protests of local people against projects that will destroy their homelands or successfully use a much-practiced “political technology” to divide the locals and thus allow Moscow to rule. But in the case of the Evenks, Verkhoturov says, the center has miscalculated.
On the one hand, the 35,000 Evenks have joined forces with other minorities and with environmental protection groups to call attention to the ways in which Moscow’s planned dam will flood their lands, destroy their traditional way of life, and leave them with little or no hope for the future.
And on the other, Moscow’s usual approach in such circumstances has not worked. Typically, agents of the center adopt the following strategy. They try to “split local residents into two parties: those who favor the project and those who oppose it, allowing the central government to claim that most local people support whatever Moscow wants.
But in the case of the Evenks, nothing as worked out as Moscow had planned, and as a result, there are more troubles ahead. Because the Evenks are so few in number and because they have had the recent experience of being lied to in the course of having their homeland downgraded from an autonomous district, they have remained united in their opposition.
In January and February, the Council of Deputies of the Evenk Municipal Region polled the 5,000 residents of that area. It queried 5,000 residents, including 1500 members of indigenous peoples including the Evenks about their attitudes toward the project Moscow wants to impose on them.
The unanimity of both Evenks and the others against that project is striking: 85.5 percent of those sampled said they were against it, with the share of opponents approaching 100 percent in predominantly Evenk areas or in those that would be flooded out by the reservoir the dam would create.
“This is an unprecedented result,” Verkhoturov says, even by all-Russian measures. It is difficult to recall another protest campaign in which was demonstrated such a unanimous position” and consequently in which the central authorities were not in a position to find any local group to support Moscow’s position.
The central government has made its own position even more difficult because the “latest edition” of government’s strategy paper for the social-economic development of Siberia out to 2020 specifically says that the Evenks and the people living around them “will not receive anything” if the Evenk Hydro-Electric Station is completed.
Instead, that document says, that the electricity generated will be sold to China and Mongolia or shipped to the Urals or to central Russia. And consequently, Verkhoturov continues, “the residents of Evenkia understand very well that with the construction [of this project] they will lose everything: their home, their way of life, their livelihoods, and their motherland.”
And they know, he says, that “no one intends to compensate them for any of their losses.” In the best case scenario, they will be moved into local cities where the authorities promise to build houses, but the Evenks know that this move will be the end of their national existence. And they do not plan to go down without a fight.
In what Verkhoturov says the Evenks define as “a struggle for existence,” the members of this small nationality have one resource more than Moscow does not appear to have taken into consideration. Because their economy is based on hunting, most Evenks have guns and know how to use them.
Moreover, he continues, they are good shots. “Out of this people,” he notes, came one of the most remarkable snipers of the second world war – Semyon Nomokonov,” who in the course of that conflict was credited with having personally shot and killed 367 Germans and has been the subject of books and even films.
At various points in the past, the Evenks have shot at officials who were taking actions against their interests, Verkhoturov recalls. They are not yet doing so in the current case, “but they could,” especially if Moscow refuses to recognize them “as people” deserving respect. And that is something the Russian government must take into account.
Once the Evenks made clear their nearly unanimous opposition to this project, the center should have negotiated with them, meeting them all or at least part of the way, before “corpses appear in this clash of opinions. “One must not allow this situation to develop to such an extreme form of tension,” Verkhoturov concludes. “One must not force the Evenks to shoot!”

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