Vienna, April 22 – The indigenous ethnic groups of the Altai Republic are thinking about uniting into a single Altai nation in advance of the 2010 Russian census, lest Moscow decide given how few members there are of any one of them to decide to liquidate the republic and combine it with the neighboring Altai kray.
One of the reasons some officials in the republic say they are pushing the idea is that a recent federal law providing assistance to numerically small communities led some members of the formerly united Altai people to declare themselves Kumandins, Tubulars, Chelkans, Telengits and Altais in order to receive aid (www.narodru.ru/smi20756.html).
But while the individual members of these communities perhaps gained individually, Ivan Belekov, the speaker of the republic’s legislative assembly, told the Regnum news agency yesterday, their individual decisions put the future of the republic they call home very much at risk.
According to the legislative speaker, “before the peoples of the Altai stands the task of preserving the unity of the Altai people and avoiding the loss of federal support which today he indigenous numerically small peoples have.” But the leaders of some of these small groups say that the aid may be more important than the ethnic self-identification.
Nikolai Malchinov, the president of a group promoting the development of the Telengit people, suggested that the authorities were about eight years too late in deciding to talk “directly and openly” about the relationship between the status of the republic as a national home and financial assistance from Moscow. For many, he said, the aid is often more important.
Aleksandr Krachnakov, the head of the Chelkan community, said that 557 people in one district had successfully gone to court in order to secure that ethnic identity and that more were waiting for a final adjudication of their requests. “Stopping this progress,” he said, “is very complicated because people are getting real benefits by doing so.”
And Mariya Sakova, an activist from the Choy district, said that in her region some 387 people had secured the legal right to “consider themselves Tubalars” and thus receive aid. To turn the clock back, she said, would be hard if not impossible. “As a result of the law, we have now our own forest region.”
But Artem Sumachakov, the president of the Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the Altai Republic, said everyone concerned about their fate in that region needs to try to change things. “Under contemporary continues, we are simply obligated, while striving to protect ethnic diversity to try to preserve national unity.”
He said that the leaders of the ethnic communities in the Altai need to reflect on what will happen if they choose to declare themselves members of these various micro-communities rather that part of “a united front of Altais.” On their decision, he said, will depend “whether the republic will survive or not.”
This is not the first time this discussion has broken out in the Altai Republic, officials say. Prior to the 2002 Russian census, republic officials pushed for having indigenous residents declare themselves Altais rather than members of any other group, fearful that if the percentage of Altais was too small, Moscow would abolish the republic.
Russian government officials pointed out that there is nothing in federal legislation that sets a minimum percentage of indigenous people as a condition for the creation or survival of a republic within the federation. But few Altais appear to have believed that, and probably fewer do today given Vladimir Putin’s push for the amalgamation of republics and regions.
Whether as a result of these concerns or simply inertia, 62,192 residents of the Altai Republic, just over 30 percent of the total, declared themselves Altais, with another four percent saying they were members of one or another of the smaller groups whose members republic officials are now seeking to have rejoin the Altais.
Most people are likely to be inclined to dismiss this situation as unimportant given the relatively tiny numbers of people involved. But it is important in at least two respects. On the one hand, it highlights the plasticity of ethnic identity in the Russian Federation and the ability of officials, central and republic-level, to lead people to re-identify for one purpose or another.
And on the other, the Altai case calls attention to something else: Many residents of the Russian Federation believe that only groups with a plurality or even a majority on a particular territory should have an ethnic republic. In the past, that would have worked in favor of the ethnic Russians; but given their numerical decline, it now could work for non-Russian groups.
Consequently, the campaign to secure identification or re-identification of some of the members of the Altai or other groups and its success as measured in the census returns of 2010 are likely to be watched closely both by those who hope to preserve current federal arrangements and those who are interested in changing them.