Staunton, August 26 – Saying that he does not want anyone to identify him as a Koryak, Russian Prime Minister Putin has called for the elaboration of rules that will prevent outsiders from moving into the North, declaring they are members of one or another of the numerically small peoples there, and claiming the special benefits these groups enjoy.
At a meeting yesterday devoted to the development of the Russian fishing industry, Putin directed Russian officials to address this problem that few outsiders even knew existed, one that activists of these people say is restricting much-needed opportunities for these communities (www.raipon.info/index.php/component/content/article/1-novosti/1126-samozvancam-zakrojut-put-v-korennye-narody-severa).
Andrey Krayniy, the head of the Russian state fishing agency, told the session that “in Russia there do not exist any clear rules defining the membership of an individual in on or another of the numerically small indigenous peoples and as a result, outsiders sometimes make such claims to take advantage of special set asides for these groups.
“For example,” he continued, “in Kamchatka, someone from the southern border region will say that he feels himself to be a Koryak and as a Koryak has the right to fish without any restrictions.” He observed that “any individual may feel himself to be a Koryak, himself, first Vice Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and even the prime minister.”
Krayniy asked that Putin direct the Ministry of Regional Affairs to “define the place of the traditional place of resident of the numerically small peoples” so as to be able to say who is really one of them. And his proposal was supported by Deputy Economic Development Minister Savelyev.
In Savelyev’s opinion, “it is necessary to precisely enshrine in legislation rules which will not allow the self-proclaimed” to declare that they are members of these groups and thus gain the benefits that can come along with such membership, a view other speakers appear to have supported as well.
Putin agreed, adding “please don’t list me as a Koryak. I am a Russian. My ancestors from the 18th century lived in Tver guberniya and over these centuries went to the same church. I ask you to develop up to date, correct and civilized rules” that don’t offend ethnic feelings or limit the rights of the indigenous peoples (www.kamcity.ru/premera-koryakom-ne-schitat.html).
At one level, the Russian prime minister is seeking to address a problem that many countries, including the United States, have. Whenever a government gives privileges to one or another minority either to compensate for past abuses or to protect them from the encroachments of larger ones, some people who are not members of those groups will try to claim otherwise.
The case of a group of people in US state of North Carolina who claimed to be an Indian tribe in order to be allowed to open a casino and sell cigarettes without taxes is perhaps the most famous and went to court when they or their lawyers discovered that the United States had never defined legally just what an Indian tribe is or who could be part of it.
And it is likely that Putin in this case is seeking to address only the problems of the so-called numerically small peoples of the North, 26 ethnic communities who number fewer than 1.5 million and live in the northern third of the Russian Federation on the basis of traditional hunting and fishing and whose way of life is threatened by economic development.
But under Russian conditions, any step restricting the ability of individuals to declare whatever nationality they want, something that the 1993 Constitution proclaims and that the census rules allow, is certain to have serious consequences – which is one of the reasons the rules Putin is calling for have not been written before this.
On the one hand, other minority ethnic communities in the Russian Federation either because they are the titular nationality of a particular territory or because of a fear of the dilution of their identity are likely to seek similar protections, thus intensifying rather than weakening ethnic identity and the differences between titular and non-titular groups.
And on the other, in order to slow the decline in the percentage of ethnic Russians in the population relative to other groups, some Russian nationalists are likely to insist that no Russian be allowed to re-identify as a member of another ethnic community. At the same time, they may in some cases be furious if new rules prevent non-Russians from declaring themselves Russians.
Consequently, while Putin’s crack that he doesn’t want to be enumerated as a Koryak, an ethnic group few Russians have even heard of, may strike both him and others as nothing more than humor, in fact, the steps he has called for are likely to prove to be anything but a laughing matter for him or for Russia.