Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Siberians Hope to Use Russian Census to Assert Identity and Demands

Paul Goble

Staunton, September 7 – The “Real Siberians” internet community is calling on those living in the Russian Federation east of the Urals to identify themselves in the upcoming census as Siberians by nationality, a step activists believe will help “awaken” their collective ethno-national identity and help them overcome Moscow’s colonial approach to the region.
The “Real Siberian” virtual community, established two years ago, has been encouraged in this by the decision of the Russian government to include “Sibiryak” as one of the 1840 possible terms residents of the Russian Federation might declare as their nationality in the census (www.perepis-2010.ru/documents/acts/nacionalnosti.doc).
But that list, as many have pointed out, includes a large number of groups that the Russian powers that be do not in fact recognize as nationalities with specific ethnic let alone ethno-territorial rights. And there is no evidence Moscow has any plans to change its mind with regard to the Siberians (www.nr2.ru/society/299464.html).
Nonetheless, the Real Siberians are pushing ahead via their own virtual community (community.livejournal.com/real_siberian/) and through sympathetic websites (e.g., globalsib.com/8257/) and arguing that as many as 24.5 million people could declare themselves to be Siberians by nationality.
The Real Siberians are stressing that they are not the same as “Siberian nationalists,” people who trace their intellectual origins to the oblastniki movement of the second half of the 19th century and who in many cases argue that Siberia should be allowed to become an independent country.
One participant in the Real Siberian community said that he “hopes no one will see in our action calls to separatism. In [his] view, Siberia could live not badly inside a federal state. [But, he added] it is another thing that in reality, today we do not have a real federative state” in Russia.
But such comments have opened the way to more radical demands even on the Real Siberian site. Another participant said that if the census identifies “even a few thousand Sibiryaks,” then it will be possible to demand the creation of a national-cultural autonomy within Russia and appeal to the UN, steps that he said were “only the beginning of our demands.”
“The program maximum of the first stage of the national Siberian movement must become the formation of a Siberian autonomy with a revision of the budget code” so that Siberians will be able to keep far more of the wealth their region generates and not see it seized by Moscow.
Although the Real Siberians appear unlikely to attract many to their cause, at least some Russian officials are worried. Rosstat’s representative in Tomsk, Natalya Laskeyeva, said on local television that “Sibiryak is not a national membership and in the official handbook there is no such term” (www.tv2.tomsk.ru/news/blogery-prizvali-sibiryakov-l-nazyvatsya-sibiryakami-l).
“But if someone calls himself ‘a Sibiryak,’” she continued, the census taker will be forced to clarify his nationality,” an indication that census takers may have received instructions to list most if not all such people as ethnic Russians lest the more independent declarations lead to an even steeper decline in the percentage of the dominant nationality.
Even if the Real Siberian campaign does not succeed in attracting many such declarations or forcing the Russian statistics committee to record and report them, this effort almost certainly will spark more declarations of a distinctive Siberian identity among those living in the Siberian and Far Eastern federal districts of the Russian Federation.
An example of such declarations is a new article by Dmitry Verkhoturov on his blog. Entitled “We are Siberians!” the article argues that “in contemporary Siberia a situation has arisen in which there is a people but that it does not have a name.” And that is why the Siberians must become conscious of themselves (www.verkhoturov.info/content/view/994/1/).
Verkhoturov argues that there are three reasons why it is “desirable” that Siberian residents declare themselves to be Siberians by nationality. First, it will help overcome a situation when the people of that region “are not able to defend their rights to self-identification, uniqueness and a distinctive culture.”
Second, he continues, “it is necessary to put an end to the exploitation of Siberian resources connected with the destruction of unique natural objects and the pollution of the environment. And third, “it is time” to ensure that “the voice of Siberians will become decisive and defining” concerning the future of their own land.

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