Monday, November 17, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Putin Policies Provoking Protests by Northern Peoples

Paul Goble

Kuressaare, November 17 – For the first time in their history, the numerically small peoples of the Taymyr peninsula organized a public protest against the way in which Moscow has run roughshod over their rights in its desire to develop natural resources, a protest that is echoing across the northern third of the territory of the Russian Federation.
On November 1st, members of the Dolgan, Nenets, En, Nganasan, and Evenk nationalities in the former Taymyr autonomous district assembled in zero degree Fahrenheit weather demanding that their region be given the special status it was promised when it was folded into Krasnoyarsk kray (
But it is a measure of the isolation of these groups from Moscow that word of their action reached Moscow only ten days after it took place, and it is an indication of their marginality in the eyes of Russian officialdom and even the Russian public that this event did not receive more than passing mention in all but a few opposition websites.
The Taymyr demonstrators, who were led by their shamans, handed over an appeal to the Russian president and the speaker of the Federal Assembly detailing their complaints about the way that they have been treated since they agreed in a referendum to be amalgamated into Krasnoyarsk kray.
On the one hand, they complained that kray programs failed to take into consideration “the territorial, transportation, and climatic features” of their region. And on the other, they pointed to the absence of a local voice in issues involving health, education, the environment, veterinary services, and the like.
Similar if even more pointed complaints have been voiced in the former Komi-Permyak autonomous district, the first federal subject to be amalgamated. There, the special ministry for the affairs of the district set up in the Perm kray government has been gutted, with only 28 of the planned 75 officials still in place.
And in the former Evenk autonomous district, the population has been collecting signatures – it has already gathered 2300, 15 percent of the total Evenk population -- and successfully appealing to all-Russian and international environmental groups to block the construction of a hydroelectric dam which would destroy their traditional homeland.
In every case, observers in Moscow say, none of the people in these “former autonomous districts lives better than they did before the amalgamation [of their units] into larger ones,” in large measure because neither the central government nor the new kray regimes have kept the promises they made during the referendums.
“A few years ago, when they voted for the liquidation of these districts, local residents hoped that things would be better. Now, people on these expanded territories are beginning to recognize that the loss of their administrative-territorial status in fact means the loss of all the competitive advantages of their territories,” Moscow analyst Aleksandr Trofimov says.
Moreover, he continues, residents are beginning to see that both the titular nationalities and the ethnic Russians living there have suffered, leaving the latter equally embittered. And that means there will be less support for future amalgamation projects, particularly if regional leaders have political and economic resources they can deploy against Moscow.
That already appears to be the case in the Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiisk districts, which have enormous natural resources and whose leaders have been able to put pressure on Moscow to back down from its plans to combine them with neighboring Russian oblasts and krays.
Unfortunately for the peoples of the Russian North, a new threat has appeared on the horizon: Vladimir Putin’s plans to build new transcontinental highways, railway lines, and pipelines across the region, plans that would pass through the homelands of these peoples and likely undermine their way of life.
In the current “Argumenty nedeli,” Pavel Sulyandziga, the first vice president of the Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, says that Putin’s plans now fill him with “terrible concern” about the fate of his fellow minorities (
Sulyandziga, who is a member of the Social Chamber and of UN bodies about indigenous peoples around the world, says that the situation of the indigenous population of the Russian North has been getting worse for decades but that at least in the 1993 Constitution there were provisions for their protection.
But “beginning in 2001” – the start of Putin’s reign as president – Moscow quietly and without explanation began to eliminate both in the laws and in practice any protections for the minorities of the northern third of the country, even while the Kremlin denied in international forums that it was doing so.
Sulyandziga says that he is receiving “disturbing signals” from those regions where preparatory work has started for these new transcontinental projects. “No one is informing the indigenous peoples about [that], builders are coming, they are beginning to chop down forests” and otherwise despoil the environment on which the indigenous people rely.
Moscow’s approach is wrong and “an anachronism,” the ethnic activist says, pointing out that “there are numerous examples of the organization of civilized interrelationships of industrial companies and indigenous peoples and of the resolution of the land questions of indigenous peoples.”
And Sulyandziga warns that “the lack of resolution of these questions can generate social tensions during the construction of these projects and” – and this is certainly a bigger card to play in today’s Moscow – cause “foreign investors” to think twice before putting money into projects in Russia that they would not be allowed to do at home.

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