English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов - живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World - Living Arctic) No. 13, 2003

Do the indigenous peoples of the North need autonomous okrugs?

Olga Murashko

“During the recent months the idea of “a new approach” to the problems of Russia’s administrative division has been promoted in the country’s political life. So far it has been primarily a matter of the north of Eastern Siberia and the Far East. These are some of the “poorest” regions. The budget income from them is by far lower than the country’s average (for example, the comparative level of revenues from Chukotka per capita is seventy times less than that from the Moscow Region)”.

The above quotation is taken from an article by A. Khaitun “To Live in the South – to Work in the North” published in the April issue of the Rossiyskiye Vesti weekly. The essence of the article is the idea of “a tour of duty”, a method of labour supply to remote places with temporary detachment from settled areas, oriented not only at ensuring qualified industrial labour supply but also at limiting the immigration numbers in “places unsuitable to live in”.

The author identifies the administrative scatteredness of northern regions as the major cause of impediment to realising this idea in Russia’s modern socio-economic life.

“From the position of the Russians’ historic role as “the elder brother and defender of the interests of numerically small tribes and peoples” the territorial shaping of autonomous (previously: national) Okrugs (areas) in the North has assumed a farcical character. Indigenous peoples have remained objects of management by the newcomers and do not have either any real voice in sorting out their problems or any virtual property rights to kinship territories. Corporations extracting minerals and engaged politicians receiving additional possibilities for the distribution of resources and participation in the political life of the Federation are pushing ahead under the guise of the defense of the small indigenous peoples. Taking the risk of being paradoxical, I would express my opinion: indigenous peoples of the North are interested in getting rid of excessive guardianship,” writes A. Khaitun in his article.

Though certain aspects of the author’s assessment of the situation, from my point of view, are correct, for instance, the idea that “one of Russia’s misfortunes is the fact that the concept of settlement has been realised on a vast territory with unfavorable natural conditions, which now is inhabited by an alien majority population and, accordingly, alien towns and industrial enterprises”, nonetheless, it seems to me that he is looking for the original cause of economic problems of the northern territories in the wrong direction.

Let us look more intently at the question: would the problem of economic expediency of developing the natural resources of the North be resolved by reverting the territorial structure of the Northern and Siberian regions and by making territorial and administrative units larger?

It is quite possible that it would be less troublesome for the giant corporations, which, as A. Khaitun puts correctly, already act as an independent political force, to come to terms with one regional elite in these enlarged administrative units than with several of them. But would it bring any relief to the population, indigenous people or immigrants?

What is to be done? The majority population [European Russians] dominates the North. The state resettlement programme functions poorly, funds are lacking because of plunder.  Besides, many residents do not feel up to leaving the territories, especially citizens of former Soviet republics. Certain modern local leaders of the regions, usually those born in the North, improve public services and amenities for at least some inhabitants of autonomous areas making use of the extractive corporations’ capital and profits left in the regions.

The growth and development of northern towns will be possible as long as it coincides with the interests of the corporations operating in the regions, since the corporations’ workers and employees also want to live in decent conditions and go to theatres and concerts with metropolitan celebrities.

Though once you see the luxury of some northern Palmyras of today, the burnt-out and oil-polluted vastness of Western Siberia involuntarily comes to mind, and you start thinking wishfully if only all this money were invested in the restoration of lands ruined by oilmen.

Once there are no autonomous okrugs, other elites will start enriching themselves and building luxurious apartments both in the North and in Moscow. And corporations will keep improving amenities and making their temporary dwellings more comfortable for as long as they wish to. “No one would be able to make the investors provide the population of a local administrative formation with means of support if there is no recoupment of investments,” writes A. Khaitun. But apart from recoupment, there is also a stimulus of corporate image. So, corporations are competing in the luxury of their offices, concert halls and winter gardens refusing “to provide the population with means of support”. One needs only to take a walk in the outskirts of these towns to make certain of that. And no one would make the corporations change their views on their responsibilities with regard to the financing of social programmes for the population inhabiting the territories where the corporations operate and at the expense of whose resources they enrich themselves.

No one, except a strong state where the law and honest court reign and rule.

This strong state should remind the corporations that their excess profits from the extraction of natural resources are based on the fact that they have inherited practically free of charge the industry’s potential, and have not paid for ten years a justified natural rent which is paid in developed countries and that, using the weakness of the authorities and the functionaries’ lack of conscientiousness, they have saved substantially on the infringements of production processes and environmental legislation.

But so far it is a long way to go. The corporations are meanwhile gaining strength and making piles of money at the expense of infinite utilisation of mineral wealth while the authorities seem to make advances trying to please them by changing legislation in their favor and promising to give them the possession of pipelines.

Recently I have heard the confession of a high-ranking functionary of such a corporation operating in the North: “If we would observe all environmental requirements we would have to cease operations”. It was uttered publicly at the conference entitled “Russia’s Indigenous Peoples and Civil Society”. It means that his corporation consciously ignores environmental legislation of the Russian Federation and is confident that it can threaten the state by closing down its production. In any civilised state this would have been impossible.

In this country, alas, the state for some reason or other limits itself to a small share of what it can get for its resources allowing super profits of extractive corporations to flow off to overseas accounts.

To my mind, the root of the problem is exactly in this rather than in the existence of numerous local elites only, some of which are holding back the profit in their regions to spend it at least partially on local inhabitants. It is exactly due to this weakness of state power and its functionaries’ lack of conscientiousness that a situation has arisen when there are not only “rich” and “poor” regions but also these regions’ population depending heavily on what kind of “a chief” they have – honest or not. It is an open secret that there are regions rich in natural resources whose populations live in poverty without seeing their governor for months; in the meantime, the governor is busy playing games around licenses for the right to use the regional mineral wealth rather than dealing with social needs of his okrug. At the same time there are okrugs adopting social laws while the taxes paid by corporations are spent on socio-economic development.

As to indigenous peoples of the North, they happen to be the main victims in this situation for they lose more than anybody else, including the regions where luxurious cities are being built.

It is the reindeer pastures and hunting grounds that are being destroyed as a result of the economic activities of corporations; it is the peoples of the North that are being deprived of a chance to subsist using the only methods they know – reindeer breeding, hunting, fishing. Nobody is going to train them or provide them with other job opportunities because there are not any appropriate laws in our state.

Up to 25 percent of reindeer pastures and hunting grounds have been alienated from traditional natural resource use during the fifty years of intensive natural resource development in Siberia. There are no official statistical data, but the total number of reindeer stock throughout the country has been halved and in certain regions reduced by the factor of ten. It is only possible to estimate the total size of official land allocations for industrial purposes, and these estimates have always been put too low. The burnt-out and oil polluted forests, the pastures ploughed through by cross-country vehicles are not included in the estimates. Though when a pipeline happens to cut off a thousand-mile long corridor used for driving a herd of ten thousand reindeer from pasture to pasture it is the entire pasturable area amounting to millions of hectares, which becomes worthless, not only the dozens of hectares given to the company for pipeline construction.

During the decades of natural resource development of the North and Siberia the state has failed to introduce laws regularising the situation. During Soviet times the peoples of the North enjoyed privileges, which differed insignificantly from those enjoyed by other populations: free medical treatment and medication, free housing, and admission to the institutions of higher education without entrance examinations.

In post-Soviet times, in 1992, the President’s Decree “On Urgent Measures to Protect Residence Areas and Economic Activities of Numerically Small Peoples of the North” was issued. It essentially boiled down to outlining the boundaries of Territories of Traditional Nature Use and free transfer of reindeer pastures, hunting and fishing areas for the peoples of the North. The decree prescribed to elaborate laws on Territories of Traditional Nature Use. During the following ten years the Government has done nothing of the sort.

On May 11, 2001, in spite of the Government’s opposition, the federal law “On Territories of Traditional Nature Use of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the RF” was finally carried into effect, thereupon Territories of Traditional Nature Use were to be established by the Government’s ordinances and transferred to peoples of the North for free use. The Government during the subsequent two years has issued not a single ordinance about the establishment of Territories of Traditional Nature Use.

At the same time, in some okrugs regional laws were adopted as early as in 1992, and kinship lands were handed over to peoples of the North for free use. The first law of this kind was adopted in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. At a later date, almost simultaneously, laws were adopted in the Khanty-Mansi (1996) and Yamalo-Nenets (1997) autonomous okrugs in an attempt to regulate mutual relations between oilmen and indigenous peoples by making agreements. Other okrugs have gradually followed.

But even in these okrugs – advanced with regard to the northern peoples’ rights – the rights of the Northern peoples have failed to be defended. According to regional laws oil companies have to coordinate land allocations with the traditional land users.

To persuade them to sign an agreement on 49 year-long land allocations for oil and gas prospecting and production used, oil companies offered the land owners what they needed right away: two rolls of roofing felt, three cubic meters of shaped timber, a “buran” (propeller-driven sledge). They would also promise to pay two thousand rubles or so per person, and disappear after signing the document without paying anything. The consent to land allocation required for further dovetailing of the documents to obtain the license is already in their hands after all, whereas the non-execution of the agreements has not a chance to be taken to court. The Northern indigenous peoples are not aware of legal subtleties and take people at their word.

Although the regional standards of taking the Northern peoples’ interests into account have proved to be imperfect, in other regions where such rules are not available the Northern peoples are not even mentioned when allocating lands to users of mineral resources. It happens so because there are no adequate federal laws, while in the existing ones, for instance “On Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the RF”, such standards are proclaimed in declarative form. There is no federal law to secure “protection of primordial habitat and traditional lifestyle of numerically small ethnic communities”. This line is written in the Constitution of the Russian Federation, in the Article on subjects of mutual jurisdiction of the state and administrative ubits of the RF, but the mechanisms for its realisation are missing. There is no federal legislation on either the impact assessment of mineral extraction on traditional activities of Northern peoples, or on compensation for the damage caused. Damage and compensations are assessed in accordance with general rules, although lands are the very bsis of life for indigenous peoples. The damage caused to these lands must not be compensated according to the same rules as in the case of our 1/600 hectare, which used to be given to us to idle away our leisure time in summer.

These problems can hardly be coped with by the help of regional laws only. And the changing federal legislation is chasing them up a tree.

The future fate of kinship lands taken on lease by oilmen, which in 1992 were transferred to the Northern peoples in some okrugs for gratuitous use, would become clear once you have a look at the Land Code of the RF. Gratuitous use of lands by citizens no longer exists in it; property and leasehold are what is left; in other words, the aforementioned areas and kinship lands transferred for gratuitous use must be reregistered and given to the Northern peoples on a rental basis. The federal law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use based on gratuitous use of lands cannot be acted upon either, though it was adopted earlier than the new Land Code.

But the leasehold of his kinship lands with graves of forefathers and sacred sites is unnatural and unreal for a reindeer herder or a hunter. The peoples of the North used to live on their lands from generation to generation and pursued their natural economy. The acquired products were sufficient for subsistence only; it is by no chance that their kolkhozes and sovkhozes were unprofitable. Traditional natural resource use is not unprofitable per se: eaten as much as produced. It was made unprofitable by the imposed infrastructure needless for this kind of natural resource use when a hundred chiefs and managers: directors, their deputies, accountants, secretaries, party functionaries with all they needed for themselves, such as kindergartens, schools, residential houses, clubs and wages, were supervising ten reindeer herders. The essence of traditional natural resource use is its extensiveness: not to take more than it is needed for today, so that there would be enough animals, fish and reindeer moss to one’s great-great-grandchildren and their herds. Therefore, the Northern peoples, observing their predecessors’ laws, cannot make lease payments of tens and hundreds of thousand rubles.

But the state has found another leaseholder, the user of mineral resources, who can make such payments and, according to the new Land Code, enjoys the preferential right of leased land acquisition as his property. So, now, the lease holding corporation would buy the lands it has devastated paying a ruble per hectare, and no land restoration can be demanded from the owner. The ownership of the lands would become even more pressing if the right of pipelines’ ownership is transferred to corporations. The logic of the Government, which has lobbied the Duma to support the new Land Code, in this respect is quite clear.

And what about the aborigine, where is his place? Hey, there he is nursing his sorrows on the outskirts of the luxurious Khanty-Mansiysk or Urengoy reproaching himself with the fact that he had lost the kinship lands his forefathers bequeathed him for “a couple of rolls of roofing felt”. Well, then, in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug the option was as easy as pie, even easier: the Nenets village of Varandey was banished allegedly threatened with danger of being washed away by the river. Years passed by, and nothing happened to the village soil, though now the “Varandeyneftegas” company is bossing about in the area while the former villagers live in the temporary wooden barracks in the outskirts of Naryan-Mar, jobless and without means of subsistence.

It all resembles the description of the early stages of colonisation in the Wild West: the purchasing of land at the expense of glass beads with the subsequent eviction or liquidation of aborigines.

However, this happened in the West 150 years ago. There are different rules there at present. Today, a project of natural resource development in Canadiana or US indigenous lands would incorporate a social programme of compensations and adaptation of the local population to the new conditions of life. Ten years ago the World Bank has already adopted its operational directive “Indigenous Peoples”: loans for industrial projects on territories inhabited by indigenous peoples are only granted in such cases where a programme of rehabilitation and adaptation of indigenous population (providing housing, professions, education, jobs) is put forward, with the subsequent check on work done. Thus, the rules of developed countries have spread owing to the force of capital over to not so developed countries.

In the 1990s, there were certain attempts made to introduce something of that kind in this country, but soon everything came to naught. For example, there was a federal programme called “Children of the North” binding federal and regional budgets to allocate funds for education of indigenous children. But in this miraculous country of ours it so happened that before one could bat an eyelid only two children from northern indigenous families were in fact studying at the institutions of higher education out of ten using the programme’s privilege. In 2002, this programme was closed down following the proposal of the Ministry of Economic Development. The same ministry is now proposing to close down another federal programme of “Socio-Economic Development of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North” which has provided guidelines for the last 15 years for building schools, hospitals, and housing projects in northern villages. Though more often than otherwise, foundations alone used to be built, since the programme was financially backed “for 7 to 20 percent” only, judging by the unfinished structures sticking up at the construction sites and the Government’s reports. The same ministry again, having taken the authority of the State Committee for the Affairs of the North to deal with problems of indigenous peoples of the North, has failed to execute the law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use and exerts every effort to have it abrogated.

That is the real attitude of the Government to the Northern peoples – they are insolvent, therefore, not needed. A functionary of the Ministry of Economic Development said something like that at an international forum: “The Government has no incentives to establish Territories of Traditional Nature Use for indigenous peoples of the North”.

This is why it is a bit premature to talk about the Northern peoples wishing to get rid of “excessive guardianship” yet.

At present, peoples of the North are writing letters about their misfortunes to the RF President and to the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North. They also send letters to the journal “Mir korennykh narodov – zhivaya arktika”. But it should be noted that the very nature of these letters has changed lately. They now write not only about the facts that their allowances are not paid, the school roofing has collapsed, and there are no drugs at the local hospital. They write about the Government of RF rejecting the establishment of Territories of Traditional Nature Use, thus denying their statutory right, and about their kinship lands taken away illegally. At times, they touch on serious environmental issues. For example, they enquire from where they could get a long-term development programme of oil and gas deposits in the Timan-Pechora Basin or on the shelf of the Sea of Okhotsk. They also ask whether ecological appraisal of these programmes has been carried out and whether ethnological expertise is being prepared along with the assessment of the project’s impact on a traditional lifestyle highlighted by the federal law “On Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the Russian Federation”.

As we can see, the sprouts of a civil society are beginning to get ripe amid the Northern peoples just as well. As a matter of fact, the Northern peoples raise questions of state importance and interregional significance, which can be answered by the state authorities only.

And again, only the state authorities can answer the question of “What should the socio-economic policy of oil, gas and other mineral corporations be?” and this answer should be in the form of a federal law. The regional elites will continue to speculate on the fact that they are the only ones to defend the interests of their regions. The citizens will continue to support them until the state musters up its strength to restrict corporations in favor of its citizens. Until then, certain regional authorities would remain the covering force on the way of the arbitrary rule of both the corporations and government functionaries.

The time would possibly come when federal legislation is adopted about natural rent and its fair distribution, obligatory transfer of corporations’ resources to socio-economic and ecological programmes, and compensations of damages and losses caused to traditional natural resource use. The state authority would become so powerful that it would be able to secure the implementation of such laws not only by its citizens and corporations but also by its own Government. Then, it would be possible to restrict the authority of regional offices in accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation and carry out reasonable socio-economic projects within the scope of the entire state.