Russian policies put off indigenous peoples

Winfried Dallmann, ANSIPRA Secretariat
December 2004

“When analysing Russia , it is easy to get
sucked down Alice ’s rabbit hole, where
nothing is ever quite what it seems.”

[Business Week special report, May 31st, 2004 ]

Where are indigenous peoples now, 20 years after the beginning of Gorbachev’s perestroika policy, and at the end of the UN Decade of Indigenous Peoples?

There was a time of hope. Things started to change. But they got stuck. Russia signed the ILO Convention No. 169 but never ratified it. A new Constitution was written, guaranteeing indigenous peoples’ right to develop their own culture and to live accordingly. Indigenous peoples organised themselves and got a voice. New laws were written with nice words. They have something in common: they all are “may” clauses, not “must” clauses. Russia has produced a lot of legislation, which never is implemented. Implementation is left to the regional authorities, and these normally don’t want to do it. The important Law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use, for instance, was close to being implemented in a number of places, and then it suddenly was questioned and put on ice by strong, central forces. The new Land Code contradicts the intention of Russia ’s Constitution and deprives indigenous peoples further of the basic and moral right to their ancestral lands. Government target programmes for the development of indigenous peoples exist, but there is no real effect to be seen. And the most fundamental laws meant to guarantee indigenous peoples’ basic rights are now undermined and in reality put out of function by a number of most recently adopted amendments[1].

Indigenous representatives sometimes blame their local or regional authorities for negative attitudes, while they look up to the Russian government and hope for miracles coming from there. But there are significant reasons to doubt. Isn’t it possible that the government – or at least strong groups within it – count exactly on the local authorities to prevent the laws from being implemented? May it be they make laws only for reasons of propaganda? Is there a political intention that all laws, which eventually might lead to a positive effect for indigenous peoples, are sooner or later made ineffective, changed or withdrawn – such as the one on Territories of Traditional Nature Use? Are draft laws only made to please public opinion? Are they playing to the gallery?

Many say the government is unable to act against powerful resource-extracting companies and their unrestrained capitalistic interests devoid of human and environmental moral. Politicians who really are working for changes are shot on the street. Maybe so. And, possibly, these new businessmen have by now channelled sufficient numbers of their own people into the governmental system or bought the officials for money.

It all seems very much like those who steer the country pretend to make promises accompanied by a lot of noise, and then quietly make up some excuses – relating to conditions beyond their power – in order not to fulfil them. Thus they stay in the fold of the public opinion, while the state does not need to do anything. There may be the hope that the “problem” of indigenous peoples will dissolve because in a few decades there will be no more indigenous individuals left, who demand their ancestral grounds and who want to pursue traditional ways of life.

I am not saying this is necessarily so, but it could easily be concluded. If it is not so, the government should do something to prevent these ideas from gaining ground. In the end, politicians are judged by their deeds, not by their words.

What would be the problem if indigenous peoples were to have the possibility to live according to their traditional lifestyle? Does the state fear they would rise up?

It is ridiculous. Oppressed people may rise up, not the ones that are given the freedom and lands to develop. The problem is rather that there is an overall sickness among powerful people that makes them want to stay in full control and power of every single thing in their sphere of influence.

Or is it the fear that indigenous people’s rights endanger economic development like oil and gas production, timber felling, large-scale fishing, etc.? It seems as if economic development in Russia is a sort of ultimate goal, which sanctifies all means. Everything that counts is immediate profit. Human issues are a headache. Working for indigenous cultures might be profitable in a while, but now it costs, and locally it even may delay the short-sighted, much more profitable activities like oil production and export.

But haven’t other countries achieved ways of coexistence of economic development – including extraction of resources – and traditional land use, or at least made real attempts to achieve it? Other Arctic countries have through the recent decades developed more or less decent policies towards their indigenous populations. At least, there have been processes to settle the problems and to make indigenous representatives real partners in negotiations. They do not paternise them anymore, and if they try, there is a big fuss which is clearly heard. But Russia ’s government doesn’t hear, or only pretends to hear. In this respect Russia still implements attitudes which qualify for under-developed third-world states.

Another thing may be mentioned: the fear of terrorism. Measures against terrorism can easily be used against all sorts of ethnic movements and affect peaceful movements along with violent ones. Totalitarian governments promote the idea that ethnic demands for justice are the first step towards liberation battles and terrorism. They use people’s fear of terrorism to destroy everything that moves. Liberation battles, on the other hand, are directed against a definite, oppressing enemy.

Remarkably, indigenous peoples of Russia are not close to any of these; they are promoting the concept of partnership with the state, the authorities, and even with companies. Very restricted actions of non-obedience are the most aggressive incidents that have occurred, and these are tools, which generally are accepted by large parts of the population in a democratic society.

But there are voices saying that Russian authorities regard any counteraction of indigenous inhabitants in defense of their rights as a display of nationalism. It is not difficult to imagine that indigenous movements, although conducted in a civilised manner, in the near future may get into conflict with anti-terror laws. And the hidden agenda behind would not be fear of terrorism or ethnic uprisings. It would be a way to save money for the development of the indigenous peoples.

As the new Chair of the Arctic Council – a political formation, which considers the protection of Arctic indigenous peoples as an important issue – Russia should develop some sort of acceptable behaviour towards these peoples.

What does President Putin’s recent move towards full control of the regions by hand-selected governors mean in this context? We do not know. We should carefully watch and listen to the signs.

[1] See Appeal to the Presidentof the RF …