The push to extract resources from Russia’s north is creating conflicts with the indigenous people who inhabit the area, as pipelines hem in reindeer herders and native fishermen find themselves squeezed out by commercial interests.
The Russian government has created rules that it says helps protect indigenous rights in such conflicts. But there can be a big gap between the government’s stated aspirations and how indigenous people are actually treated.
Is the situation improving? It depends who you ask. Grigoriy Ledkov, the newly re-elected president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), says steady progress is being made by working with resource companies and the national government. His group represents 41 different indigenous groups, encompassing more than 250,000 people stretched across the country’s vast north, from Murmansk to Kamchatka.
“Not all the suggestions we make have effects, but it’s important we have constant dialogue with the state. And we have some tools to impact state policy,” he said in an interview with Arctic Deeply at Russia’s recent Arctic conference in Arkhangelsk.
During a panel discussion, Ledkov spoke about the importance of preserving traditional culture and protecting the environment. He also said resource companies behaved much more responsibly than they once did. “There’s a big difference between then and now,” he said. “There’s the rule of law now.”
A less optimistic view is offered by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. The human rights group states in its most recent 2016 report that Russia’s treatment of indigenous people had “deteriorated” over the past year. Rules to protect indigenous lands for traditional use had been weakened in favor of resource companies. Groups defending indigenous rights had been tarred by the government as “foreign agents,” exposing them to legal risks. And the state had tried to keep indigenous organizations under its thumb by interfering with elections. As for RAIPON, the IWGIA describes the organization as operating “under tight state control.”
It wasn’t always that way. RAIPON has, in the past, criticized the Russian government’s failure to do more to protect indigenous people. But that changed after the Russian government ordered the group to shut down in November 2012. The government defended the move by saying the organization’s structure didn’t comply with federal law. RAIPON’s vice president at the time instead said he suspected the group’s closure instead had to do with Russia’s “desire to eliminate one way or another the self-determination of RAIPON as an independent and consistent critic of the governmental policies pertaining to the rights of indigenous people.”
RAIPON’s closure prompted protests from members of the Arctic Council, where the organization has a permanent seat on the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. RAIPON was allowed to reopen a few months later, and in the spring of 2013 it elected Ledkov as its new president. This leadership change, however, came about under suspicions of government interference.
Pavel Sulyandziga, an outspoken indigenous activist from Russia’s far east, won the first two rounds of the election with large majorities. Then, following a closed-door discussion, Sulyandziga withdrew his candidacy. What followed was an open vote won by Ledkov, a Nenets lawmaker who represents Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in the state Duma. The IWGIA called the election “staged” and says Sulyandziga was “was forced to step down due to pressure from official sources and a clear indication that his election would harm the organization.”
Asked to reflect on these contested results, Ledkov says that RAIPON at the time had been led by the same group for 16 years. “Back then, Russia and the world was different,” he said. Today, he says indigenous interests are best advanced by quiet diplomacy rather than noisy confrontation.
“Some of these people think that only by referring to the West, to international organizations, can you get some results,” he said. “But our experience over the past four years is we’ve been working on solving issues. And we have the capability to solve issues.”
That includes offering legal assistance to indigenous people, said Ledkov. He gave an example of an agricultural company in the Komi Republic suing an indigenous group for occupying land it had rented. Ledkov said RAIPON’s lawyers were able to dramatically reduce the fine faced by the people.
And he says his recent re-election saw no similar divisiveness. “Looking around in the room, I couldn’t see anywhere my opponents. Where are they? I don’t even know if they are in Russia,” he said, echoing a common refrain that government criticism is driven by foreign influences. Similarly, when Ledkov is asked whether he’s ever frustrated by the pace of progress in Russia, he replies, “We’re not in a hurry, We’re the ones who live here.”
But, according to the most recent IWGIA report, many troubling issues facing Russia’s northern indigenous people remain unresolved. The group describes “a long process during which the framework of indigenous rights, established around the turn of the millennium, has been slowly eroded away.”
In one case, residents of a settlement in Yakutia opposed a nearby diamond exploration project for fear it would pollute a river they depended on for drinking water, fishing and hunting. The district administration supported their complaint, noting that local authorities had declared the area a territory of traditional use. But this designation had never been approved by the federal government, so the courts ruled in favor of the company.
IWGIA’s report also describes how Sergey Nikiforov, an Evenk leader in the Amur region, ended up sentenced to four years in a penal colony after he protested the work of a U.K.-based gold mining company. Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have asserted that he faced trumped-up bribery charges as a result of his role in protests over the mining plans.
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