Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Moscow Shuts NGO that Defended Northern Peoples and Fought Unrestricted Development of Their Lands

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 6 – At the request of the Russian justice ministry, a Moscow city court has ordered the Center for the Support of the Numerically Small Indigenous Peoples of the North to close down, an action its head Rodion Sulyandziga says is an act of revenge for the center’s opposition to economic development by Russian firms that threatens their existence.

            He pledged to appeal and to continue “our work in the defense” of these peoples as “the last barrier to corporations seeking to exploit the resources of the Arctic and the North” and thus serving as “the last protector of the natural heritage of Russia” (nazaccent.ru/content/31421-eksperty-zhyostko-prokommentirovali-likvidaciyu-centra-sodejstviya.html).

            Sulyandziga has gained prominence over the last two decades not only for his work inside Russia but his participation in UN conferences on indigenous populations and his readiness to criticize the Putin regime in such venues,  criticism that has drawn fire from defenders of the Kremlin and even from others who believe development can be a good thing.

            The group’s lawyer, Grigory Vaypan says that the liquidation of the Center is “an irreversible process like the death penalty,” an action that leaves the North “without any defense” (kommersant.ru/doc/4149900), but his critics say Sulyandziga had it coming because he ignored Russian laws.

The Center was established in 2000 and has been active both domestically in resisting the development of the North in order to protect the indigenous peoples there and internationally in seeking to attract attention to their plight. (For a chronicle of its actions, see its webpage csipn.ru/.

            It has long been a problem for Moscow and Russian business – Sulyandziga describes it as “a thorn in the side” of the Russian authorities (severreal.org/a/30257908.html) – and was declared a foreign agent in 2015 and heavily fined. That classification was lifted last year when the group rejected all foreign funding. But now the Putin regime has decided simply to close it.

            Perhaps not surprisingly, the Center’s director sees this as reflecting a general trend in Russian governance, a willingness to have ethnic groups engage in folkloric celebrations but a total unwillingness to allow them the chance to defend their traditional way of life if it gets in the way of economic development by the Russians. 

            But unless that way of life is defended and its defense requires keeping out the kind of economic exploitation that will destroy it, many of the indigenous peoples of the North will soon cease to exist even if some of their number continue to take part in much-ballyhooed festivals that the Kremlin appears to believe is where ethnicity should be confined.

            As often happens, the banning of the Center has been the occasion for other developments, including the release of statistics on the state of NGOs in Russia and a call for the creation of new, regionally based councils in which the Northern peoples may be able to represent their interests regionally if not in an all-Russian way.

            The Nazaccent news agency reports that in 2018, the Russian justice ministry ended the official registration of 17,300 NGOs while registering 13,453 new ones. And in the first nine months of this year, it dropped 11,754 while registering 9444. Experts say there are now “more than 5,000 registered ethno-cultural NGOs” in Russia (nazaccent.ru/content/31421-eksperty-zhyostko-prokommentirovali-likvidaciyu-centra-sodejstviya.html).

            Such figures are intended to suggest that the registration and deregistration of groups like the Center is an entirely normal situation, one that no one should get upset about. But if there are still 5,000 ethno-NGOs, few are as active as the Center and fewer still are as active as it has been among the numerically small indigenous peoples of the North. 

            Meanwhile, Kamchatka Kray governor Vladimir Ilyukhin has called for creating local councils of indigenous residence for resolving the problems of the numerically small peoples of the North. Such councils would shift their defense from Moscow to the regions and reduce the ability of groups like Sulyandziga’s to mobilize public opinion against corporations and the state (nazaccent.ru/content/31400-gubernator-kamchatki-prizval-korennye-narody-sobiratsya.html).

            That would be fully consistent with Putin’s effort to shift responsibility for such issues from Moscow to the regions and to reduce to a minimum the ability of social groups of all kinds to affect the agenda of the central regime. 

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