Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Window on Eurasia: Russian Institutions Deciding the Fate of Northern Peoples Don’t Include Representatives of These Nations, Sulyandziga Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 25 – Unlike the governments of other Arctic countries, Moscow does not include even a single representative of the indigenous numerically small peoples of the North in the Duma, the Federation Council, the ministries “and even the department” where decisions are being taken about these nations, according to a leading ethnic activist.

            Pavel Sulyandziga, an advisor to the Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, this is “a nonsense” and is leading ever more people among these groups to look at what other countries are doing as a model for themselves (www.stfond.ru/articles.htm?id=10797).

            In Canada, he notes, the ministry for the affairs of Indians and the development of the North employs about 3500 people of whom “approximately 1500 are representatives of the indigenous peoples themselves,” whereas in today’s Moscow, there are no such representatives, a clear “indicator of how [the Russian] system works.”

            And that matters, Sulyandziga continues, because “the indigenous peoples must be given a choice” concerning their fate. Seventy percent of them in the Russian Federation today are still involved with traditional economic activities, and they must have a voice on how much outsiders, including government and business, will be allowed to interfere with that.

            Sometimes outside assistance is welcomed if it is informed and carefully designed, the activist says, but often it results in “sad” consequences because “certain bureaucrats from the regions say ‘we know best what you need.’” Among the regions where things are going relatively well in this regard, he says, is the Yamal peninsula.

            But one where things are very bad for the indigenous peoples is Primorsky kray. The governor there has declared “that he does not intend to get involved specifically with any indigenous numerically small peoples because for him all peoples are equal,” an assertion that Sulyandziga argues is “demagogy of the purest type.”

            Primorsky kray does not get the federal subsidies it could for the indigenous population because no one in the kray bureaucracy applies for it. At the same time, “there is no financing for the indigenous peoples” in the regional budget. As a result, these peoples say “if you don’t help us, God be with you, we won’t ask you for anything but at least don’t interfere.”

            But the Primorsky kray officials do interfere because the territory where the indigenous peoples live is “very rich” in forests, gold and other minerals. And businesses are always trying to get involved. The local Udyge have been able to stop some things, but Sulyandziga says he does not know “how long this will continue.”

            Sulyandziga, who completed a dissertation on foreign models of governing indigenous peoples, notes that there are “several” possible models, including quite attractive ones. Among these are Scandinavian work with the Saami, the Danish involvement with the Inuit of Greenland, and New Zealand’s approach to the Maoris.

            “One can even say,” the activist adds, that “China represents not a bad model” in this regard even though “it is considered a totalitarian country.”  Beijing’s approach was “taken from the Soviet Union, which in turn took some of the positive experience of the earlier Russian Empire.

            Now, however, in the Russian Federation, the level of expertise among officials about the Northern peoples is very low. Indeed, Sulyandziga says, he is “certain that these people could not even name all the indigenous numerically small peoples” let alone give any information about their specific characteristics.

            But such knowledge is critical because these communities are under enormous stress from human actions like development and natural ones like global warming.  The first is disordering communities by increasing the role of outsiders, and the second is undermining traditional economic arrangements and opening the way for the spread of new diseases.

            Indeed, he concludes, almost all the problems of the Northern peoples are specific even if they are often lumped together with similar challenges elsewhere. He gives as an example widespread alcoholism in the North. This has three aspects, Sulyandizga argues, each of which must be taken into consideration.

            First, it has a biological cause because most of the alcohol used there is not fermented and thus both stronger and acts like a drug. Second, it has a social cause. When people feel they are needed, as when they go hunting, they don’t use alcohol. But when they are treated as useless in settlements, they not surprisingly turn to this substance.

            And third, there is a cause rooted in mentality.  Faced with pressure from the outside, most of the members of the indigenous numerically small peoples of the Russian North and Far East “do not want to fight with anyone” and escape into alcohol or suicide. At present, Sulyandziga notes, in some of these communities “30 percent of the deaths are suicides.”

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