Thursday, March 28, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘What Will Become of Us When the Oil Runs Out?’ Northern People Deputy Asks

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 28 – Because Vladimir Putin has made oil and gas and their export the foundation of the Russian economy, many in Moscow and abroad have speculated on what will happen to Russia as a whole when that country’s reserves run out. But a representative of a small reindeer-herding people of the Russian North is asking the same question.

            And while local officials have reassured them that Russia has oil and gas enough for the next two centuries, the fact that a representative of one of the country’s smallest nationalities, whose well-being depends on subventions from a state budget that rests on that industry, is asking that question is almost certainly more important than any answer he has been given.

            That is because it suggests that at least some members of that nationality clearly recognize that the subsidies they have been receiving are insufficient either to preserve their nation or to modernize it and consequently are beginning to ask questions about where they and by extension their entire world will be when rather than if the oil does run out.

            At  a recent meeting of the Yasavey Association of the Nenets People with deputies of the district assembly, Aleksand Belugin, the president of that association who sits in the assembly, suddenly asked “how will the [Yamalo-Nenets district live when all the oil is finished?” (

                Those assembled “greeted the question with friendly laughter,” but Igor Gots, a deputy who also heads a petroleum prospecting company, answered “in complete seriousness.” He said it was “hardly” worth preparing for something that will happen only “after 200 years,” although he expressed “regret” that he wouldn’t be around then to “confirm” his prediction.

                This exchange between Belugin and Gots came in the course of a discussion about the problems of the Nentsy, a 40,000-strong nation of reindeer herders and agriculturalist, who have seen their life turned upside down by the development of the petroleum industry in their Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District.

            Sergey Kotkin, the chairman of the local assembly, said that the government was currently doing all it could to preserve the Nenets language because “in order to preserve [the national] culture, it is necessary above all to preserve the Nenets language.” And he described some of the legislative steps the council has taken toward that end.

            But Aleksandr Lutovinov, an opposition deputy, said that the government had not made protecting the Nentsy and their reindeer-herding economy a priority and that in fact, “the higher the social benefits [the government says it is providing], the lower the incomes of the actual reindeer herder have become."

            Representatives of the Yasavey Association agreed. They said that local government initiatives had remained “inactive” dead letters and that the authorities had been unable to maintain promised subsidies for herders. “With each year,” as a result, the Nentsy said, “they are becoming ever fewer, and this is the bitter truth.”

            Stung by references to himself as “the former deputy of the former Supreme Soviet of an already former country,” Kotkin insisted that while he is not himself a Nenets, he has lived among them his entire life and is just as committed as his opponents to ensuring that they will survive and even flourish in the future.

            No one should leave the meeting, he said that only the opposition is “struggling for a comfortable life for the reindeer herders.”

                Vladislav Peskov, another deputy, spoke in support of Kotkin’s argument, suggesting that the local authorities were doing all they could at a time of budget stringency to maintain the level of support they had been providing the Nenets. They had borrowed from the oblast and there are “concerns” that “the oblast may take back [monies] currently allocated to the district.”

            It was in that context that the question about the region’s fate after the oil runs out was asked and answered. But this exchange is certainly not the end of this issue for the Nentsy. Vladimir Kochechikin, the journalist who wrote this meeting up, said that he would interview Belugin, who posed this question, sometime soon.

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