Friday, October 30, 2015

Sakhalin’s Small Peoples Have Big Complaints about Russian Policy

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 30 – According to the Sakhalin news agency, some members of that island’s indigenous population have been driven to the point of “mutiny” against the regional authorities because the latter’s program for them “doesn’t work,” their lives are “getting worse,” and the authorities are failing to monitor their situation.

            At an extraordinary congress in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk this week, Aleksey Limanzo, the president of the union of communities of the numerically small indigenous populations of the Far North of Siberia and the Far East, said that the authorities had done everything they could to block the meeting and keep these peoples from speaking out (

            Recognizing at last how angry the indigenous peoples have become, he said, the Russian rulers “were ready to accuse us of all possible sins, including calls to extremism and separatism, and used all instruments available to create in society an atmosphere of distrust to the indigenous numerically small peoples.”

            Limanzo said that the indigenous peoples have no intolerance toward representatives of other nationalities and only want “to define the course of development of indigenous peoples, to formulate and propose to the new government a clear strategy because efforts to speak to it over the last several years had been ignored.”

            Instead, the activist said, “the authorities simply impose their decisions on us” without any concern about what the indigenous peoples need and want. As a result, the indigenous population of Sakhalin has suffered a serious deterioration in its situation and is at risk of dying out.

            Limanzo and other speakers pointed to five areas in which they said the situation had gotten worse despite official promises.  First of all, the authorities have cut back in the number of classes for pupils in their native languages or even eliminated it altogether. And they have not sent a single student to the Institute of People of the North for training as teachers of these languages.

            As a result, while 26 percent of the Nivkh and 46 percent of the Oroks said they knew their native languages, now only three percent do.

            Second, the authorities have ignored the fishing and herding rights of these communities, cutting them off from fishing grounds and cutting the size of land on which these peoples can raise reindeer, the two traditional forms of economic activity of the indigenous peoples on Sakhalin. As a result, many cannot catch fish; and the reindeer population has fallen from 15,000 to 200 head.

            Third, speakers complained, the Russian authorities have done nothing about the mass unemployment among the indigenous groups. At present, from 60 to 90 percent of the working age population of the numerically small indigenous peoples on Sakhalin Island are unemployed. 

            Fourth, from 50 to 80 percent of these people live in decaying housing and have no prospects that it will be replaced.  And fifth, there is an almost total absence of social, cultural and sports infrastructure for these populations. There is no food program for pupils in schools, very poor medical care, and little money for any development.

            Most people assume they can ignore the numerically small indigenous peoples of the North on Sakhalin, speakers said. After all, in the 2010 census, there were only 2906 of them there.  But their situation is an indictment of the policies of the Russian government. After all, at present, average life expectancy among them is only 47 to 48 years.

            And these nationalities are angry because they are not receiving much benefit from the 312,000 US dollars that Sakhalin Energy current gives the Russian authorities on Sakhalin to help them out. Instead, the authorities appear to be pocketing the money or diverting it to other uses.

            Russian officials deny all of this, insisting that this is the view of a small part of small peoples and that the reality is very different.  And they are probably confident that they can do so successfully given that they are at the other end of Russia from Moscow. But there are three reasons why they may be wrong.

            First, the numerically small indigenous peoples of the Russian North have good contacts with the peoples of the North in other Arctic countries and can get the word out about what Moscow and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk are doing, embarrassing Moscow if nothing else and compromising its influence in the North.

            Second, Western firms are involved in the development of Sakhalin’s petroleum industry, and it is from them that the money comes that is not going to the numerically small peoples.  They will thus have an interest in raising questions about this if money supposedly going for one thing in fact is being diverted by Russian officials to another.

            And third, the numerically small indigenous peoples of the Russian North generally and on Sakhalin in particular have the ability to cause trouble because of their ownership of weapons and boats. They may be small, but this week’s congress suggests they have been driven to despair and so more is likely to be heard from them in the coming days.

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