Saturday, May 25, 2019

Russian Officials Come Up with Another Way of Undermining Small Nations

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 24 – The Putin regime has attacked non-Russian peoples large and small in various ways, stripping the non-Russian republics of the right to require children take instruction in the language of the titular nationality, cutting back funding for publications and education in non-Russian languages, and discriminating against them in a variety of other ways.

            Now, it has come up with a new one, especially insidious because it affects a numerically small group and will be justified by some as an appropriate way of saving the Russian government money and even preventing fraud: it is forcing members of the Saami nation to go to court to prove they are Saami.

            The 1993 Russian Constitution specifies that citizens of that country can decide what their nationality is and declare their membership in that community whenever it may be required. That may seem completely anodyne, but problems arise because some nations get particular benefits and therefore membership is valuable.

            Among those nations which are given special benefits are the numerically small peoples of the North, a group of more than 26 small peoples from the Finnish border to the Bering Straits, many of whom still engage in traditional hunting and fishing which have been part of their lives since time immemorial.

            Under both Soviet and Russian law, members of those communities are given the right to kill more animals in hunting or take more fish out of bodies of water than are other Russians and some receive subsidies.  Consequently, it is very valuable for whole peoples to get on this list and for individuals to be counted as members of those that do.

            Over the past two decades, many groups have tried to get on the list, seldom with success, and there have been suggestions that some individuals have been listed as members who shouldn’t have been, much as there have been suggestions in the US that some people try to claim membership in Indian tribes or Alaskan citizenship to get benefits there.

            The number of cases in the Russian Federation of this appears very small. Few people can or do claim such membership. The number of outsiders in the region is ever smaller, the peoples involved are anthropologically and culturally distinct, and most of these groups are small enough that anyone who tried to make a false claim would be quickly exposed and expelled.

            But the situation of those who really are members of some of the numerically small groups is now being undermined. There is no nationality line in the passport and so, from the point of view of Russian officialdom, no definitive answer as to who is a member of which nationality. As a result, there is plenty of room for official arbitrariness.

            A case has now arisen and attracted the attention of Moscow’s Novaya gazeta that suggests the Russian authorities may be set to try to reduce the number of members of the numerically small peoples of the North in order to take away their benefits, destroy their way of life and force them to assimilate (

                The paper’s correspondent, Tatyana Britskaya, reports that Saami activist Andrey Danilov raised the issue of how his nationality is to be determined with the Murmansk Oblast plenipotentiary for human rights, Mikhail Shilov. The question arose because the local natural resources ministry has refused to list his nationality on a fishing license.

            That may seem a small thing, but it is fundamental: Without the designation that he is a Saami, he can’t fish as he would normally do but would be charged with poaching if he took more than the limit allowed to outsiders.  In the past, the ministry simply accepted declarations by him and other Saami but now it won’t.

            Danilov asked Shilov what he should do. The bureaucrat replied that he should go to court and prove he is a Saami.  It is not entirely clear how he could do that or on what basis the Russian court could make that determination.  And the very act of imposing such a requirement will keep many Saami from registering as such and leave them in a legal limbo.

            In his response to Danilov, Britskaya says, Shilov “with a stroke of the pen in fact suspended the action in a region of Paragraph 26 of the constitution which guarantees the right of each to define and indicate his national membership and bans any forced definition of nationality.”

            This is not the first such case in which officials have told members of numerically small peoples of the North to go to court. In Kamchatka, officials tried the same tactic; but there they were unsuccessful: the court held that the officials had violated the constitution. But it is unclear what will happen in Murmansk.

            In a comment to the journalist, the Saami activist says that more is involved here than just hunting and fishing rights of 1600 people. If the Saami do not have court-defined nationality, that will raise questions about their representation in the Murmansk Oblast government, something they agreed to as a official counter to the independent Saami parliament.

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