Monday, August 19, 2019

Under Proposed Law, Nationality of Northern Peoples Will Depend Ever Less on Their Declarations

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 16 – The 1993 Russian Constitution specifies that any citizen of that country can declare any nationality he or she wants or none at all, an arrangement that presupposes all will be treated equally but that breaks down when some are given benefits because of the nationality they claim.  

            But once members of a particular nationality are given such preferences or benefits, the Russian authorities have an interest in determining who is a member and who is not, much as in the United States officials require more than just a declaration to determine who is a member of a particular Indian tribe or resident of Alaska.

            Unfortunately, there is a danger when the state intervenes and uses measures other than the personal declaration of an individual as to what nationality he or she is a member, there is a great danger for official manipulation with officials increasing or decreasing the number of members of such a community as they see fit.

            That danger is now very much in evidence for the numerically small peoples of the North – see  and – but what occurs with them could easily become a precedent for the treatment of other larger nations. 

            Under Russian law, there are 47 numerically small peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East who live in 28 of the subjects of the federation and who are given special hunting and fishing rights to preserve their traditional way of life as long as they are in fact living in that way. But some are not, and that creates a problem in determining who should get these benefits.

            Until recently, the authorities had relied primarily on the declarations of individuals. If you said you were a member of this or that nationality, it was generally but not always accepted that you were – and you received benefits. Now, a draft law just approve by the government changes that (

                Under its terms, an individual’s declaration will be checked against the official records of the interior ministry and other government agencies in order to ensure that only people those members of these groups who actually engage in a traditional way of life get the benefits that the government at least nominally provides.

            Officials say that this will prevent anyone from gaming the system and getting benefits he or she doesn’t deserve. But the possibilities for abuse are enormous given that even those from these numerically small nationalities who have moved to larger settlements and who do not engage in traditional economic activity may still do so on occasion.

            Should they be allowed to claim benefits or not? And should others living among them who do practice traditional ways of life but who are not officially members of this or that listed numerically small nation have the right to get those benefits or not?  Officials will now have the power to decide, opening the door to all kinds of disputes and problems.

            Many members of the numerically small peoples of the North welcome greater clarity in decisions about who gets the benefits associated with membership, but some of their number fear that this will come at an unacceptable cost of the loss of their collective identity (

                Valentina Sovkina, a Saami activist from Murmansk Oblast, for example, says that the new registry of members will increase tensions among the various peoples of the region and also lead to splits within the representatives of a single people, with some being viewed as full-fledged members of the nation and others not.

            Those who are not will almost inevitably be pushed away by the others, leading to their exclusion from communal life and quite possibly to assimilation by other groups, thereby weakening the very nation and its way of life that the law itself says it is intended to support and protect.

            That is a serious problem. But an even more serious one is this: Such re-officialization of nationality could easily spread to other groups, especially given that Moscow’s policies regarding language in the non-Russian republics give tangible benefits to Russians while taking them away from non-Russians.

            In that event, the impact of this nominally new but in fact neo-Soviet approach will harm not a few tens of thousands of aboriginal populations but large swaths of the quarter of the Russian population that doesn’t now declare itself to be ethnic Russian. And such a turn of events would certainly spark anger and quite possibly protest.  

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