Staunton, October 9 – For most Russians, the 15,000-strong Chukchi nation which lives as far away from Moscow as one can get without going abroad is typically recalled only in anecdotes which highlight either the supposed backwardness of the Northern people or the general absurdities of Russian life.
But now, the Chukchis have become politically active, taken to the streets, and used letters and electronic media in a campaign to prevent oligarch and former governor Roman Abramovich from destroying their way of life by building an unneeded port so that he can extract budget funds from Moscow (sibreal.org/a/30879573.html).
The issue has become so serious that both the interior ministry and the FSB have gotten involved, with both groups threatening and seeking to intimidate the Chukchis into what Moscow has always assumed is their customary silence. So far, at least, those efforts appear to be backfiring and the Chukchis appear anything but ready to back down.
Several weeks ago, more than 50 Chukchis – an enormous number given the small and widely dispersed population of the region – carried out a public protest against plans to construct a new all-weather port on the Naglenynyn Peninsula, a project they say would destroy the herds of reindeer, bears, and fish on which they have always relied.
The authorities first responded by saying that public hearings had already taken place. Then they admitted that these were held only in a distant part of the region and did not reflect local concerns. And then they said they would hold more hearings. But few local people have any confidence that they will do so.
If the port and roads leading to it are built, the 800 Chukchis most directly affected will lose their way of life, wildlife will be unable to migrate as it has done for millenia, and the mine will run out in less than 25 years, making the new port unnecessary given that the existing port nearby has seen its cargo load decline in recent years.
Leaders of the Northern peoples like Pavel Sunyandziga, who was one of the founders of the Association of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East and who was forced to emigrate to the US three years ago, say it is all about money – not profits from economic activity but siphoning off budget funds into Abramovich’s pocket.
It is estimated, he says, that the oligarch would get a large fraction of the 100 billion rubles (1.6 billion US dollars) the Kremlin says it will spend on the project as part of Vladimir Putin’s program to develop the northern sea route. Stealing from the treasury is how Putin’s rich friends become richer.
When Abramovich was governor in the 1990s, many Chukchis initially had a positive view of him because he spent his own money on them. But very soon it turned out that this was a sham and that he was only in the Russian Far East to make money for himself however much harm he inflicted on the indigenous peoples.
Now, they are responding; and their success in getting the word out via the Internet is striking. In the next Chukchi joke, Abramovich may be the target rather than the Chukchis. At least that is clearly what the indigenous people of that region very much hope.