Staunton, November 15 – Last year, officials in Murmansk demanded that Andrey Danilov, the director of the Saami Heritage and Development Fund, prove in court that he is a Saami because he lives in a city and has never practiced the traditional way of life of the northern peoples (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/05/russian-officials-come-up-with-another.html and https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2019/05/24/80636-dokazyvayte-saami).
Now, Danilov has appealed to Russia’s Supreme Court arguing that the Russian Constitution gives him and all others in the Russian Federation the right to select their own nationality or even not to have a nationality at all (novayagazeta.ru/news/2020/11/10/165565-saamskiy-aktivist-pozhalovalsya-v-ks-na-prinuzhdenie-dokazyvat-natsionalnost).
Danilov is right, but the situation is more complicated than that for two reasons. On the one hand, those who claim membership in one of the numerically small non-Russian nations receive special benefits and subsidies. If anyone can declare membership in them, that process could overwhelm these peoples and lead to an end of the benefits they receive.
And on the other, Moscow has set up a special registry of members of these nationalities and handed over control of it to the FSB, an organization that has not demonstrated its absolute fidelity to the Constitution at any point and that wants to have a procedure established so that it will know who is a Saami or member of another northern people and who is not.
The problems of determining who is a member of a group if such membership conveys state benefits are familiar to many countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, all of which have struggled to square the right of individuals to claim identities and the need to ensure that state benefits go only to those who are rightly members of the nations they say.
Danilov tells Novaya gazeta that he “expects the Supreme Court not only to simplify the process for obtaining benefits but also that his case will ease the problems many indigenous people face in gaining official registration.” And he hopes that this will help these groups survive by standing up for their rights.