Staunton, November 20 – Because Russian legislation extends special benefits and subsidies to members of the numerically small peoples of the Russian North and Far East, Moscow has sought to limit the number of people whose claims of membership in these peoples will be acknowledged.
On the one hand, the central government has demanded that those who make this claim but who live in cities and do not engage in traditional activities like reindeer herding prove their claims in court. One who was denied that identity has appealed to the Russian Supreme Court (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2020/11/saami-activist-appeals-to-supreme-court.html).
And on the other, the Kremlin has given the FSB the power to make decisions on such issues, a move that has alarmed ethnic groups given that the Russian security service does not have a track record of being solicitous of the rights of ethnic minorities (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/05/russian-officials-come-up-with-another.html).
The numerically small peoples of the North and the Far East number fewer than a half million people, but many of their members fear that if Moscow is able to deny those who claim membership in them because they have moved to town, something the Russian authorities typically encourage, their numbers and support for them will both dwindle.
Indeed, such fears have many precedents given that when groups decline below a certain number Russian officials invoke that as justification for eliminating schools and other institutions. And any move by the state to reduce numbers by denying individuals the right to claim membership will only accelerate that process.
The good news is that there is now a good chance that the Kremlin’s policy may be changed, Elena Golomaryeva, a member of the Sakha parliament who oversees work with the numerically small peoples, has led a campaign to get the Duma to pass a law that would allow anyone who wanted to claim membership in any ethnic group to do so.
That measure has now been formally submitted to the Russian State Duma after receiving support from the Sakha parliament, the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs, and other activists and officials. And the measure has passed second reading. Its supporters are now waiting for final passage (indigenous-russia.com/archives/9138).
If the measure is passed, this will be a rare victory for the numerically small peoples and their constitutional rights. The Russian Constitution specifies that any citizen is entitled to identify as whatever nationality he or she wants, and that specification is likely why the amendment on nationality laws has gotten as far as it has.
The Russian government is certainly within its rights to extend subsidies to groups who engage in traditional activities, and it could easily come up with a measure that would say that only those members of numerically small peoples of the North and Far East who do should get them.
Insisting as current Russian government practice does that all members of these peoples must get subsidies and that those who don’t engage in traditional economic activities cannot be members of them is absurd. Worse, such an approach suggests that it arose not to save money but rather to put the continued existence of these groups at risk.
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