Russia’s Policy Toward the Indigenous Peoples of the North

The Third International Arctic Forum “The Arctic – Territory of Dialogue” organized by the Russian Geographical Society (RGS) will take place from 24st to 25th of September, 2013. The Forum will be held in Salekhard, the administrative center of Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District and one of the two towns in the world located right on a Polar circle. 

This year the Forum will focus on environmental issues in the Arctic region including ecological security in terms of the region’s development, climate change, legal regulation of eco-security in the region, healthcare problems among the native population, wildlife in the Arctic.

Some experts believe that modern Russia has a less articulated and responsive policy toward its northern territories, where the indigenous population constitutes a significant part. Twenty-seven indigenous peoples, with the total number of about 200,000 carriers of ancient cultures and traditions, live in the Russian Far North. This is despite the fact that the “improvement of the quality of life for indigenous peoples and their economic activities” are stated among the strategic priorities of the Basics of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the Period until 2020 and Beyond, and The Concept for the Sustainable Development of the Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation was adopted and released in February 2009. The document describes the measures taken by the federal and regional authorities in the 15 years prior to the adoption of the Concept, such as implementation of federal and regional targeted programs (in 2002-2008, the Federal Targeted Program Economic and Social Development of the Small Indigenous Peoples of the North until 2008 had a budget of 2,744 billion rubles), the legislative recognition of state support measures (incentives, subsidies, quotas for the use of biological resources) and active participation in the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004) and Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (2005-2014). At the same time, there are widely recognized grave problems in economic and social development of the indigenous peoples, such as the incongruity of the traditional way of life and the current economic situation, poor ability to compete in traditional economic activities, spread of diseases and pathologies, high infant mortality rate, alcoholism, suicide etc. Thus, the Concept’s aim is to create favorable conditions for the sustainable development of indigenous peoples, meaning the improvement of their quality of life so that it reaches the average nationwide level and the reduction of infant mortality by at least 50% compared with 2007, by 2025.

In April 2009, two months after the adoption of the Concept, the 6th Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation adopted a resolution where the recognition of “some efforts by the federal authorities” joined the list of unsolved problems in the sustainable development of indigenous peoples. The list, prepared by the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East (RAIPON), included inefficient management of sustainable development issues; the absence of effective mechanisms for the involvement of indigenous peoples in relevant decision-making processes; gaps in legislation, such as the absence of guarantees of specific rights stated in the Constitution of the Russian Federation; and the lack of opportunities to use land and other natural resources necessary for the conservation of indigenous peoples’ traditional lifestyle, economy and occupations ( ).

Years after the Concept’s adoption the situation remains ambivalent. On the one hand, executive authorities approved new documents emphasizing the importance of support for indigenous peoples, organized numerous activities in the framework of the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, and transferred millions of rubles to the regional budgets for the support of indigenous peoples. On the other hand, the indigenous peoples themselves consider the authorities’ efforts unsuccessful: “The Concept of Sustainable Development – a very important document – has failed. The measures taken to implement this Concept include only what the Ministry of Regional Development finds relevant, and even those measures, to my deep regret, are not executed,” the former First Vice-President of RAIPON, Pavel Sulyandziga, told Vladimir Putin in July 2011 (Sulyandziga’s speech at the meeting with the then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on July 19, 2011 can be found at ).

RAIPON’s position echoes that of the Public Chamber of Russia and the Upper House of the Russian Parliament. In September 2011, the Public Chamber chaired a round table on the legislative development of the rights of indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East: issues and prospects. The round table’s conclusions were rather pessimistic: federal legislation on indigenous peoples’ rights is regressing; for example, they have to prove their nationality in court to be able to go hunting, fishing and receive a state pension. The federal government, while not putting forward proposals on amendments to the Forest Code, Land Code, and Water Code, does not support the legislative initiatives of the Federation Council. There is still no progress in legislation on healthcare, education and support of indigenous peoples' languages.

In April 2012, the Federation Council discussed the Audit Chamber’s report on the allocation of federal funds for the support of indigenous peoples in 2009 and 2010. The report’s main conclusion was that the funds had been used inefficiently, and although the allocations were substantial, they did not result in noticeable benefits for indigenous peoples. For example, the living standards are below average in the country and the unemployment rate is 50-100% higher than the national average. In addition, the report stated that the core problem is imperfect legislation that must be improved.

The situation with the policy on indigenous peoples became even more ambivalent with the attempts of the Russian Ministry of Justice to shut down RAIPON in 2012 and 2013. The Ministry’s decision was made a month after RAIPON submitted a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in which it criticized the Russian authorities for their disregard of the rights and problems of indigenous peoples.

Although the President of the organization Sergei Kharyuchi has succeeded in preventing RAIPON from being closed, indigenous peoples regard this attempt as part of the pressure on their position and their rights in the Arctic. As First Vice-President Rodion Sulyaudziga said, “There is an extensive rise in industrialization in the north, and the indigenous peoples are among the last barriers against the business and the state developing the resources.” He also said that the authorities strongly disapprove of RAIPON’s extensive international engagement.

RAIPON received the permission to continue its activities only in mid-March, 2013. Two weeks later, President Putin welcomed the participants of the 7th Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East, organized by RAIPON, with the following statement: “I emphasize that the implementation of large-scale territorial development programs in Russia should be carried out in continuous dialogue with representatives of national communities and other public organizations, consideration of their position, opinions and interests."

It remains to be seen how Moscow’s policies on indigenous peoples will develop in the future. However, there are some grounds for concern that if indigenous peoples’ interests clash with the interests of big business in the Arctic, as well as with the “national” interests – the need to secure the production and processing of natural resources, which are at the core of Russia’s political and economic stability – the political decisions are unlikely to be taken in favor of indigenous peoples. This may bring about tensions between Russia and a number of international organizations dealing with Arctic issues, including the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, the Arctic Council and even the UN, not to mention Russia’s relations with international organizations of indigenous peoples, as it was in the case with RAIPON’s temporary closure ( ).

The authors are laureates of the Valdai Club Foundation Grant Program

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.