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Analysis: Why did Putin suspend key Russian indigenous group?

Mia BennettEye on the Arctic
Osipov Georgy Nokka image

In Russia, indigenous peoples have encountered a major setback. The Ministry of Justice has ordered the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East (RAIPON) closed until next April because their charter and operations ostensibly conflict with federal law. RAIPON, one of the six indigenous organizations that is a Permanent Participant of the Arctic Council, tried to change its charter to be in line with the law, but the Ministry of Justice has invalidated its attempts.

The Ministry of Justice's decision states that they "just now discovered that the Constitution made no representative associations operating in 49 Russian regions, which served as the basis for the decision to suspend the activities of the Association, although the legal provision of the Civil Code RF operates from 1994." RAIPON will appeal to the Supreme Court to try to get their organization reopened.

A blow to global indigenous interests

The closure of RAIPON deals a significant blow not only to indigenous peoples in Russia, but also to global efforts to advance indigenous interests. RAIPON has many multilateral links to organizations like the Arctic Athabaskan Council and the World Wildlife Fund. It is also a special consultant to the United Nations Economic and Social Council. RAIPON began in 1990 as the USSR was exhaling its last breaths in order to promote the interests of the 41 indigenous peoples living in Russia, from Murmansk to Vladivostok.

At this week's Arctic Council Senior Arctic Officials meeting in Haparanda, Sweden, delegates discussed the controversial closure. Senior Arctic Officials and Permanent Participants issued a statement, writing, "...We believe that the action of the Ministry of Justice to suspend RAIPON's legal status may have the unintended consequence of threatening the integrity of the processes of the Arctic Council. We hope that the question of RAIPON's legal status will be expeditiously resolved so that they may continue their effective representation of the indigenous peoples of Russia, including their work at the Council."

Not everyone is incensed at the closure. In a summary of news from around Russia, RIA Novostireports that Novaya Gazeta ran an article stating, "Although this organization pursues very moderate and reasonable policies compared with others it should probably have shown more loyalty to the Kremlin. The government's concern is understandable: this NGO is a full member of the Arctic Council, the main body regulating cooperation between eight Arctic countries, including Russia, in the field of nature conservation and sustainable development, and a consultant to the UN Economic and Social Council."

Resource extraction

The Russian government is likely "concerned" because RAIPON is obstructing its attempts to extract more and more resources from Siberia. The organization was recently involved in a dispute over a hostile takeover of a jade mine in Dylacha Evenk by a company owned by the head of the local security service. An article from Novaya Gazeta quoted Rodion Sulyandziga, Vice President of RAIPON, as saying (translated from Russian using Google Translate), "There is a new round of extensive industrialization of the northern territories. RAIPON is one of the last barriers to companies and states to the extraction of these resources, and [it is] easier to use of force, using selective justice, so as not to distract the extra energy, time and resources to negotiate with some indigenous [peoples]."

The Ministry of Justice's move, of course, does not represent general sentiment in Russia towards indigenous people. Some of the comments on the Novaya Gazeta article interestingly highlight the way in which perceptions of indigenous peoples in Russia can vary between subjugation and romanticization. Tatiana Orlova writes (translated from Russian using Google Translate), "Become really afraid to live in the country. And even worse: ignorance of the population of all the "things" not in favor of all living things. With great sympathetic to the life of small, indigenous peoples of the North and Siberia. Great laborers. Keepers of Nature. Peasantry virtually destroyed (it – the essence of Russia), the islets were small nations ... to get there."

Indigenous organizations in Russia

While the idea of indigenous peoples as being the "Keepers of Nature" is a bit idealist, RAIPON and other indigenous organizations are instrumental in getting companies to behave less rapaciously when extracting natural resources. In Canada, for instance, when First Nations organizations were negotiating with BHP Billiton over the construction of the Ekati Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories, they were able to convince the minerals conglomerate fund the creation of an Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency to supervise their management of the surrounding environment.

In Russia, however, the outlook for sustainable development is much starker. The concept is not exactly a buzz word in Russian resource development circles; in fact, it's unlikely that state-run companies even really pay lip service to it. This is nothing new. The pillaging of the taiga and tundra has gone on for centuries. The search for commodities motivated Russia to push the frontier farther and farther east, eventually all the way to the Pacific ocean. Initially, the prized commodity was fur. Now, it is oil, gas, and minerals. Hundreds of years ago, Russian tsars exacted iasak, a type of tribute paid in furs from animals like sables and foxes, on the many peoples of Siberia. The conquest of Siberia was driven by the search for more and more fur to trade to Europe. Indigenous people had to forsake traditional subsistence activities to search for furs.

Such oppression by the government did not end with the fall of the tsarist regime. During the USSR, in an attempt to industrialize and collective the Siberian economy, the government turned the vast taiga into an "open-air meat factory," in the words of Piers Vitebsky, author of the powerful book, Reindeer People. "The care of reindeer was isolated from the family and reduced to a worker's job like any other," he writes. While reindeer herding nowadays is less industrialized than during the heyday of the USSR, at the same time, it's much harder for herders to eke out a living, as they do not have a guaranteed market for their products.

The fall of the USSR did not necessarily make life any easier for indigenous peoples. Certain benefits did arrive: after nearly seventy years, the so-called Ice Curtain between Alaska and Siberia fell, and formerly separated families could now visit each other. The Bering Strait had represented the gulf separating the U.S. and U.S.S.R. – vast ideologically, but narrow geographically. Moreover, in the new Russia, Shamanism was no longer technically repressed. But aviation networks that formerly supplied remote camps and communities stopped operating in capitalist Russia, as they were no longer profitable. Indigenous peoples in Siberia felt a profound sense of isolation from Moscow, thousands of miles away.

The Ivan Moseev case

Little has been done in contemporary Russia to promote the rights of indigenous peoples. There is nothing like the land claims agreements that people like the Inuit have achieved in Canada. While governments across the Arctic still often treat indigenous peoples as second-class citizens, Russia goes the farthest in terms of actively repressing movements. The banal ignorance of the Kremlin in the 1990s towards indigenous peoples has now turned into a more sinister form of repression targeting both organizations and individuals.

The Federal Security Service has begun pressing charges of treason and incitement of ethnic hatreds against Ivan Moseev, the leader of the "Brotherhood of Pomors" movement in Arkanghelsk to help reestablish old ties dating back to the Barents Sea Pomor trade, particularly between his city and neighboring Vardø, in Norway. According to the foreigner, the two cities have published a children's fairytale book together. However, the indictment states, "Norwegian secret services are using Ivan Moseev to destabilize the social-political situation in Arkhangelsk ... with support from foreign networks Moseev has been carrying out activities aiming at making federal Russian authorities recognize the Pomors as an indigenous minority of the North and including their territory of residence under the jurisdiction of international law, which can lead to a violation of Russia's territorial integrity."

Moseev faces twelve to twenty years in prison. I'm no expert on his activities, but it is hard to see how something as innocuous as bilateral publication of children's books could warrant charges of high treason. A spokesman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, Kjetil Elsebutangen, remarked, "We cannot possibly see that such public involvement would give rise to suspicion of subversive activities against either the Norwegian or Russian government."

Planes and trains may have a hard time reaching reindeer herders thousands of miles away from Moscow, but the Kremlin seems to have no problem in making its influence felt.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.