Representatives of the numerically small and often widely dispersed peoples of Russia’s Arctic north have used a United Nations forum to press the Russian government to respect their collective rights, but President Dmitry Medvedev has indicated that he believes the regions in which they live rather than Moscow should bear the costs of doing so.
Last week, during the sessions in New York of the United Nations Forum on the Issues of Indigenous Peoples, representatives of the Russian Federation’s numerically small peoples of the North issued a series of demands to Moscow ranging from help in countering the effects of global warming to recognizing their right to self-determination.
Valentina Sovkina, the speaker of the Saami Parliament of the Kola Peninsula, issued the most sweeping demand. She called on Moscow to observe the right of all indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation to self-determination, something she pointed out
the Russian government is committed to by treaty.
Vasily Nemechkin, a member of the governing board of the Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples (MAFUN), made a more limited demand. He called on
the Russian powers that be to establish a special ombudsman to ensure the rights of native peoples, including his own.
And Tatyana Achirgina, the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference of Chukotka, called on Russia to reaffirm
its treaty support for the rights of indigenous people by approving the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and living up to its provisions.
UN officials and especially representatives of UNESCO expressed their support
for the Northern peoples and indicated that they are ready to address their problems, especially those arising from global warming and increased economic activity in the Arctic region.
Over the last several decades, Russia’s Northern peoples have sought to advance their cause in Moscow by building alliances with other indigenous peoples in the Arctic through such institutions as the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, and they are now using such links to enlist the UN as well.
The strategy has worked at least up to a point: Russia’s Northern Peoples currently receive disproportionate subsidies from Moscow compared to the all-Russian per capita average. But leaders of these communities argue that environmental challenges, the activities of business groups, and their traditional cultures require greater support.
They received some encouragement last week from a comment by President Dmitry Medvedev at his press conference. He said that he now understands
the problems of the Northern peoples, but he suggested that these problems should be addressed not by the central government but by regional officials.
From the point of view of the Northern peoples, Medvedev’s suggestion that regional officials rather than Moscow should focus on these issues and bear the cost of resolving them will not be welcome. And as a result, some of their leaders are likely to try to advance their interests in international forums like the UN, potentially adding to Moscow’s problems there.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia, he can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read all his blog entries at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com/