FDCIP 2013 Indigenous Movement in Russia

New Political Realities for the Indigenous Movement in Russia

Dmitry Berezhkov
UiT Master Student and Former Vice-President of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia (RAIPON)

The definition of “indigenous” without the numerical qualification does not exist in Russian legislation. So according to the Russian law, the term “Indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation”1 is a collective term for more than forty Indigenous peoples with a population of less than 50,000 each. These peoples inhabit the Arctic and Asian territories of Russia.2 The total number of the Indigenous peoples of the Russian North is less than 0.2% of the Russian population in total and about approximately 250 – 300 thousand individuals. At the same time, Indigenous peoples of the Russian North historically inhabit huge territories covering around two-thirds of the Russian territory from Kola Peninsula in the West to the Bering Strait in the East. Their traditional livelihood is based on fishing, hunting, reindeer husbandry and gathering. More than two thirds of them continue to live in rural areas where these activities are indispensable sources of food and income. Due to their traditional livelihoods, most of the Indigenous peoples of the Russian North, especially those who preserve a nomadic way of life, need much more territory for subsistence than the other populations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its infrastructure, economy and forms of governance3 the dependency of Indigenous peoples from traditional economies increased and became even more important than in Soviet times. Although the economic situation in the Russian Federation has developed substantially during the past thirteen years, the Indigenous peoples in Russia remain one of the poorest parts of population and their social and economic development, as well as their life expectancy, is far below the national average.4

Most territories which are inhabited by Indigenous peoples are rich in natural resources, including oil, gas and minerals and they are heavily affected by large energy and mining projects such as pipelines, hydroelectric dams, gold mining and other forms of resource extraction. The Russian Arctic Macro-region traditionally plays a significant role within the Russian economy: 80% of Russian natural resources belong to that region; 60% of Russian natural resources produced in the Russian North including 93% of natural gas, 76 % of oil, 100 % of diamonds and platinum, 90 % of nickel, 63 % of gold etc.5 Many experts, including representatives of Indigenous peoples themselves, note that Russian legislation includes rather strong state obligations to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights to resources, culture, education, self-governance and participation in decision making.6 But the biggest challenge remains the implementation of the formal legal requirements.

The legal context of Indigenous peoples’ rights in Russia consists of the articles of the Russian Constitution, and several federal and regional laws. The most important is Article 69 of the Russian Constitution that guarantees the rights of the small numbered Indigenous peoples in Russia according to international law. There are also three federal framework laws:

  1. On the guarantees of the rights of the Indigenous small numbered peoples of the Russian Federation (1999);
  2. On general principles of the organization of communities [Obshinas]7 of the Indigenous small numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russian Federation;
  3. On Territories of Traditional Nature Use of the Indigenous small numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation (2001).

These laws establish the framework of cultural, territorial and political rights of Indigenous peoples and their communities in the Russian Federation. There are also several references on Indigenous peoples in sectorial legislation, for example, in the Federal law on fishing, and the Federal law on hunting etc. It is also important to note that Russia has not ratified ILO Convention 169 and abstained from voting to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The framework of this article is not supposed to describe this legislation in detail, but it is obvious that Russia has a legal basis to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights.

Indigenous movement in Russia

The Indigenous movement in Russia was born in the late 1980’s when the Soviet era was coming to an end. The first leaders of the Russian Indigenous movement were the artists, poets and other representatives of cultural intellectuals, which started public activity for issues surrounding Indigenous culture and revival of traditions.

The first organizations of Indigenous peoples were created in the Russian regions. In March 1991, on the first Congress of Indigenous peoples of the North, their delegates had created the Russian Association of small-numbered Indigenous peoples of the North in the Soviet Union that later received the abbreviation of RAIPON. From the beginning RAIPON united twenty-six Indigenous peoples of the North and other peoples entered RAIPON while the state recognized these peoples as Indigenous and included them into the special “United list of the small numbered Indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation.”

Today RAIPON is an umbrella organization for the small-numbered Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East in Russia that united and represent forty-one different Indigenous peoples8 in twenty-eight regions of Russia9 and works to protect their rights to lands, traditional natural resources, culture, languages etc.

Until the end of the 1990’s, RAIPON had been mostly the union of supporters and had no strong structure and permanent office in Moscow. The first presidents of RAIPON were the famous Indigenous writes Vladimir Sangi and Eremey Aipin. But in 1997, a professional politician won the elections in RAIPON from Yamal, the deputy of State Duma – Sergey Kharuchi10. He managed to rebuild the work of RAIPON and organized the professional NGO that specialized in the area of Indigenous peoples’ rights. The permanent office in Moscow was created, RAIPON had started to create a network of information centers in regions and lobby the adoption of the three framework laws: “On guarantee of the rights …”; ”On obshinas …”; and “On territories of traditional nature use …”.

Indigenous legal rights on resources and lands were the key areas of the activity of RAIPON during the last fifteen years. Unfortunately, as analysts declared, there is no significant positive shift in these issues up to today. For example, the federal law “On territories of traditional nature use …” is not implemented yet on the federal level, despite the fact that it was adopted thirteen years ago. No one territory of traditional nature use has yet to be recognized on the federal level.

The new president Putin initiated the process of centralization of the federal powers in the country in 2000. The biggest Russian businesses have also been consolidated within the hands of the people who have strong connections with the authorities. At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, big business desired to extend their sphere of influence and find new opportunities for income and lobbied the federal government to change the resource legislation and reduce the ability of local authorities and communities to influence decision-making within the issues of territorial economic development.11

For example the legal requirements on ecological expertise was significantly changed to make it easy for businesses to organize new mining or infrastructure projects on new territories. Several regions12 with Indigenous title and Indigenous populations, like Koryak Autonomous Okrug or Taimyr Dolgan-Nenets Autonomous Okrug were united with the bigger southern regions under pressure from the federal government with idea to strengthen the controllability of the regions. The most damage Indigenous peoples received was when government changed the laws “On fishing …” and “On hunting” in 2008. According to the new rules, all the territories for hunting or fishing have to be distributed through auctions only. Thus, businesses received the opportunity to buy the lands for long periods of up to forty-nine years. Many Indigenous communities lost their traditional lands since that time.  Since the second half the last decade, there were also many other negative changes for Indigenous peoples in legislation and policy on the federal and regional levels. Indigenous peoples lost their role to participate in territorial commissions, which distributed the lands for economic development; they lost quotas to elect their own deputies in regional parliaments, etc.

The Indigenous community of Russia was strongly against these new tendencies and RAIPON, as a leading organization, expressed this opinion widely on the federal and international levels and actively criticized the federal government for this policy. Since 2009, after the VI Congress of RAIPON, the tensions have started between RAIPON and the Federal Ministry of Regional Development, that is the responsible department for the state national policy in Russia. The most controversial topic became the issues of traditional Indigenous lands and resources.

The Ministry of Regional Development tried to find or create the alternative federal organization of the Indigenous peoples of the North in Russia. But this attempt had failed. So then the Deputy Minister of Regional Development, Maxim Travnikov, who was responsible for Indigenous peoples’ policy, had written the delegation to FSB13 that RAIPON is an extremist organization and works against Russia inside the country and in the international arena. Since 2009, several state services including FSB, Police, Tax service, and the Ministry of Justice had started a massive examination of RAIPON’s work from different aspects with the aim to find some illegal content in RAIPON’s activity. There pressure on Indigenous leaders in regions and on office staff was also organized to force them to testify against the leadership of RAIPON. This process was continued for several years, and in 2011 the Ministry of Justice had found some very formal mistakes in RAIPON status14. In September 2012, Travnikov changed his position and became the Deputy Minister of Justice. After assuming the position, in October 2012 he immediately initiated the official procedures to close RAIPON as an NGO15.

During the long years of international work, RAIPON became a rather well known and recognized Indigenous organization, so it managed to organize an international information campaign to put pressure on the Russian government. The work was organized throw the UN and Arctic Council. Hundreds of organizations and individuals around the world wrote letters of support and proclamations to president Putin and the Head of the Federal Government Medvedev with a request to not close RAIPON.  And finally, the Ministry of Justice withdrew its request to close RAIPON as an NGO in March 2013, just before the VII RAIPON Congress in Salekhard16.

At the same time, authorities organized a political campaign inside the Indigenous movement in regions to change the leadership of RAIPON to a more loyal person, which would not criticize the federal government for Indigenous policy. That person became the new Deputy of State Duma Grigory Ledkov. This person was elected to the Russian Parliament from the biggest Russian political pro-Putin’s party “United Russia” in December 2011 and before that time he was totally unknown inside the Indigenous movement of Russia.

The authorities threatened and pressured Indigenous leaders in regions in order to force them to vote for the “proper” candidate in RAIPON’s Congress that was organized in April 2013 under the unprecedented control of the Presidential Administration and the Federal Security Service (FSB). The candidate from the old RAIPON team, ex first vice-president Pavel Sulyandziga, won two closed ballots but after that, under pressure from FCB officers, who participated in the Congress, withdrew their own candidate, so Ledkov won the third non-competitive “show of hands” ballot and became the new RAIPON president.

My personal case is also incorporated into the general RAIPON history of the last years. In 2010, the FSB suggested to me to be their recruit (agent) inside the RAIPON office. They made this suggestion through my ex-classmate with whom I studied in University. He is now an FSB officer also. They also suggested that I sign a statement against the first Vice President of RAIPON, Pavel Sulyandziga, who is one of the most prominent Indigenous leaders in Russia. This statement included false evidence that Pavel works against Russian interests and it accused him of extremism.

I refused this suggestion and then received several undisguised threats from the FSB that I will be in big trouble if I do not cooperate with them. I discussed the situation with my colleagues and we agreed that it would be crucial for me to spend some time outside of Russia. In May 2011, I escaped from Russia and within several months evacuated my family as well.

After that, the FSB initiated a criminal case making the claim that I stole several million rubles from the Russian budget. The case was not moving until the fall of 2012 when the Ministry of Justice had initiated the procedures to close RAIPON and we started the massive information campaign around the world. I continued to be vice-president of RAIPON at that time and participated actively in this campaign from abroad. I suppose that was rather valuable input in the whole campaign because I have the ability to speak openly outside of Russia without any censorship.

In the end of 2012, the Russian authorities sent a request to Norway to extradite me to Russia. I was arrested in Norway just after returning from the Alta conference in Norway in June 201317 and spent two days in jail in Tromsø.  The Norwegian court made the decision to free me and in August 2013, I asked for political asylum in Norway.

Russian political context

Since the first steps of Vladimir Putin as a “new old” Russian President in the spring of 2012, he has suggested a new model of Russian internal policy. He felt a threat to his regime from street opposition activists that organized the biggest protest rallies in the history of modern Russia after the decision of Putin to return to the Kremlin. Thinking that scenarios of Arab Spring could be possible in Russia, he undertook unprecedented measures to strengthen control on society, mass media, non-governmental sector etc. Since the first days of his presidency, the police initiated hundreds of criminal cases against oppositionists, political activists and representatives of public society.

Dozens of new laws were adopted to toughen Putin’s regime and strengthen the possible punishment for opponents of the authorities. I cannot go into details, but can remind you of only several legal innovations that give the impression of the political developments in current Russia.

In June 2012, the Russian Parliament adopted amendments to the Administrative Code that strengthen the liability for participation in protest rallies. This innovation, better known as the “Law about political meetings,” was adopted just after the significant protest organized by the opposition during Putin’s inauguration as president of the Russian Federation.

  • In July 2012, the State Duma adopted amendments to the federal law on non-governmental organizations that is widely known as the “Law about foreign agents.” The law implemented the definition of “foreign agents,” that are supposed to be non-governmental organizations which receive foreign support, like grants, and have influence on the political agenda in Russia. But the practice of realization of this law showed that it mainly addresses opposition and independent civil organizations.
  • In July 2012, there was an amendment to the law on children’s protection from negative information known as the “Law about the black lists on the internet.” This law allows the closure of any web page if it is believed to contain harmful information to children without a court decision immediately after the request from authorities.
  • In October 2012, it was adopted into federal law a significant expansion in the concepts of “high treason,” “divulgence of State secrets,” and “espionage.” According to the new regulations any transmission of information by a Russian citizen to a foreign state or international organization, which is considered to be hostile to Russian interests, could be considered a crime even if that information does not include any state secrets.
  • July 2013 – the amendments to federal law “On violations of the rights to freedom of conscience and religion” which strengthened the liability for insulting the beliefs of the faithful and became the reaction of the authorities on the Pussy Riot’s action.

These are only several laws, but they show very clearly the whole picture with regard to human rights and the political trends in Russia. Many other restrictive laws were adopted in Russia during the last couple of years, for example, the rather famous “Law about homosexual propaganda” which was designed to protect children from homosexual propaganda, but in reality it became a weapon against people from a minority sexual orientation. The other “Law of Dima Yakovlev” was designed to protect Russian orphans from violence in foster homes in the US, but in reality it became the answer of Russia to the US “List of Sergey Magnitsky”18 and in fact, it destroyed the adoption system in Russia. Today this machine continues to work. The common feature of this legislative process became the speed at which the adoption of the new prohibitive laws came into effect. In previous years the State Duma spent months or years to adopt the laws, and now it could take several weeks or even days.

During the last two years, Russian authorities opened several criminal cases against prominent Russian oppositionists or civil activists that became widely known inside Russia and on the international level.

  • The case of the Pussy Riot band, which organized a protest action in central Moscow Orthodox Temple of Christ of Saviour. The members of the band sustained a conviction of two years in jail.
  • The case of Alexey Navalny, the current leader of the political opposition in Russia who was convicted for economical crimes and cheating. He received five years of a suspended sentence. Immediately after the end of the trial, authorities opened a new economical case against him and his brother.
  • The Greenpeace case was opened when the Russian Border Guard captured the “Arctic Sunrise” in the Barents Sea during a protest against oil extraction in the Arctic.
  • The case against opposition activists Udaltcov, Lebedev and Razvozhaev who were convicted in “attempt to overthrow Putin’s regime using money from Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.”
  • The Bolotnaya case within which 12 civil society activists were jailed for a demonstration against Putin’s presidential inauguration in May 2012.

These are only the most famous cases among hundreds of others when innocent people were convicted or put in jail for critical or independent points of view on the political agenda in Russia. If we address the topic of Indigenous people, besides the RAIPON case, we can also remember the case of Ivan Moseev, the leader of Pomor People in Arkhangelsk Oblast and director of the “Pomor Institute of the Indigenous and Small Numbered Peoples of the North” who was convicted for inciting of interethnic hatred.

All these changes accompanied ideological work organized by the Kremlin among the population in Russia. Controlling all TV and almost all other media outlets in the country, the presidential administration organized massive propaganda among a significant loyal population with the aim to identify the external and internal enemies of the State, which are “responsible” for the troubles in the country. Putin proficiently used the image of the USA in internal propaganda as a “world’s empire” that works against Russian interests. He also implemented into the public consciousness the idea that Russia is the last outpost of morality and traditional valuables in the world. Homosexuals, “foreign agents” and “liberals”19 began to be considered as internal enemies who work against the State inside the country.

Besides the aim of suppressing the opposition and criticism within the country, this ideological technique gives the authorities the opportunity to redirect people’s discontent from the real political and economic problems onto imaginary enemies. This policy has led to actual separation of different segments of the Russian population as either “good,” or from the loyal part of the population, or as “bad” or public enemies. In Russian political rhetoric, such terms appeared as “constructive opposition,” “Bolotnaya opposition,”20 “grantoed”21 etc. In varying degrees, it has affected all significant civil society sectors, including human rights’ defenders, ecologists, journalists and others.

The other distinctive feature of the ideological work of the Kremlin is the creation of “proper” organizations or movements inside civil society, which support state policy. Government also significantly increased funding for loyal parts of the population, like the army, police, secret services, high-level bureaucrats, deputies of State Duma, pro-governmental youth organizations etc.

Russian Indigenous movement within the political context

All tendencies of Russian internal politics reflect clearly on the Indigenous movement. The Kremlin was not able to create the alternative organization of Indigenous peoples of the North to change RAIPON into a main opponent on Indigenous issues, neither internally nor, and especially, on in the international arena. So in tight cooperation with FSB, the Presidential Administration organized a campaign against RAIPON on different levels, which finally allowed the Kremlin’s creatures to seize the reins of the governance in the organization. The Ministry of Regional Development long before the current shift in Russian internal policy initiated that campaign, but the political trend of the last years allows us to follow this work to its logical conclusion.

The fist steps of Ledkov showed that it is becoming more and more a “governmental NGO” (GONGO), which supports all the activity of the federal authorities. After his election, Grigory Ledkov totally changed the rhetoric of the organization. His first action as the RAIPON president was the dismissal of all the staff of the Moscow office and changed the information policy of RAIPON’s web page and e-mail list, including censorship of negative comments on Governmental policy.

The new RAIPON’s president publically supported the arrest of Greenpeace vessel in the Barents Sea, which would have been inconceivable for the previous RAIPON team. After the Alta conference he wrote the appeal to FSB with the request to check the activity of the Russian delegation during the Conference and especially the points of the Alta Declaration about self-determination of Indigenous peoples, which could be considered public incitement to extremism,22 and secession of territories from Russia. After that, FSB has opened the case against several Indigenous leaders and accusing them of extremism, which became a rather serious crime according to the newest Russian laws. RAIPON started to support, or at least not protests against Governmental legal initiatives in resource legislation, which potentially reduces the scope of Indigenous peoples’ rights to lands and resources.

That is also a reflection on the Indigenous movement in general. The segregation on loyal and disloyal Indigenous leaders has started in the regions. The Indigenous organizations, which received grants from foreign donors, are being publically attacked by pro-governmental mass media. Prosecutors’ offices recognized several Indigenous organizations as “foreign agents.”


The biggest challenge for Indigenous people in Russia still remains the lack of implementation of the active federal laws, which guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples. The authorities implement these legal provisions in a very selective way, especially with respect to the topic of natural resources and lands. It is rather similar with situation in Latin America, but Russian courts, in contrast to Latin America’s courts, have totally lost their independence from Government and in fact Indigenous peoples in Russia have no effective possibilities to appeal for judicial justice in the most sensitive questions regarding land and natural resources.

Unlike the situation in Latin America, Russian Indigenous peoples today have no real opportunities to influence internal policy through international institutions like the UN. Concentrated on internal policy and work with their own population, Russian authorities stopped paying considerable attention to negative international effects from human rights violations in Russia. They openly disregard international law and decisions of international bodies like the European Court of Human Rights23 or International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea24; the Kremlin demonstrates the priority of internal policy of retaining the power to the detriment of their own international reputation24.

The modern Russian political regime is transforming from a soft authoritarian model of the early Putin era to a totalitarian model and demonstrates all the classical symptoms of that transformation: the appointment of the enemy who is responsible for the challenges, repression against political opponents and independent points of view, raise wages for law enforcements and the army, control over the media and the massive propaganda among the population etc.

Indigenous peoples are an integral part of civil society and experience the same tendencies of state policy as other parts of the population. In the case of Indigenous peoples, the negative effects from the political shift are also enhanced because they claim significant economic resources, like lands and natural resources. As shown, the general Russian experience of the decline in human rights inevitably leads to a reduction of the scope of Indigenous peoples’ rights.

From the researchers’ point of view, the current Russia represents a unique global phenomenon, which demonstrates the regression of Indigenous peoples rights in contrast with most other countries where Indigenous peoples’ rights generally develop according to the international law. At the same time, after two decades of freedom and hopes, this current political development of Putin’s regime returns Russian Indigenous peoples to the tragedy of the loss of self-identification that Indigenous peoples experienced during the Soviet Union times.


  1. Further – Indigenous peoples of the Russian North
  2. There are other seven peoples in Russia that have status of small numbered Indigenous peoples but not belong to the small numbered Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East.
  3. For example “Reindeer kholhozes” (collective farms) or other state ruled entities.
  4. The income from hunting, fishing and reindeer herding in Taimyr region in 2010 was approximately 4,100 rubles per month while the minimum subsistence for this region was 11,313 rubles and the regional average salary was approximately 30,000 rubles (IWGIA, Briefing note, “Indigenous peoples in the Russian North,” March 2012).
  5. Matveev A.S. “From the paradigm of conquering the Arctic to the paradigm of its habitation.” The publication of the Council of Federation “The current status and the development of small numbered Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation,” October 2012.
  6. For example, according to the formal Russian law, the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are the integral part of the Russian legislation system.
  7. The term “Obshina” is translated into English as “Community” but in general understanding in Russia this means basically the small-scale family enterprise.
  8. One people that is the member of RAIPON was not included officially into the “United list of the small numbered Indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation.” This is Komy-Ishma people that live in Komy Republic. But this people was included into the RAIPON in 2005 as the people which preserves the traditional Northern reindeer herding.
  9. There are forty-seven peoples who are totally in the “United list of the small numbered Indigenous peoples of the Russian Federation.” Seven from them do not belong to small numbered Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East and live mostly in the South regions of Russia. The Dagestan Republic has its own regional list of Indigenous peoples, which include fourteen peoples and this list is an integral part of the Federal list.
  10. Sergey Kharuchi had been being the president of RAIPON during the 4 terms until April 2013.
  11. Some RAIPON experts called this process as “commercialisation of the legislation” in Russia.
  12. Subjects of Federation according the Russian law.
  13. Modern analog of the Soviet KGB.
  14. http://www.iwgia.org/news/search-news?news_id=710
  15. The Ministry of Justice controls the sphere and legal activity of NGOs in Russia.
  16. The capital of the Yamal-Nenets autonomous Okrug.
  17. That was the preparatory meeting for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in 2014 in New York.
  18. This is the US governmental black list of persons who are guilty in human rights violations and other crimes in Russia, Persons from this list has no right to enter to US.
  19. The terms “liberal” and “democrat” which were so popular in Russia during 1990’s have now become abusive terminology in the slang of Russian officials and bureaucrats.
  20. Bolotnaya Square located near the Kremlin and it was the venue of massive protest rallies during 2012.
  21. That term means a person or organization, which receives (eats) the foreign grants with a negative subtext.
  22. The motivation of the case is that self-determination of Indigenous peoples, which was included into the Alta Declaration, could damage Russian national security.
  23. Despite the decision of European Court of Human Rights, Russia refused to review the case of Alexey Pichugin who was colleague of Michail Khodorkovsky in the oil company UKOS and received a life sentence in jail.
  24. Russia refused to participate in hearings of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the issue of detention of the Greenpeace vessel in Barents Sea.
  25. That is interesting to note that Russia actively continues to appeal to international law and agreements when it corresponds to the Russian political interests like in cases with Syria or detention of Russian fishery vessel “Naydenov” in Senegal.