Indigenous Identity Transition in Russia: An international legal perspective


Indigenous Identity Transition in Russia: An international legal. perspective

The political changes in Russia in recent years have brought tremendous changes to the lives of the hundreds of indigenous nationalities in that country. All are asserting their rights and redefining their relationship with regional and national governments and with the non-indigenous populations among whom they live.

The discourse on human rights in ethnic relations is particularly complex in Russia, where most individuals are indigenous to some part of the country, where definitions of indigenous status have been twisted by ideology for generations, and where European majority claims that the collective rights of Native peoples cannot interfere with the rights of members of the dominant society.

"Ethnic chauvinism", as racism is referred to in Socialist countries and their descendants, exists in a multi-layered hierarchy that further complicates the picture for those unfamiliar with life in Russia. At the top of this hierarchy are people of Russian ethnicity, who consider themselves an "older brother nation" to all others in the Federation. Next in line are related groups to the Russians in the family of Slavic nationalities: the Ukrainians and Belorussians. As fellow Slavs, these peoples are regarded a cut above the many other ethnic Europeans inside Russia: the Baltic peoples, the Moldavians and Greeks, and groups from the Caucasus region. As Europeans, all of these regard themselves as superior to the many groups of Asiatic origin, the more numerous of which in turn look down upon the last in line: the "small-in-number peoples of the North", usually the only peoples to be referred to as indigenous peoples within the Soviet system, and those with the least political power.

This system of ranking continues today, though it is weakening. As the following article explains, some of those not defined as indigenous in the former system are now reconsidering their status and redefining themselves in accordance with international legal standards. Along with this redefinition they are claiming a body of rights that is itself still in the process of incorporation into human rights law. Conflicting interpretations by Russians and Native peoples of the existing and emerging human rights instruments may demand some precedent-setting work on the part of international legal experts active in the drafting of new standards for indigenous people. There is a great need not only in Russia but in other parts of the world as well, for advisory services to governments in interpreting the new indigenous rights legislation vis-a-vis existing law proclaiming equality of all peoples.


Among the last aboriginal groups to emerge onto the global scene and to join the international indigenous peoples' rights movements at the United Nations the Soviet system, and those with the least political power.

This system of ranking continues today, though it is weakening. As the following article explains, some of those not defined as indigenous in the former system are now reconsidering their status and redefining themselves in accordance with international legal standards. Along with this redefiniation they are claiming a body of rights that is itself still in the process of incorporation into human rights law. Conflicting interpretations by Russians and Native peoples of the existing and emerging human rights instruments may demand some precedent - setting work on the part of international legal experts active in the drafting of new standards for indigenous people. There is a great need not only in Russia but in other parts of the world as well, for advisory services to governments in interpreting the new indigenous rights legislation vis-a-vis existing law proclaiming equality of all peoples.


Among the last aboriginal groups to emerge onto the global scene and to join the international indigenous peoples' rights movement at the United Nations are Russia's Native peoples. For generations isolated from their counterparts around the world, these little-known groups have developed under policies and conditions that are in many respects unique. The Soviet Union's policy toward its indigenous peoples was based on the Marxist analysis of the rights of such peoples to self-determination: Marx and Engels believed that such peoples only had the right to an independent nation if they were populous in number, had a developed civilization (as defined by Europeans), and if they had the means for economic self-sufficiency. These criteria excluded most of Russia's Native peoples, who have long since internalized this policy.

Thus until recently Russia's Native peoples have been hindered by their isolation from their peers worldwide, by their lack of knowledge of developments in international human rights law regarding indigenous people, and by their own perception of their rights based on Soviet political theory. The government agencies that interact with them have until recently been equally unaware of international developments and continue to implement "nationality" policies that follow their own Marxist brand of logic. Ethnic movements, while clamoring for more autonomy, act without the guidance available from international instruments like the ILO Convention No. 169, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and various international covenants. All too familiar to the global community are the often tragic results of these uninformed actions: they have contributed to the bitter and bloody conflicts that have been front-page news since the Soviet Union's dissolution.

Unknown outside Russia are the quiet effort by newly-instated Native governments to subdue ethnic nationalist extremism and avoid violent conflict while steadily working to expand self-determination and to assert Native identity and rights for the first time. These indigenous groups have in recent years begun to seek information on human rights standards and are linking up with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that can provide them with the expertise they need.


Questions that arise in speaking about indigenous rights in Russia to some extent are the same as those encountered anywhere in the world. "Why should aboriginal people have special rights (to development, education programs, funding, etc.)?" Such a question is deceptively simple, and does not carry the same underlying meaning as it would in a "Western" context. To fully understand it, one must take into consideration Russia's history and the nature of her ethnic diversity.

The drive by majority-status peoples (whether Russians, white Americans, Ladinos or other dominant societies) to force assimilation, sometimes couched in terms of "modernization", on indigenous peoples had its own ideological twist in the former Soviet Union. There, ethnic identity was suppressed in favor of class identity, except in certain "safe" domains like the arts, and even there the expression of ethnic themes was controlled.

The "melting pot" mentality that resulted had its own ideological foundation that lives on in the popular mind-set in Russia despite the collapse of the system that created it. The intellectual shift from class-based color-blind fraternity to valuing and supporting ethnic diversity, differentiating between indigenous and non-indigenous, seems to require a leap too great for many European Russians and even for some Native people in Russia. Making such a shift entails the acceptance of distinctions that are threatening to those who suddenly find themselves losing their hold on power in some areas of the country, as Native people take over regional governments formerly dominated by Russians. Many of the latter are offended at suddenly being openly regarded as colonizers or foreigners in what they had come to regard as their own home, however distant that may be from their ancestral homeland in western Russia. Even some Native officials themselves cling to old ways of thinking out of loyalty to a system that put them in privileged positions, or from a sense of superiority over other groups regarded as more "primitive".

In reality there has always been prejudice between Native and non-Native, Slavs and non-Slavs, Great Russians and "Little Russians" (Ukrainians), in the minds of the European, or Russian, majority. But these divisions placed the "civilized" Russian "older brother" nation at the top of the ethnic hierarchy. The new rules being implemented in other ethnic republics are reordering that hierarchy at times without regard to the rights of the descendants of the colonizers.


Discussion with Slavic peoples of special rights, group rights for minority or indigenous peoples, separate community administrative structures or land-tenure policies for Native and non-Native, is further complicated by the fact that even the Slavic nationalities in Russia include communities that have preserved to this day their indigenous, pre-Christian traditions. In arguing in favor of communal or clan-based land tenure for Native people, reinstatement of councils of elders for village administration, or economic development and school curricula supporting cultural revival, the lines between indigenous and non-indigenous can blur at a time when Slavic groups too are returning to their roots in much the same way as Native peoples, by seeking out elders in remote communities, rewriting school texts to include long-omitted cultural heroes, and reviving ancient healing practices as an alternative to Western medicine.

It was not only indigenous peoples of Asiatic origin who were assimilated to the ideal of the "New Soviet Man", whose industrial and scientific orientation was held up as the model for and cornerstone of the future classless society aiming to economically overtake the West. Traditional Russians and other ethnic Europeans were also subjected to policies aimed at breaking down traditional culture, beliefs, land use and governance systems. Renowned and controversial Russian author Valentin Rasputin, at the forefront of the Russian nationalist and cultural revival movement, portrayed in his novel, Farewell to Matyora, a rural village facing relocating to accommodate a hydroelectric development. This work, later made into a graphic film, presents, however unwittingly, a striking image of Russians as indigenous people.

The picture becomes further blurred when indigenous officials in Siberia refer to enclaves of certain Russian sect - the Old Believers, and in Yakutia, the Starozhiltsy, Russia's equivalent of Pennsylvania's Amish - as indigenous people. Their reasoning is that these people have lived off the land and occupied their plots for enough generations to "qualify" as indigenous people. In this way Siberian Natives draw a distinction between ethnic Russians who have put down deep roots and lived close to the land for generations, and the more recent arrivals drawn by the high salaries and other bonuses that Moscow offers to entice temporary workers to industrialize remote areas. Undoubtedly an influence in this line of reasoning is the fact that the Russian word for "indigenous" is derived from the word "root"; indigenous people are "root" people (korennye). Therefore, any people who establishes roots in a new land becomes rooted, or indigenous.


A fundamental question to be resolved, it is clear, is that of which groups are to have indigenous status. Long-held standards are suddenly in a state of flux throughout European and Asian Russia (including the Native groups with republics, like Siberia's Yakuts and northern Russia's Komi, as well as the "small-in-number-peoples.") According to the Marxist criteria, "civilized" peoples - ethnic groups with a developed literary tradition and an intelligentsia at the time of the revolution - were ranked above these so-called "small-in-number nations of the North", and were allotted a place, in the form of a Republic of their own, among the great nations of the world.

These definitions introduced many contradictions that have yet to be resolved. Not the least of these is the phenomenon of peoples who are indigenous by our criteria (and by the definition in ILO Convention No. 169), but who have internalized the old ideology to the point that they do not consider themselves indigenous.

And the term "North" in the Russian context loses its geographical meaning, since "peoples of the North" applies to ethnic groups irrespective of location; included in this designation are nationalities living along Russia's southern borders, even as for south as the Korean border region. The term "small-in-number-peoples-of-the-North" was coined to designate the many indigenous groups that in the early part of this century followed a hunter-gatherer way of life, or were migrant animal herders in southern as well as northern Russia. These customs survive today among these peoples. But this way of life also survives among the larger "civilized" nationalities in Siberia, which indicates that contradictions were present even as the theory was being developed.

Most "peoples of the North" number from a few hundred to thirty thousand, whereas groups with their own republics number over one hundred thousand. It was assumed that the smaller groups would gradually dwindle and disappear. But in fact even the indigenous peoples who have their own republic are in danger of extinction. A Yakut government official who favors indigenous identity for his people pointed out the arbitrariness of the two categories (small-in-number-peoples vs. nations or "great nations"): "Even we Yakuts are a nationality small in number when compared to the Russians, Ukrainians, and other Europeans, and we are ourselves in danger of dying out."


Counted among the Native peoples with Republic status within the Russian Federation are such diverse groups as the Komi and Mari, FinnoYgrian peoples of northern Russia and the Volga region; the Chuvashes and Tatars, Turkic peoples in European Russia; the Yakuts (now called the Sakha, their name for themselves),* a Turkic group living in north-central Siberia; and the Buryats, a Mongol-speaking people in southern Siberia. All of these until recently did not regard themselves as indigenous. Some are still debating the question.

In recent years, however, not only have cultural revival organizations and new political parties within some of these republics emphatically identified their national status as Native, but in at least one case, the Republic government has reoriented status as Native, but in at least one case, the Republic government has reoriented its internal and external affairs around the concepts of indigenous status and the corresponding rights to self-determination and true self-government.

In spite of these growing initiatives, many members of these nations still reject Native status, while others seem to be in a state of indecision. It is not unusual to hear some refer to themselves as both Native and non-Native at different points in the same conversation. Still others, even high-ranking government representatives of the Native republics, are unclear as to their indigenous status and seek the opinion of foreign experts. This uncertainty reflects and process of ethnic identity transition, and could be partially resolved by the introduction of international standards, for example the definition in ILO Convention No. 169. Ultimately, it is up to the peoples themselves to choose the status they deem most appropriate to their situation and needs. In many cases careful study and deliberation are needed to ascertain whether national minority or indigenous status best suits a given group. Making this choice is fundamental to the self-determination process and will, in turn, help define the group's relationship with other ethnic nations and with the nation-state of which it is a part.

The stakes can be significant in changing one's ethnic identity. Those of mixed Russian and Native heritage who previously identified themselves in official documents as Russian, could take advantage of "affirmative action" programs for university enrollment or scholarships, and federal funding from Moscow for apartments and other benefits should they choose to identify with their Native relatives. Because of special federal programs and economic development funds available to the smaller indigenous groups and a new trend toward establishing for them "ethnic territories" - which carry a certain level of autonomy from regional authorities - ethnicities long absent from the census rolls are suddenly reappearing and asking for federal recognition.

In the Buryat Republic, for example, a formerly Turkic-speaking reindeer-herding group called the Soyots is largely, if not entirely, assimilated to the surrounding influx of tourists to their pristine and breathtakingly scenic region, and nothing the harmful effect these outsiders have on their young people and environment, Soyot elders have become active in advocating a revival of traditional values and customs. When a biosphere reserve was proposed for the region, but was referred to on occasion as an "ethnic territory," Buryats jumped onto the Soyot bandwagon in droves, seeing this as an opportunity to wrest control over a chunk of their territory from the Republic government. Sorting out who is Soyot and who is Buryat would be a formidable task due in part to extensive intermarriage between the two groups.

An interesting case of indigenous identity shift can be observed in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), a vast territory approximately twice the size of Alaska along the Arctic Ocean and including within its borders five "small-in-number peoples" as well as a majority percentage of ethnic Europeans. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent change in the Republic's status and name from Yakut Autonomous Republic to the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), a public debate began that cites developments in indigenous rights in international law as a basis for the Republic's assertion of sovereignty, and redefines the Sakha people as indigenous.

This movie is regarded by some representatives of the "peoples of the North" within Yakutia as opportunistic and an encroachment upon smaller nations, who are surprised to find Yakut representatives appearing for the first time at international events for Native peoples. These smaller Native nationalities feel that their needs are not sufficiently taken into count by the now predominantly Yakut power structure, which they regard as colonial due to the relatively recent migration of Yakuts into northern Siberia approximately 700 years ago. However, the new constitution for the Sakha Republic, drafted in 1992 with the participation of representatives of the Republic's smaller Native groups and drawing heavily from ILO Convention 169, includes many protections for those peoples. It is one of very few constitutions in the world that institutionalizes indigenous minority rights.


This issue recalls similar situations in the U.S. where a reservation created for a given tribe might also include other smaller tribes who lack federal recognition and have little say in reservation politics. This is a matter of subordinate Native groups residing within the territory of a more dominant indigenous people. No Native American nation, however, would think to define indigenous status in terms of population size, level of education, or the existence of a writing system prior to European domination, as the Soviet system did. By this now-outmoded theory, if the Mayan civilization were still flourishing, it would not be considered indigenous, due to its developed literature, magnificent cities and population in the hundreds of thousands.

Native American peoples typically define indigenous identity as arising from an ancestral tie to the land and from a certain world-view. Arguments often cited by minority Native groups in support of the non-native status of Yakut people - that they are relative newcomers to northern Siberia, and therefore have a weaker tie to the land - are unconvincing when considered in light of the migrations from the Arctic into the American Southwest by Athabaskan peoples who later became the Navajos and Apaches. These populations entered their current homeland at about the same time as the Sakha people settled northern Siberia from the south. The Hopi-Navajo land dispute notwithstanding, no one would ever accuse the Apachean peoples of Arizona and New Mexico of being non-indigenous. The divide-and-rule effect achieved by assigning Native status (or federal recognition, as in the U.S.) to some peoples and not others is in the best interests of the colonial power, not of the affected peoples.


International law can offer clear guidance in the debate over indigenous status. The International Labor Organization's Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries states that indigenous are those "peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country or geographical the time of conquest or colonization, or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions." A key aspect, then, to indigenous identity in international law is status as a colonized nation, and historical occupation of a territory prior to its colonization by outside groups.

As a political definition, this is not without its contradictions as well. Should an indigenous group achieve decolonization, as in the case of Mongolia or African nations, that group would cease to enjoy indigenous legal status. That status would then transfer from the principal Native group to any indigenous minorities that might be at a power disadvantage. In post-liberation Zimbabwe, for example, this meant that the Shona, who comprise 80% of the ethnic African population, lost their Native status to the Ndebele, who became the victims of power plays and exclusionary tactics by the Shona. The indigenous oppressed paradoxically became the non-indigenous oppressed paradoxically became the nonindigenous oppressor from an international legal perspective.

To a cultural definition of indigenous identity, colonial status is irrelevant. Group whose livelihood and spiritual traditions are still tied to the natural world can be considered indigenous irrespective of political status. Mongolians, by these criteria, are indigenous people whether they live in the independent Mongolian state or in China's Inner Mongolia. By international legal standards, however, only those living in China or Russia have indigenous status.

Returning to the example of the Sakha Republic, if it were ever to follow its central Asian relatives into secession from Russia, the Sakha people would in fact no longer have any grounds in international law upon which to base their Native status. The smaller Native nationalities in the republic would then be in a position to claim indigenous rights in defense of perceived wrongs committed against them by the Sakha government. In the wake of the Sakha people's sudden shift to indigenous self identify, Yakutia's smaller native groups have begun using the terms "self-governing" and "non-self-governing", to distinguish between groups with their own republics and those without.

What does the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have to say about defining Native identity? In recognition of the complexity of the issue, it leaves the matter aside entirely. Julian Burger, Director of the U.N. Center for Human Rights, which coordinated the drafting of the document over a ten-year period by indigenous representatives from around the world, explains, "We leave it up to each group to choose [whether or not they identify themselves as indigenous]."

Indigenous status, carries with it a vast array of rights as outlined in the two documents above. One of the most important is the right to a land base, to environmental protection of that land, and to traditional resource use, management, and conservation. The right to compensation for lands illegally taken or damaged is affirmed in the U.N. Draft Declaration. As privatization of Russian land is underway, designed after Western model, much discussion is taking place regarding the restoration of indigenous, clan-based communal and tenure systems that would support cultural revival by strengthening clan-based resource use. As outside companies with economic clout threaten to buy up fishing, hunting and herding grounds used by Native families for untold generations, Native peoples warn of a loss of livelihood and culture, and of their imminent impoverishment and alienation from ancestral territories.

The right to be consulted and involved in the design of economic development plans - including subsurface resource exploitation - is already being tested where the Kolyma River crosses the border between Russia and the Sakha Republic (Takutia). Russia built a large hydroelectric station on its side of the border in 1981, and more recently it began a second dam, over protests from the Sakha government and public demonstrations by a coalition of four Native nationalities including Sakha communities living down-stream on the Sakha side of the river. Approximately two-thirds of the Kolyma is in Yakutia, and it has suffered a lowered water level since the completion of the first dam. This, in turn, diminished the fish harvest upon which the various Native communities depend and affected the surrounding ecosystem, impacting hunting and herding activities.

More hydrostations are planned in the area, whose main purpose is to power gold mining on the Russian side. Yakutia regards construction of the hydroelectric stations as a violation of her sovereignty. The Native communities throughout the watershed area - including the Chuckchi on the Russian side, whose lands have been partially flooded - fear the end of their traditional way of life. Nikolai Tarasov, Chair of the indigenous coalition to save the Kolyma, says:

"As a result of the negative effects of the hydrostation and gold mining, the residents of the region will be forced to give up their traditional economic activities which they have evolved in harmony with nature over thousands of years. This will bring the destruction of Native traditions and the death of Native peoples themselves - the Yakuts (Sakha), Evens, Chuckchi, and Yukagirs. Although the first three groups are found elsewhere in Yakutia and northern Russia, the Kolyma is the only location in the world where the Yukagirs are found; these projects would eliminate them entirely. We regard the continued construction of the hydroelectric plants as irresponsible toward the fate of the peoples of the Kolyma and as a violation of our human rights."

This case demonstrates how failure to include Native peoples as partners in the elaboration of economic development schemes can threaten them with genocide and create serious human rights grievances. The UN and the ILO have made an effort to codify these rights in recognition of the need to ensure the survival of indigenous peoples.


International human rights standard setting in Russia should not be limited to legislation specifically addressing the rights of indigenous peoples. The larger body of human rights law as a whole needs to be interpreted and applied where relevant to inter-ethnic relations. Human rights principles must be seen as mutually compatible rather than hierarchy wherein some rights take precedence over others, which tends to be the current interpretation in Russia. The reasoning may be based in part on the fact that international human rights law was oriented almost exclusively toward individual rights until recently, when ILO Convention 169 and the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples appeared. This later development of legislation supporting the rights of colonized peoples, however, in no way implies that these are secondary in importance to others rights.

Not only in Russia but throughout the Americas and elsewhere, Native peoples are told by legal specialists and conservative elements that granting "special privileges" to Natives )such as hunting and fishing rights, exemption from taxes, etc.) violates principles of equal treatment before the law enshrined in national and international legislation. When ethic republics pass laws requiring that candidates for local office be conversant in the local Native language - a mechanism furthering self-government that is becoming universal in those republics - they are accused by Russians living both within their borders and throughout the Federation of establishing "ethnocracies" and disregarding the rights of non-speakers of the new language.

According to this line of reasoning, indigenous nations' right to self-government, i.e. to constitute a government of its own members and to define that membership, violates the individual rights of nonNatives living within the borders of Native nations. In the U.S., some disgruntled non-Native reservation residents - who, lacking citizenship in Indian nations, can neither run for office nor vote in reservation elections - have formed pressure groups aimed at changing federal Indian policy and undermining Indian self-government Similarly, in the former Soviet Union, discontent is growing among Russian residents of indigenous republics and the Newly Independent States, who find themselves suddenly disenfranchised by revised citizenship laws and language requirements. They look to Moscow to set a standard by which individual rights to participation and representation in government, and other rights long upheld by international law, take precedence over the collective rights long upheld by international law, take precedence over the collective rights of Indigenous nationalities to self-determination. Some Russian authorities even go so far as to turn the tables and threaten new ethnic governments with the principle of collective rights, arguing that Russians residents in ethnic republics and states have the right to secede from those jurisdictions and to form a separate self-governing mini-state. Ethnic conflicts in Moldova are but one example of how far this argument an lead. A Mari professor and activist laments how such ill-advised policy-making distorts human rights to the detriment of minority peoples:

"In the republics of the Russian Federation, the provisions of international human rights law barring discrimination on ethnic, religious, racial, and other grounds are cynically manipulated to deny peoples the right to self-determination guaranteed them in other instruments. A further argument is made placing individual rights higher in priority over the collective rights of nations."


Unfortunately, the introduction of indigenous rights instruments into public discourse and policy often is misconstrued as "separatism". It gives rise to fears of losing more territory to independence movements and thus of a complete disintegration of Russia itself. Such fears, though justifiable in view of recent history, nevertheless reflect an incomplete understanding of the principles resulting from the dialogue at the United Nations between indigenous nationalities and member-states of the U.N. during the drafting of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. As a compromise between Native groups defending the right to self-determination even to the point of secession from any State, and member-States determined to retain territorial integrity, the idea of "internal sovereignty" was approved. Interestingly, some Native activist groups in Russia, once in formed of this policy, size it as a rallying cry, when, in fact, internal sovereignty already is a basic tenet of the treaties between the republics of the Russian Federation. Seen in this light, human rights standards can bring together previously opposing parties and can do much to avoid ethnic conflict.

In recognition of the need to bring order to the field of Native rights and relief from the severely underdeveloped conditions in which Russia's Native people like (like there counterparts globally), Ruslan Khasbulatov, as Chair of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, publicly declared, "It is very important to attend to the rights and interests of the smaller nations of the Arctic and to the conservation of their natural environment together with the creation of economic together with the creation of economic projects that would facilitate the improvement of the standard of living of these peoples. An important role in this belongs to the elaboration and implementation of appropriate legislative acts." In September of 1993 Russia's Parliament, in one of its last acts before it was forced to disband, held an international conference on Indigenous Rights in International Law. Let us hope that this is an indication of sincere commitment on the part of the Russian government to enact legislation protecting the rights of Native nations and other ethnic groups. As evidence of this continued commitment, former parliamentary committees on indigenous and ethnic affairs have just been combined and elevated to the status of Ministry under the newly reconstituted Russian government. It remains to be seen what this Ministry accomplishes. To date, neither Russia nor the U.S. have signed ILO Convention 169.

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