Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

How are Russia's indigenous minorities structured

Union based on traditional characteristic

25 september 2023

Despite maintaining traditional economies, the indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North in the Russian Federation actively participate in shaping domestic policy. They form community organisations at different levels, which allow indigenous peoples to manage their own lives within the country, oversee rights and advance various initiatives, from cultural to economic.

System of parallel representation

The initial efforts to incorporate representatives of indigenous peoples into state governance started back in the 1920s. The Soviet regime actively encouraged the establishment of both local self-governance bodies and broader associations within the existing state structure. Given that a communal clan system was typical for most northern peoples, the concept of collective representation aligned well with the reality of the early twentieth-century tundra. This period also marked the beginning of active engagement between the central government and indigenous peoples, who were gradually integrated into the industrial civilisation.

A comprehensive programme for the development of the economy and culture of northern peoples was implemented in 1967. This document systematised and elaborated on what the USSR had been striving to achieve throughout the first half of the previous century.

In modern Russia, the indigenous peoples of the North have encountered a new reality, leading to the creation of public representation tools that run parallel to the federal and regional power structures. Previously, associations of indigenous peoples were part of the state apparatus, which largely dictated their development trajectory. Today, indigenous peoples aim to determine their own destiny through local self-organisation. These can be categorised into three groups—grassroots self-governance bodies like communities; the large Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North serving the interests of all small peoples; and 'specialised' associations focusing on, for instance, the rights of reindeer herders or tundra hunters. Some of these associations may be integrated into the existing administrative system, while others operate alongside or supplement it.

Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North

The Grand Representative Council, which brought together 26 minor ethnic groups of the North, was established in 1990, and by 1993, it had gained the status of a socio-political movement. Six years on, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North underwent re-registration at the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, becoming an all-Russian public organisation.

Its primary objective is to champion the rights of indigenous minorities within Russia. This primarily involves preserving the original habitats and traditional economic practices of minor ethnic groups as a means to sustain their culture and protect their ancestral heritage. The Association's responsibilities in today's world are extensive, including safeguarding human rights, addressing environmental issues, facilitating interaction between minor ethnic groups and the 'mainland' along with its economy and organising local governance in line with national traditions and international law. Currently, it represents 40 ethnic groups or 257,895 individuals (according to the 2010 All-Russian Census), organised into 33 regional and ethnic associations.

Sector-specific agencies

While the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North tackles issues of national importance, there are organisations that focus on more localised matters. For example, the KMNSOYUZ, based in Dudinka, is dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship among minor ethnic groups. It operates not only in Taimyr but also in the Republic of Karelia, Murmansk Region, YNAA and NAA. Their services extend beyond consultation to include active protection of entrepreneurs' rights, facilitating communication and providing legal support. There are various groups dedicated to preserving language, promoting national culture and performing educational roles. For example, the Regional Public Organisation 'Thsanom' in Kamchatka has revived the ancient Alhalalalai festival, a major event for local Itelmens and Koryaks and a yearly attraction for hundreds of tourists; the LROO 'Vepsskaya Obshchina,' with the support of the Presidential Fund for Cultural Initiatives, has built the Veps Farmstead ethnographic museum, among other achievements.

The indigenous communities themselves, forming the backbone of associations among minor ethnic groups, play a crucial role in economic activities. They are the ones who can access quotas for hunting animals that are off-limits to regular citizens (like whales for Eskimos and coastal Chukchi) and have special rights to gather wild produce and other natural resources. Additionally, they have the ability to form contracts with legal entities, possess land and production capabilities, essentially enabling them to conduct full-fledged economic activities. Of course, there are limitations outlined in Federal Law No. 104-FZ 'On General Principles of Organisation of Indigenous Minorities.' For example, 'a community of small-numbered peoples can engage in entrepreneurial and other revenue-generating activities only to the extent that it serves the objectives for which it was formed.' This implies that privileges and special status are only given to those who wish to live as their forefathers did, while those desiring to shape their future within the confines of industrial civilisation are encouraged to integrate on equal footing with all other countrymen.

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