MOSCOW – Indigenous peoples scattered across the Russian Arctic and Far East, hard hit by climate change and expanding forestry and mining interests, are on the verge of losing the one voice that speaks most clearly for them.
A Moscow court earlier this month ordered the shutdown of an almost 20-year-old advocacy group on the grounds that its documents were incomplete.
But the group’s allies say this is nonsense: that the alleged violation is just a pretext, the final act of a long campaign by authorities to silence the organization.
“This is not a legal issue. It is a political issue,” said Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the North Indigenous Peoples Support Center / Russian Indigenous Training Center. “There is a great conflict of interest between businesses and Indigenous peoples.
For years, the center has been organizing seminars and training sessions on legal issues, economic development, pollution and climate change.
Sulyandziga said climate change has already started to affect hunting, fishing and herding in indigenous areas, with more severe forest fires and flooding. The group also followed the actions of regional governments and large Russian companies and participated in international forums.
All of this inevitably attracted the hostile attention of the authorities.
“The center is the largest indigenous rights group in Russia,” said Grigory Vaypan of the Institute of Law and Public Policy, which represents the group in court.
This month’s court ruling is a death sentence for his organization unless it can be overturned on appeal.
“We are doing our job, in accordance with the Russian constitution, which guarantees indigenous peoples their rights,” he said.
But rights across the country, he said, come under yet another severe attack.
Pavel Chikov, a lawyer who heads the Agora human rights group, said the broader crackdown dates back to last summer, following street protests in Moscow against local elections.
Formerly tolerated activities have come under brutal repression, he said. “Suddenly everything changes, and what was OK is not OK now. The unpredictability is very high and the rules change all the time,” he said.
Previously, Vaypan said, the government would at least try to show that an organization it wanted to crack down on had done harm.
But now, he said, “any NGO in Russia can be dissolved for any reason – for a missing comma.”
Sulyandziga belongs to the Udege ethnic group, who live in forest villages in the Russian Far East, along the Bikin River. There are about 1800 Udege in total. They claim that the Amur tiger is their common ancestor.
Russia’s more than 40 indigenous groups had no organization or person to speak on their behalf until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They make up only 0.2% of the country’s population and rank among the last in terms of income and life expectancy.
Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, two indigenous peoples became extinct: the Alyutors and the Kerek.
Sulyandziga said Canadian Inuit groups have been particularly helpful in teaching native Russians how to organize and defend themselves. Since then, his group has partnered with various international arctic organizations and gained access to UN forums, where his rights and environmental concerns have been heard.
“The Arctic,” he said, “is a very sensitive subject for Russia” – important geopolitically and offering tempting economic benefits.
Information for this article was provided by Natalia Abbakumova of the Washington Post.
A Section on 11/18/2019