Lives of indigenous people in Russia are short. There are no exact figures, but estimates are that if you are indigenous, you die on average 10 to 20 years before members of mainstream society do. Due to this massive disadvantage, Russia has a special pension scheme for indigenous peoples: The legal retirement age for indigenous men is 55, for women it is 50. And yet, according to census figures, of the 260,000 members of indigenous minority peoples in Russia just 10% are over fifty.
Indigenous peoples in Russia
Of the more than 180 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, 40 are officially recognised as indigenous. While the Russian constitution and national legislation set out the rights of “indigenous minority peoples of the North”, there is no such concept as “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” enshrined in legislation and thus, indigenous peoples are not recognised by Russian legislation as such. Russia has a multitude of regional, local, and interregional indigenous organisations, but the national umbrella organisation, RAIPON, operates under tight state control.
Russia has not endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, nor has it ratified ILO Convention 169. The country has inherited its membership of the major UN Covenants and Conventions from the Soviet Union: the ICCPR, ICESCR, ICERD, ICEDAW and ICRC. It also has ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) of the Council of Europe.
Indigenous peoples in Russia
There are more than 180 peoples inhabiting the territory of contemporary Russia, but only 40 are officially recognised as “indigenous small-numbered peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East”. These groups consist of less than 50,000 members, and they perpetuate some aspects of their traditional ways of life and inhabiting the Northern and Asian parts of the country. Together, they number about 260,000 individuals, less than 0.2% of Russia’s population. Ethnic Russians account for 78%, and other peoples, such as the five million Tatars, are not officially considered indigenous peoples, and their self-identification varies.
The latest official population figures from the 2010 national census do not provide disaggregated data on the socio-economic status of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are predominantly rural dwellers while Russia is, on the whole, a highly urbanised country.
Main challenges for Russia’s indigenous peoples
One of the main struggles for indigenous peoples in Russia relates to land and natural resource rights. In 2015, an important article in Russia's legislation in regard to this issue was revoked. The articles stipulated that in places of traditional residence and traditional activities of indigenous peoples, local authorities should decide on the “prior determination of locations for the placing of objects” on the basis of the results of meetings or referenda of the indigenous and local communities. This means that local authorities have now lost most of their legal leverage in terms of being able to protect indigenous lands from incursions by business enterprises and other resource users. In 2015 and 2016, this led to a number of cases of violations of indigenous peoples’ land tenure.
The law on Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) from 2001 is the only federal law affording some form of recognition of indigenous peoples’ land tenure. However, the federal government has never confirmed any of the several hundred Territories of Traditional Nature Use (TTNU) created by regional and local administrations, in cooperation with indigenous communities, despite repeated calls from UN treaty bodies, indigenous organisations and human rights experts to do so. Thus, the regionally- and locally-established TTNU has no guaranteed legal status and can be dismantled at any time.
In relation to this topic, one more regulatory change passed in 2017, making fishing applications for members of indigenous peoples much more difficult. The legal principles are that they have the right to fish without special permits, but especially in the Pacific region of Russia, where fishing is big business, special rules and regulations require indigenous peoples to go through a tedious application process first, accept the amount, time and place assigned by the authorities for fishing and accept a number of additional restricts.
In West Siberia's Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Area, 17 reindeer herder families are holding out against the oil company Gazprom-NNG, a subsidiary of Russia's gas giant Gazprom. The authorities have issues a concession without informing the traditional land owners. On 3 June, they will be meeting the regional vice governor. It remains to be seen, whether the administration will be taking any steps to defend their rights.
My name is Nikolay. I am of the Komi peoples and come from the region of the same name in the north of Russia. I will soon be visiting Canada and the city of Iqaluit in the lands of the Nunavummiut for the first time.
An indigenous obshchina (kinship-based community and cooperative) of indigenous Chukchi on Chukotka peninsula in the Russian Far East has successfully appealed a 2013 administrative decision depriving it of its territory and overturned a court ruling ordering the obshchina to pay a fine of approximately 15,000 US Dollars to a mining company which had devastated their territory. However, no compensation for the damage inflicted on the obshchina has been ordered. The company has until 22 June to appeal the ruling.
Indigenous residents of Nekrasovka village in the North of Sakhalin island are desparate. This winter, the largely fish-dependent community has seen large-scale fish kill in the nearby Pomr bay, their traditional fishing ground. As a result, the population of the village located on the shore of the Bay, has remained without salmon trout and smelt and thus without a livelihood. People are forced to go fishing on the Baikal Bay, 20 km away from the village. The exact cause of the disaster remains unknown, because the authorities have failed to respond to appeals from the villagers and undertake an investigation.
In West-Siberia’s Khanty-Mansi autonomous region, a region of the size of France, where much of Russia’s crude oil is extracted, a new conflict between indigenous Khanty reindeer herders and the powerful oil producers is unfolding. The Khanty are an indigenous nation of 30,000. Their language is related to modern Hungarian and their main subsistence activities are fishing, reindeer herding, hunting and gathering.