Russia: Kola Saami Congress held amidst massive state pressure, authorities push back against Saami Parliament
On 22 November 2014, the III Congress of the Russian Saami people was held in the village of Lovozero, Murmansk region. As the Finno-Ugric Information Centre reports, the regional authorities intervened massively with attempts to sideline the Kola Saami Parliament, headed by Valentina Sovkina and create a new institutional framework for the Russian Saami community.
Ms Sovkina is a long-time outspoken indigenous rights activist and gained international prominence in September, when she was subject to massive harassment by police and thugs in what looked like a concerted effort to prevent the participation of independent-minded delegates in the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples. The harassment drew international condemnation. Now, as international attention has moved on to other issues, new attempts are being made to silence critical indigenous voices in the Russian Federation.
As Sovkina noted, the process by which delegates were nominated was highly flawed. A few days before the congress, almost half of the delegates were de-listed. In the end, only 65 of 120 nominated were registered as participants. Sovkina said, that the authorities also massively interfered with the agenda of the congress, to a degree calling its legitimacy into question.
As explained by the Deputy Chairman of the Sámi Parliament, the director of the Saami Heritage and Development Foundation Andrey Danilov, the Congress was initially prepared by the authorities of Murmansk region, without any Sami participation. Thus, in the documents disseminated prior to the congress only a single Saami, a veteran of World War II, was listed for the Executive committee of the Congress, along with eight state officials.
When the congress started, delegates voiced their disapproval and elected an Executive Committee chaired by a Saami and comprising leading Saami activist. At this point, a representative of the Ministry of Justice took the floor and proclaimed that the congress was in fact illegitimate. This accusation was echoed by several other state servants. The proposed agenda did not include the reports on the work of the Saami Parliament, instead state servants started questioning the legitimacy of the Saami parliament, despite the fact that previous congresses had unambiguously mandated the Saami Parliament as its executive organ.
Later, one delegate proposed the formation of a “Saami Union”, uniting all existing organisations. This move was favoured by the state servants present, who made it clear that the union should replace the Saami Parliament as the highest decision-making body in between congresses. Also, a regional pro-government web site reported falsely that the delegates had taken a decision to abandon the Saami Parliament, even though participants insist that no such decision had been taken.
Later, a member of the regional parliament voiced allegations according to which some Saami activists are living off western grant money and are thus working for western interests. Delegates were outraged by these allegations and strongly rejected them. After the congress, some activists confirmed that in order to rectify the damage, they are considering the possibility of holding an extraordinary congress without interference by the authority. Such a move had been made by the indigenous peoples of Sakhalin in late 2013, who had similarly experienced massive state interference with their movement.