Disunited Nation

Olga Abramenko

On December 16, 2016 members of the “Aboriginal Forum”, an informal association of experts representing indigenous peoples of the Russian Far North, Siberia and Far East, reported that the director of the Centre for Assistance to Small-numbered Indigenous Peoples, Rodion Sulyandziga, had been detained and interrogated, and his house searched. This resulted in him being unable to open an educational seminar organized by the centre. This is not the first time that Rodion Sulyandziga is being prosecuted: two years ago he was not allowed to leave Russia in order to participate in a UN-organized international conference. Russian border guards had intentionally damaged his passport and opened a legal case against him for the damage. In October 2016 the Centre for Assistance to Small-numbered Indigenous Peoples appealed to the European Court with a legal complaint about a violation of the right to freedom of assembly and association, as well as the right to freedom of expression. Back in 2015 the Centre had been recognized as a “foreign agent”, which made its operations as an NGO in Russia extremely difficult.

Between these two events, on the occasion of the “Day of National Unity” (November 4), Russian president Vladimir Putin supported the proposal to adopt a special “law on the Russian nation”, which the media trumped up as big news, immediately provoking a seasonal discussion on the “national question”. In fact, the topic of “United Russian nation” vs. “national minorities” is not new at all, and indigenous peoples are directly impacted by it. In February 2013 experts of the Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial” participated in the meeting of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination with representatives of civil society. Our organization in cooperation with the informational and analytical centre “Sova” filed an extensive 80-page alternative report on Russia’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

At that time, the law on “foreign agents” – NGOs had just recently entered into force (November 2012), but the repression against NGOs already affected relations between the Russian civil society and the United Nations. In addition to ADC “Memorial”, the UN Committee has also met with members of the only Russian NGO representing small-numbered indigenous peoples of the Far North and the Far East, who had already begun to see dark clouds gathering over their heads. They have already reported harassment of their NGO, and in particular the fact that civic activists who were considered “uncomfortable” by the authorities were being replaced with those loyal to the government. Both we and our colleagues from the NGO of indigenous peoples were extremely surprised to see next to us at the table Mr. Vladislav Grib, a member of the Russia’s Public Chamber, as this Chamber has nothing to do with civil society, its members being appointed by the President and officials earlier appointed by the President. Not surprisingly, the speech delivered by Mr. Grib was quite a distinct broadcast of how the Russian state treats the problems of racial discrimination, hate crimes and inter-ethnic relations.

While he began his speech by expressing disagreement with previous speakers and stating that the problem of racial discrimination and minority rights’ violations in Russia was not relevant (a nonsensical approach for the meeting of the UN Committee, as the latter meets exactly in order to discuss these problems), Mr. Grib further gave a permissive interpretation of the Public Chamber’s own report of 2012 on the state of civil society in Russia, which had been issued as a supposedly “alternative report” and had been published in the relevant section of the UN Committee’s website. The main points of Mr. Grib’s speech were as follows: nationalism, if it exists in Russia at all, is limited to the football hooligan scene, and this phenomenon is completely foreign, originating from Ireland; the main danger to peaceful coexistence of various peoples in Russian Federation comes from nationalism, which is characteristic of the southern republics of Russia (Dagestan, for example), and the means for getting rid of it lay in the formation of the “civic nation”. This, according to Grib, was the main aim of the Russian Federation, which had been put forward in its strategy of national policy for the period up to 2025. The practical expression of this strategy was the approval of the 2013 federal special purpose program “Strengthening the unity of the Russian nation and the ethno-cultural development of the peoples of Russia (2014-2020)”. Its result should be a shift of the Russian citizens from ethnic to civil identity (“Russians”). According to the strategy, by 2020 the share of Russian citizens who have a positive view of the state of inter-ethnic relations in the country should reach 65%, while the level of tolerance towards representatives of other nationalities should reach 85%.

By the way, Vladislav Grib later received a medal “For the recovery of Crimea” and, presumably, also the accompanying Certificate of Merit with an official praise “for active participation in the work of strengthening friendship between the peoples”. How peoples’ friendship in the annexed Crimea was “strengthened” we know only too well: there are massive violations of the rights of Crimean Tatars. However, one is surprised to learn that Mr. Grib, who shares responsibility for this together with other people decorated with similar medals, continues his career in the sphere of “peoples’ friendship” and has become an assistant to the head of the OSCE in fighting against racism, xenophobia and discrimination. Thus, it is rather likely that his approach to the problem of discrimination against minorities could be adopted to a vast geographic area…

This year we also witnessed a new development in the “national unity” theme. Now the legislators are considering adopting the law on the unity of Russian nation. It is reported that Russian universities will even have a new subject in their curriculum on the formation of Russian identity and upbringing the new generation with the common set of values. And as the apotheosis of all this, the State Duma will consider a proposal to amend Article 13 of the Russian Constitution, which will introduce a single state ideology. It is not hard to guess what it will be, as Russia’s officially proclaimed “national idea” is “patriotism”.

Patriotic forces” in Russia have already prepared themselves for this in advance: at the very same meeting of the Council for inter-ethnic relations, which had proposed to adopt a law on national unity, the Ataman of the so-called Great Don Cossack Host and former State Duma deputy Viktor Vodolatsky informed his colleagues that a draft law on the patriotic education of Russian citizens was being prepared. It is just one step from this “patriotism”, as viewed by the Cossacks, to the infamous “Russian Spring”, for which the aforementioned Mr. Grib had received a medal. It is just one step to the “Russian idea” and “Russian dream” as a thing “uniting us all”, which is described in a fairy tale composed by one recently emerged writer. It is ironic that the author finds quintessence of the “Russian dream” in the famous Russian fairy tale “Teremok” (The Wooden House), in which he discovered “the desire for justice and overcoming troubles through unity, communal spirit, generosity and mutual assistance”, forgetting that in fact it is a fairy tale about a bear (presenting himself by saying that he will “oppress all the rest”), who finally broke the wooden house, where different animals used to live peacefully before his arrival.

The Public Chamber’s report, presented by Mr. Grib to the United Nations Committee, stated that only “a united civic nation” can ensure the effective functioning of the state in a multi-ethnic country such as Russia by “firmly defending” values, common to all Russians, ​​and “preserving deep and sincere respect for the historical, cultural and religious traditions”. Well, we can perfectly see this “firm defense” of the national issues, as well as the “deep respect”, as the formation of “civic nation” proceeds through the neglect of the rights of ethnic minorities.

Financing provided for the federal special-purpose program of “strengthening the unity of the Russian nation” is more than double compared to the funding of one of its components, the program for “ethno-cultural development of the peoples of Russia”. The latter program included projects for the Roma community, including this year’s festival “Roma under the skies of Russia”, which consisted not only of musical concerts, but also non-trivial events such as an evening of Roma poetry. But what is happening with ensuring the right of Roma minority to housing or education, for example? We witnessed the demolition of Roma settlements in Russia, the eviction of families with children from their only houses, the segregation of Roma children in schools and poor education to those Roma children who still attend school… These problems have remained unsolved for decades.

If we talk about the small-numbered indigenous peoples, the case of the persecution of the Centre for Assistance to Small-numbered Indigenous Peoples and its director is not an isolated one. Experts are concerned about the fact that indigenous peoples’ protests against the activities of mining companies which are destructive to their traditional habitat result in criminal prosecution of the activists. This was the case, for example, of Khanty activist Sergey Kechimov following a conflict between the local Khanty community and “Surgutneftegas” oil company, or a presumably fabricated case against one of the leaders of Evenkis community Sergey Nikiforov in the Far East. Less known are other cases of violations of the rights of indigenous peoples, such as the loss of a mountain sanctuary by Shorian community Kazas in Kemerovo Region (a documentary, “The price”, is devoted to them). Part of the mountain was blown up, access to the Shorian cemetery blocked, and people can’t get through the cordons to their allotments, which they were also forced to sell after a mining company started to mine coal there. The houses of those who refused to leave their land were burned down by unidentified persons.

In order for the all the peoples of Russia to begin feeling themselves part of a united “civic nation”, i.e. citizens whose rights are protected, firstly it is necessary to stop ethnic discrimination (or any discrimination based on belonging to some minority). After all, it is the government which distinguishes some particular groups and resorts to repression against them, while at the same time allowing them sometimes, during official celebrations, to sing and dance, wearing their ethnic costumes. Such policies lead not to “unity” but to an acute feeling of vulnerability, helplessness and powerlessness for the members of minority groups.

In the upcoming year the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination will consider Russia’s next annual report. It is important that alternative reports to the Committee are provided by authentic non-governmental organizations which really work to protect the rights of minorities, not the surrogates of civil society, which will in turn report about the surrogates of the “civic nation” and “peoples’ friendship”.

First published in a blog on the website of Radio Liberty

Photo by Dr. A. Hugentobler, Nenets people in the tundra near Dudinka

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