On One Hectare

In recent days, newsfeeds have been flooded with headline-grabbing reports from the village of Chemodanovka, the site of a conflict between “residents” and “gypsies,” as this event is portrayed in the media. An all-out brawl, whose details and causes are unknown, victims, one person dead in the hospital. A people’s gathering, demands to “kick out the gypsies,” “residents” blocking the highway because of rumors that “gypsies are coming from other regions.” OMON, the Russian National Guard, dozens hauled into the police precinct. Official promises to get to the bottom of this and punish the guilty parties, an announcement of a “purge” of out-of-towners (with the implication that “gypsies” are also out-of-towners and not “locals”). The comments on the news from Chemodanovka—this is where the incitement is, this is where the extremism is… And no one thinks to delete them.

Until now, few Russians were aware of the existence of Chemodanovka, and they will be surprised to learn that both human rights defenders and the international community know about the lives of the Roma in this village. In 2017, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed Russia’s implementation of the corresponding convention. As part of this review, ADC Memorial submitted an alternative report that mentioned Chemodanovka’s school as one of dozens of schools that segregates Roma children by instructing them separately from other children. At the time, this school had Roma classes for first through fourth grades. One or two Roma children were in general classes in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, and there were no Roma children at all in the upper grades. Because of overcrowding (the school has two shifts and construction of a new school is only scheduled to begin in 2020), the school was not able to accept 10 Roma children for first grade; these children were sent to a different village school, whose director told parents that she had to accept them, but that “we have Mordvins here, they won’t let you live.” In the end, these 10 children stayed home, hoping that there would be spots in Chemodanovka’s school the next year. Education agencies took no interest in the situation and have never given any thought to why there are 12 Roma children in first grade, but only one or two who make it to seventh or eighth grade or to what they do after that. And please don’t tell us that “Roma don’t want to study, that’s their tradition.”

One might wonder what the connection is between a school and an all-out brawl sensationalized into an ethnic conflict and accompanied by a real pogrom. In reality, the connection is direct: racism, demolition of homes, eviction, exclusion, segregation in school, low-quality education, unemployment, poverty—this is the vicious circle otherwise known as “structural discrimination against the Roma population,” where one problem cleaves to another, making it very difficult to break the cycle without outside help. And this outside help is non-existent; in fact the opposite is true. Particularly in the matter of land and housing.

Chronic problems cannot be resolved with evictions and “purges,” and there is no need to pretend that the authorities are hearing about the dense Roma population in Chemodanovka for the first time: they knew about it, they just did nothing to integrate the Roma or to prevent possible conflicts. The authorities of Penza Oblast now have the task of preventing what recently happened in Khakassia, where the “locals” vandalized and pillaged Roma homes with the silent agreement of the authorities and inaction on the part of the police following a conflict between the “locals” and the “gypsies” that ended in the accidental death of one the brawlers. Now attempts are being made to drive Roma residents out of the village where they have lived for almost 20 years.

On May 30, 2019, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Khakassia took the side of the administration of Ust-Abakan and ordered residents of the Roma settlement to demolish 10 houses deemed “unauthorized structures” within one month. Previously, the Ust-Abakan District Court sided with the Roma and banned the demolition of the houses listed in the claim, but the city’s administration appealed this decision. In its judgment, the Supreme Court ignored the fact that this land was allocated to Roma for the construction of homes in the early 2000s and that the administration did not give owners the opportunity to legalize their structures or offer any options for resettlement.

Residents of the settlement in Ust-Abakan are already feeling pressure: on the day following the hearing, even before the court’s reasoned judgment was published (this takes 10 days), police visited the settlement with the head of Ust-Abakan District Office of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The police demanded that the residents of the ten “condemned” homes immediately start dismantling them and threatened forcible demolition if the residents refused.

The attorney Valery Zaitsev, who defended the rights of residents to their only housing with support from ADC Memorial, wrote in his appeal to the prosecutor’s office that “…The actions of the police officers are illegal and only serve to stoke social tension in a situation that is already complicated. The court’s judgment must naturally be complied with, but a decision needs to be made about where these people and their children will live. The court gave a one month period for this. Thus, the police officers’ actions cannot be viewed as actions to forcibly execute the court’s judgment, since this is not one of their duties. A demand to execute a court judgment that has not even been prepared against people who will be left without housing because of this judgment can give rise to nothing but outrage in these people.”

The demolition of Roma settlements has, unfortunately, not been a rarity in recent times. Suffice it to recall the high-profile destruction of over 100 homes in 2016 and 2017 in the settlement of Plekhanovo in Tula Oblast (which, incidentally, was conducted with the participation of special police forces). After this, residents spent several months living in tents, without electricity, gas, or any assistance from the authorities (Plekhanov residents have reported that another several dozen homes will be demolished in June 2019). The Russian authorities are not at all concerned by the fact that the destruction of homes and eviction of residents without providing other housing has been deemed a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights and may result in thousands and thousands in payments from the country’s budget. (Under a 2016 judgment in the case of Bogdanavichus v. Russia issued by the European Court Roma, residents from the razed settlement of Dorozhnoe in Kaliningrad Oblast received a large award as compensation.)

And the Roma are not the only people the Russian authorities are trying to uproot. Communities of indigenous peoples also feel like they are sitting on a tinderbox as attempts are made to take the lands where they have traditionally lived for centuries and deprive them of the opportunity to hunt, graze deer, and gather wild herbs. This is being done not just by oil and mining companies that pollute nature, block roads, and set “loyal” non-governmental organizations of indigenous peoples against those who decide to protest, but also by local authorities, who lease the land of indigenous peoples to hunting farms and redraw borders for land use, meaning that settlements end up on the territory of a forest reserve and residents must respond to eviction lawsuits (this is what happened with the Nanai settlement in Khabarovsk Krai).

The law on the “Far Eastern hectare” has also complicated the lives of indigenous peoples. This law has been in effect for residents of the Far Eastern District since June 1, 2016 and for all residents of the Russian Federation since February 1, 2017. Some believe that the inclusion of Buryatia and Zabaikal in the Far Eastern District—a move that turned our notions about geography upside down—was dictated specifically by those who wanted to get their hands on “hectares” in these regions. Indigenous peoples have been skeptical about this law since the beginning, but have not taken this as far as open protests: a lawsuit filed concerning the enormous loss of territory for traditional use of natural resources in Khabarovsk Krai was ultimately withdrawn.

The dubious idea that land can be simply handed out to anyone who wants it was first expressed in a similar and even more odious local law “on ancestral estates,” which was adopted in Belgorod Oblast in 2010 under the influence of the cult of Anastasians, who are actually dishonest land speculators who swindle gullible people under the guise of spiritual enlightenment. Attempts to move this law to the federal level have fortunately not yet been successful.

The “Far Eastern” law may also at some point live to see an investigation and exposure: after all, the idea of handing out “hectares” in remote regions and then “unexpectedly” discovering that this land has been used traditionally for centuries is no less dubious.

Olga Abramenko – expert of the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial, Candidate of Philology

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda