On the sidelines of the Saami festival Márkomeannu 2023

Seminar on the situation of the indigenous peoples of Russia in times of war

On July 27-30, 2023, the annual Márkomeannu Saami festival took place in the northern part of Norway. This year, the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia (ICIPR) in exile, with the support of ADC Memorial, held a seminar entitled “The Impact of the War in Ukraine on Russia’s Indigenous Peoples” as part of the festival.

The Saami are a single indigenous people whose traditional lands – Сапми/Sápmi – are now located on the territories of four states: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

After the start of a full-scale invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine, the international NGO Saami Council announced the suspension of cooperation with the Kola Peninsula Saami. At the same time, the Saami leaders of the Scandinavian countries are certainly very concerned about the impact of the war on the situation of the Saami living in Russia.

Since the beginning of February 2022, persecution and threats against human rights defenders, public opinion leaders, and activists in Russia have only intensified. Anti-war stance is criminalized, and many of those who do not consider it possible for themselves to participate in criminal aggression seek refuge in other countries. This fully applies to defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples. Thus, three representatives of the Sámi from the Murmansk region – Andrei Danilov, Alexander Slupachik and Andrei Zhvavy – fled Russia in 2022 and requested asylum in Norway. They spoke out at a seminar during the Márkomeannu festival.

“The Saami are involved in this war from two sides,” says Andrei Danilov, a well-known Saami leader and member of the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia (ICIPR) in exile, with long pauses. “At the moment, from open sources, we know that seven Saami who were drafted into the Russian army died. Seven young guys. This is a big loss for a small nation. If you look at the statistics of 2010, the number of Saami men from 20 to 34 years old is 187. So, 4% of young Saami guys died in 500 days of the war.”

Andrei said that with the start of the war, in the Murmansk region the volume of industrial developments on the territory of the Saami people increased sharply:

– Only in the Lovozersky district in the tundra they will develop three deposits, and in the village of Revda, the owner of the mine has changed. The new one intends to increase development. I will name the companies: Rosatom, NorNickel, Fedorovo Resources, Arctic Lithium, and Polar Lithium. With the help of Russian-controlled Saami self-government agencies and other pro-government indigenous experts, industrial companies, together with the authorities, paint a misleading picture of compliance with international norms, such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

Alexander Slupachik was the chairman of the Saami Public Organization of the Murmansk Region (SPOMR). At the seminar, Alexander spoke about how the war affected the self-government of the Saami people:

– In the Murmansk region there are about 50 Saami organizations, mostly communities. The largest organizations are the Kola Saami Association and SPOMR, which are part of the Saami Council. Kola Saami Association is completely controlled by the government of the Murmansk region, its head is an employee of the government agency in charge of Saami issues. SPOMR raised issues that were important for the Saami and inconvenient for the government, which is why the leaders of the SPOMR organisation were subject to pressure from the security services.

After the start of the war in Ukraine, SPOMR made an anti-war statement, because of which the pressure on Alexander increased. He was not allowed to organise the congress of the Kola Saami, his proposals were completely ignored:

– So, the last congress of the Kola Saami was completely under the control of the authorities. At the moment, in the Murmansk region, there is not a single elected body of the Saami people that could actually represent the interests of the people. Thus, we can state that there is no self-government of the Saami people in the Murmansk region.

Andrei Zhvavy, a former member of the SPOMR, shared a personal story about what it was like to be an asylum seeker in Norway. Andrei has been living in a refugee camp for eight months, sharing a room with another job seeker. There are about 150 people in the camp and one kitchen for everyone. The allowance provided by the migration agency (UDI) is incomparable to the high Norwegian prices.

– Being a refugee is difficult, you are constantly under stress. For three months I went to a psychologist.

Andrei is also stressed by the fact that in the near future, Norway is going to deport him to Finland in accordance with the Dublin agreement.

Andrei Danilov and Alexander Slupachik live in similar conditions, waiting for the decision of the Norwegian Migration Service since last year.

The indigenous peoples of Russia suffer disproportionately from the war: in addition to its general economic and political consequences, a high risk of death of men is added – after all, being from the poorest “ethnic” regions of Russia, they are more vulnerable to forced military mobilisation.

Today in Russia it is almost impossible to defend the rights of indigenous peoples. Activists in exile are trying different ways to convey information about the real situation of the indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East to the international community. This includes the information that involvement in the war threatens the physical survival of indigenous peoples, and that the return of activists who have left to Russia can lead to persecution for their anti-war position.

Yana Tannagasheva

International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia (ICIPR)