De-politicization of Indigenousness in Russia

Par Sardana NIKOLAEVA, le 7 juin 2016  Imprimer l'article  lecture optimisée  Télécharger l'article au format PDF

Sardana Nikolaeva received a BA in Linguistics/Philology from the Sakha State University, the Russian Federation, an MA in Africana Studies from the SUNY at Albany, the USA, and a PhD in Social and Comparative Analysis in Education from the University of Pittsburgh, the USA. She is currently a PhD student of the Department of Anthropology, the University of Manitoba, Canada. Her research interests include indigeneity, politics of (mis)recognition, politics of indigeneity and indigenous activism. Sardana’s dissertation research focuses on indigeneity and politics of (mis)recognition in the post-Soviet Russian North.

Following Coulthard’s argument, one can assert that the Russian governmental definition of indigenousness, focusing on its cultural aspects as well as numerical and territorial ‘incarceration’, serves to perpetuate the perception of indigenous peoples as traditional, backward, on the verge of extinction, incapable of self-determination, and in need of the state’s protection and administration.

Introduction

INDIGENOUS people all over the world are increasingly involved in demands for sovereignty, political and cultural independence, control over land and/or resources, and self-determination, making indigenousness a thoroughly politicized category. To achieve these goals, indigenous movement members draw on their histories, worldviews and experiences as indigenous peoples. However, there is a number of states where the idea of being indigenous and using indigenousness to promote economic and political advancement are highly circumscribed - Russia is not an exception. The Russian legally constructed definition of indigenous peoples denies true indigenous self-determination ; it keeps indigenous peoples politically invisible and economically dependent on the central Russian government. Similarly to other indigenous groups who relied on governmental definitions of indigenousness that focus on and celebrate particular cultural markers of identity (language, religion, phenotype, traditional activities, etc.), [1] indigenous peoples in Russia have to re-create and re-negotiate their identities to fit within the bureaucratic category of indigenousness, in a sense, “incarcerat(ing) themselves in a certain ‘traditional’ lifestyle.” [2] It is argued that the Russian government’s deliberate recognition of indigenousness as a de-politicized cultural only identity assists in ensuring control over indigenous peoples and leaves little room for political and economic articulations of indigenousness at both the national and international levels. Ultimately, the making of indigenous subjects in Russia is a process of de-politicization of indigenousness, which positions it not as a powerful source of resistance and of political voice but rather places it in perpetual marginality, based on its limited and fixed cultural origins and discourses.

Recognizing Indigenous Subjects

An officially recognized indigenous group in Russia can be granted certain rights and privileges : an exemption from land and income taxes if engaged in traditional economic activities in their places of residence, priority rights to natural resource use, the right to demand compensation for mineral extraction by the state and for damage caused by industrial activities, and such. [3] However, being recognized as an indigenous subject in Russia is a long, arduous, and bureaucratic process, primarily characterized by the persistence of a patronizing attitude on the part of the Russian state towards indigenous peoples. The existing category ‘korennye malochislennye narodi’ (indigenous small-numbered peoples) was introduced in the post-Soviet Constitution of the Russian Federation in 1993. The word ‘korennye’ (indigenous) is derived from the Russian word for ‘root’ and implies rootedness and indigenousness ; [4] the term ‘malochislennye’ (small-numbered) accentuates a numerical population threshold of 50,000 people. Currently, the Russian Federation legally recognizes only 46 groups of the North, Siberia and the Far East as indigenous small-numbered peoples. The status of indigenousness can be granted if a group meets four specific official criteria : group members cannot exceed 50,000 ; the group needs to maintain a traditional way of life ; the group members must reside in ancestral and traditionally inhabited territories, and, finally, they need to self-identify as a distinct ethnic community. [5] These essentialist criteria of indigenousness create a compulsion to patrol identity borders, creating strict dichotomy between indigenous and non-indigenous, as well as causing tensions between small and larger indigenous groups as the criteria presume that some indigenous people are more indigenous than others. [6] Moreover, this sort of bureaucratic definition and recognition of indigenousness are often deployed to administer and manage indigenous populations. [7] Therefore, reducing the number of special rights holders can minimize the threat posed by indigenous peoples’ assertions of difference and involvement with politics of indigenousness.

Politics of Indigenousness

The international indigenous movements that protested neo-liberal governments, economic, political and cultural marginalization of indigenous peoples were essential in shaping the post-Soviet politics of indigenousness. Indigenousness came to be seen as politicized in terms of access to and control over land/resources, self-determination, and sovereignty, in a sense, making it more than “pretty costumes, choreographed dances and music ensembles”. [8] The ‘Assotsiatsiia Korennykh Malochislennykh Narodov Severa’ (the Russian Association of the Indigenous Small-Numbered Peoples of the North’ or the RAIPON) was established in 1990 as a non-governmental umbrella organization at the first Congress of Indigenous Peoples of the North. The RAIPON’s primary goal was and still is “to protect the legitimate interests and rights of the indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation”. [9] The establishment of the RAIPON and its attempts to transform the discourse on indigenousness from a primordially cultural notion of ‘primitive/noble savage’ to a politicized concept essentially changed how indigenous peoples viewed themselves. However, despite these advances in indigenous politics, mainly facilitated by the RAIPON, many of indigenous peoples’ living conditions were steadily deteriorating : life expectancy dropped, there was a high rate of mortality, birth rates decreased rapidly ; alcohol abuse, inadequate medical treatment, and unemployment becoming prevalent. [10] In addition to this continuous social, economic and political marginalization, the ecological destruction brought by industrial development seriously threatens the livelihood of indigenous peoples in their places of residence. [11]

These and other issues concerning indigenous peoples in Russia have caused heated debates in the Russian political arena. The continuous political and economic marginalized position of the majority of indigenous peoples forced the RAIPON to adopt a more critical stance on certain constitutional amendments in regards to the protection of indigenous rights at the international level. [12] This attempt resulted in the Russian government’s order to shut down the RAIPON in 2012. In the Novaya Gazeta, Berezhkov, then vice-president of the RAIPON, argued that the organization was taken down due “to its active engagement in defending indigenous peoples’ rights, openly discussing the problems faced by indigenous peoples to a wide international audience, participating in the international movement of indigenous peoples, and cooperating with international indigenous organizations.” [13] Moreover, Berezhkov highlighted that the powerful extraction companies, supported by the Russian government authorities, were violating the rights of indigenous peoples to their ancestral and traditional territories, creating conflicts over land and natural resources. The RAIPON was eventually granted the permission to re-open in 2013. [14] However, the administrative suspension of this organization, counting over 250,000 indigenous members and representing 46 different indigenous groups in the Russian political milieu, seems to reveal the strategy pursued by the Russian government authorities to eliminate the barriers in the way of the Russian extraction corporations. [15]

Due to these recent controversial events, the current Russian government is reluctant to recognize and therefore grant rights to people who claim indigenous status as defined by the international and transnational organizations, as these claims can raise major political and economic issues. [16] Moreover, since local politicized indigenous mobilizations are seen as a threat and a political strategy to gain control over specific regions and their natural resources, the Russian government chooses to operate within the politics of deliberate misrecognition, maintaining the strictly defined official criteria of indigenousness, primarily based on stereotypical primordial imageries of indigenousness and indigenous peoples. Similar to the Canadian and US bureaucratic terms of indigenousness (see Miller 2003), [17] the administratively constructed anti-political criteria of indigenousness in Russia serve as a practical, ‘graspable’, and profoundly political strategy to control, manage and ‘contain’ indigenous peoples within a relatively powerless discourse of de-politicized indigenousness that is seen as too weak a claim to be politically legitimate.

Conclusion

In his work on the politics of recognition and indigenous peoples in Canada, Coulthard argues that the settler-colonial system of governance is based on its ability to identify its indigenous subjects with “the profoundly asymmetrical and non-reciprocal forms of recognition either imposed on or granted to them by the colonial-state and society.” [18] The governmental forms of definition and recognition of indigenousness put forward the certain limited terms and conditions in a way that keeps the neo/colonial structures and relations intact, perpetuating faux-self-determination and faux-self-recognition among its subjects [19]. Following Coulthard’s argument, one can assert that the Russian governmental definition of indigenousness, focusing on its cultural aspects as well as numerical and territorial ‘incarceration’, serves to perpetuate the perception of indigenous peoples as traditional, backward, on the verge of extinction, incapable of self-determination, and in need of the state’s protection and administration. [20] Moreover, this imposition of latent essentialism on local politics of indigenousness has a potential to overturn current indigenous struggles for self-determination, economic, and political equality and social justice.

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[1Conklin, B. (1997). “Body paint, feathers, and VCRs : Aesthetics and authenticity in Amazonian activism.” American Ethnologist 24(4), 711-737 ; Li, T. M. (2000). “Articulating indigenous identity in Indonesia : Resource politics and the tribal slot.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 42(1), 1-38.

[2Donahoe, B. (2011). “On the creation of indigenous subjects in the Russian Federation.” Citizenship Studies, 15(3-4), p.413.

[3Donahoe, B, et al. (2008). Size and place in the construction of indigeneity in the Russian Federation. Current Anthropology, 49(6), p.999.

[4Ibid, p.997.

[5Koch, A., & Tomaselli, A. (2015). “Indigenous peoples’ rights and their (new) mobilizations in Russia.” European Diversity and Autonomy Papers, 1-22. at www.eurac.edu/edap ; Tomaselli, A. (2014). “Implementation of indigenous rights in Russia : Shortcomings and recent developments.” The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 5(4), 1-21.

[6Paradies, Y. C. (2006). “Beyond Black and White : Essentialism, hybridity and indigeneity.” Journal of Sociology, 42(4), 355-367.

[7Miller, B. G. (2003). Invisible indigenes : The politics of nonrecognition. Lincoln and London : University of Nebraska Press.

[8Donahoe, B. (2011). “On the creation of indigenous subjects in the Russian Federation.” Citizenship Studies, 15(3-4), p.404.

[9Semenova, T. (2007). “Political mobilization of Northern indigenous peoples in Russia.” Polar Record, 43(223), p.30.

[10Pika, A. (Ed.). (1999). Neotraditionalism in the Russian North : Indigenous peoples and the legacy of perestroika. Seattle & London : University of Washington Press ; Tomaselli, A. (2014). “Implementation of indigenous rights in Russia : Shortcomings and recent developments.” The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 5(4), 1-21.

[11Tomaselli, A. (2014). “Implementation of indigenous rights in Russia : Shortcomings and recent developments.” The International Indigenous Policy Journal, 5(4), p.2.

[12Ibid., p.13.

[13Berezhkov, D. (2012, November 28). “Why the Russian government shuts down RAIPON - background article.” International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.iwgia.org/news/search-news?news_id=710.

[14Koch, A., & Tomaselli, A. (2015). “Indigenous peoples’ rights and their (new) mobilizations in Russia.” European Diversity and Autonomy Papers, 1-22. at www.eurac.edu/edap.

[15Ibid. p.14.

[16Donahoe, B, et al. (2008). “Size and place in the construction of indigeneity in the Russian Federation.” Current Anthropology, 49(6), p.1008.

[17Miller, B. G. (2003). Invisible indigenes : The politics of nonrecognition. Lincoln and London : University of Nebraska Press.

[18Coulthard, G. (2014). Red skin, white masks : Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minneapolis & London : University of Minnesota Press, p.25.

[19Ibid.

[20Donahoe, B, et al. (2008). “Size and place in the construction of indigeneity in the Russian Federation.” Current Anthropology, 49(6), p.1009.


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