The absent Russians at the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

Feature story - 23 September, 2014
The UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples started in New York, but several delegates that had a lot to tell were absent. Five Russian participants were held up by police and federal security agents and forcefully prevented from taking their flights to the Conference.

Valentina Sovkina's documents and car have been inspected by the traffic police 3 times on her way from Murmansk region to Kirkenes airport

Three of them were supposed to represent Indigenous people of the Russian North and Siberia, two - Crimea.

Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North, had his passport seized by FSB at the Sheremetevo airport in Moscow. The passport of Anna Naikanchina, member of people’s council of Buryatia region, was also confiscated in the airport and its pages cut. Saami leader from Murmansk region Valentina Sovkina was stopped on her way to Kirkenes airport four times and police searched her car twice.

As a result all of them missed their planes to New York, where over a thousand delegates had the opportunity to share perspectives and best practices on the realization of their rights. In fact these people have no good news to share on this topic.

This is how Valentina Sovkina describes her shocking experience: “Suddenly a young man approaches and tries to grab my bag. He knocked me to the ground… the traffic policeman was just watching. But when my driver Volodya tried to stop the guy, the policeman sseized him and let the hooligan run away… After that we were left alone in the middle of the road, without documents, just sitting and waiting”.

Why did these people from Indigenous towns became targets in such a clearly highly coordinated hunt?

Experts connect the treatment of the two Crimean participants with the ongoing Ukrainian conflict.

But the other three from the North and Siberia have absolutely nothing to do with the conflict. However all of them have been active in protecting rights of their communities, which unfortunately have never have been a priority when big bisness is concerned. Especially the oil and gas business, which is above everything in Russia.

Rodion Sulyandziga who should have chaired a roundtable discussion at the conference in New York, believes one of the reasons is a conflict between Indigenous communities and the oil industry over the Arctic regions development: “At the conference they will discuss Arctic development and exploiting of its natural resources. It’s a very sensitive topic”.

Khanty man showing his land devastated by oil industry, Western Siberia

Previously several Indigenous groups from the Russian North, including RAIPON which Rodion had been previously been heading, have signed a statement rejecting oil development in the Arctic.

This is, definitely, not the first attempt in Russia to supress Indigenous rights activists. In 2013 Ministry of Justice suspended the activities of RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North)  for half a year, under the pretence of inconsistencies between the bylaws of the organisation and Russian Federal law. The organization was reopened later, but it's leadership changed to more comformist. 

“What happened  before the Indigenous Conference in New York is nothing but a rude attempt to silence those few people that still have energy to fight for their native land, nature and culture. But It is impossible to keep secret the destruction that corporations bring to their lands”, says Evgenia Belyakova, Arctic campaigner at Greenpeace Russia.

We have been to Siberia, Komi, Yamal-Nenets region to witness this destruction.

Rivers covered with oil slick, dead forests, poisoned animals – that’s what big oil brings to Indigenous villages. They destroy their lives and at best in return they pay minimal compensations, considering even this to be a big act of charity. In many cases the oil industry is sure that providing some jobs is enough for these communities. But if they cared to preserve the environment, locals would not need any ‘charity’ and would be perfectly able to support themselves as they have been doing for centuries.

Instead of 28 participants Russia was represented at the Conference by just 23. Possibly those that were allowed would show a better picture of Indigenous rights in Russia to the world. For example, they will tell about the “friendship between the oil industry and the Khanty people”. 

Russian authorities often say how important it is to diversify the economy and preserve unique aspects of Russian culture. We wish that they spent resources on achieving this rather than on ugly attempts to silence criticisms. It’s still not too late to find a balance between industry and people, to preserve what is worth much more than oil.

An indigenous Nenet girl herding reindeers at Yamal Peninsula, Siberia


Maria Favorskaya

2 Comments Add comment

(Unregistered) persattom says:

Russia is always welcome at these conferences, but it is a pity that now they cannot be there for reasons of "tight money".

Posted 16 December, 2014 at 13:52 Flag abuse

(Unregistered) Rachel says:

How infuriating! Russia desperately needs an Idle No More-type movement of its own, but from the sound of things, big oil and the government it owns w...

Posted 26 September, 2014 at 16:15 Flag abuse


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