By Paul Goble
Moscow’s approach to the country’s smallest non-Russian nationalities has historically been measured by the opening and closing of schools, the level of support for non-Russian language institutions, the share of officials from indigenous nationalities in key positions, and so on. Over the past decade, the Russian government’s approach has not been good even on these measurements. But lately, Vladimir Putin has adopted a “hybrid” strategy that is even more negative: specifically, the Russian government has been relying on market forces as well as on the use of nominally ethnically-neutral regulations to undermine or coerce some of Russia’s smallest nationalities. Both hit these minute groups far harder than the surrounding ethnic-Russian communities. Thus, this “hybrid” strategy must be factored into any assessment of Putin’s nationality policy.
Like its Soviet predecessors, the Putin regime has ignored the rights of indigenous peoples whenever the recognition of these rights limit top–down economic development goals. That has been particularly true in the development of the oil and natural gas industry in Russia’s northern regions, where Moscow has tilted the playing field against the indigenous populations and in favor of the oil and gas developers (Slideshare.net, November 18, 2014; 7x7-journal.ru, May 4, 2016; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 11, 2016). In recent weeks, the central government has done the same thing with regard to the coal industry, allowing its leading firms to ride roughshod over the claims of the indigenous ethnic groups (Facebook.com/ipRightsWatch.Russia, accessed June 27).
Perhaps even more important to the fate of the smaller nationalities of Russia—that is, those with fewer than 100,000 members each—Moscow has ended many of its subsidies to them and left them to face market forces alone. Inevitably, this has the effect of limiting the ability of these communities to have media and schools in their own languages, and it forces members of these groups to shift to Russian as their primary language (for examples of this trend in the Middle Volga, see Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, November 10, 2015).
Two Russian policies announced in recent weeks show that calling Putin’s approach to the smaller nationalities a “hybrid” war is fully justified—specifically, his government is achieving certain goals by taking indirect actions while denying that this is what Moscow is doing. The two cases have not attracted much attention because they involve two groups who live in the Russian Far East: the Orochi, who number under a thousand, and the Udege, who number approximately 1,500.
In the former case, Russian authorities issued a ban on the use of nets to catch fish, something that they have pointed out affects members of all groups. But the reality is that it hits the Orochi and other traditional peoples hardest because that is their primary means of securing enough food (Vostokmedia.com, June 12). And in the latter case, Russian officials have ignored a court order requiring them to hand over land that the Udege have traditionally used for raising food, apparently convinced that there is no reason that the members of that nationality should be so privileged (Regnum, June 22).