“Finno Ugric Peoples Yet to Taste Freedom”

July 3, 2008 • Philip BurgessReindeer Herders

So said Toomas Ilves, the President of Estonia, as he marched his delegation out of last weeks Finno Ugric Congress in Khanty Mansisk. Ilves even called for the European Union to become engaged in protecting Finno Ugric languages. These remarks were designed to irritate Russia, no doubt, as more than 2 million Finno Ugrian people live in Russia (and many are reindeer herders) Nenets, Sami, Khanty, Mansy, and Komi. However, and this point was made in the Moscow Times in yesterdays editorial, many of Russia’s indigenous peoples are not benefiting from the recent rise in Russia’s wealth and this is all the more evident in areas that are rich in oil and gas such as Khanty Mansisk, Yamal Nenets Autonomous Okrug and the Nenets Automous Okrug).

The editorial praised Abramovich’s approach in Chukotka where he has invested heavily in the social and physical infrastructure of the region

One such endangered group lives in the Nenets autonomous district, a top producer of oil and gas. The district has a population of 7,000 indigenous Nenets, whose language is part of the same family as the Finno-Ugric languages. Most Nenets devote themselves to traditional occupations like reindeer herding and fishing, existing at barely subsistence levels as the district’s economy booms on the back of sky-high oil prices. So while their right to study their own language and preserve traditions is more or less respected, their survival as an ethnic group could be in question.

If Russia indeed wishes to become a state where the rights of indigenous people are properly protected, it needs to change the way that wealth is distributed so that ethnic groups benefit more from the wealth of their native lands. One positive example that federal authorities could learn from is the Chukotka region, where billionaire Governor Roman Abramovich has invested heavily into sustainable economic projects.

A sense of the enormous scale of future development coming to the Yamal Peninsula, upon which much of the future Russian petro-economy rests was recently highlighted,

Up to 50,000 qualified workers must be hired in connection with the development of the Bovanenkovskoe, Kharasaveyskoe and other fields in the Yamal Peninsula. A major number of them will be foreigners / “Вопрос привлечения квалифицированных рабочих в Ямало-Ненецком автономном округе (ЯНАО) стоит особенно остро. Ведь только на освоении Бованенковского, Харасавейского и группы других нефтегазовых месторождений Ямала планируется задействовать до 50000 человек. На сегодняшний день больше всего не хватает специалистов рабочих специальностей, при этом в ближайшие годы дефицит квалифицированных рабочих станет еще более острым” (BarentsObserver – Heфтяные новости Мурмана)

Reindeer herders in Yamal have long said that this development may bring economic opportunities in terms of new markets, but the risks of poaching, encroachment and further loss of pastures in a region that currently only has a total of 34455 people in the Okrug (71.8 % of whom are Nenets, many of whom are engaged in reindeer husbandry (See Presentations from Reindeer Portal here), are obvious, not to mention the increased risk of language loss and assimilation.