Russian Indigenous Peoples of the North as Political Actors

By Tamara Semenova, Senior Researcher
Russian Research Institute for Cultural and Natural Heritage, Moscow, Russia
tams (at)


Lecture is an overview of the two on-going processes - one following development of the indigenous opportunities at the international arena where new high-level institutional building has been achieved, and the other at the level of national policy towards the indigenous peoples in Russia. Trying to follow the logics of these recent developments, it is also necessary to undertake an outlook at the indigenous opportunities to act at the ideological field. What is the relationship between the power and non-state actors in Russia, and the question of major importance: what are the prospects for the indigenous peoples and their organizations in Russia? 

Through practical work in their organizations, indigenous peoples are building up a joint agenda to further their social and economic interests. This process is accompanied by a transformation of the agenda of the sovereign states and subordinate governmental bodies as well as the establishment of partnerships with indigenous peoples through their legally recognized organizations as new political actors. At the regional level, the Arctic Council serves as a positive model of governance where indigenous peoples’ organizations (IPO) are able to exercise the equal rights for participation in decision-making together with the sovereign states. 

At the same time, the national practices of such organizations as a political agency are much more limited: they focus on adapting to the existing political regime and power structures; attempting to critically evaluate the activities and functioning of state bodies, intergovernmental agencies and non-governmental organizations; and coping with existing problems that require solutions or temporary mitigation. The solution of problems that depend on the indigenous peoples themselves is managed by the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) as a representative national IPO. These problems typically involve capacity building, education, training and organization of the movement of indigenous peoples. The roles of indigenous organizations in the development of civil society have already been established: they are vital part of the non-governmental community in Russia, and the RAIPON is centrally placed as a political union to lead and guide the national movement of indigenous peoples and to transform political decisions into practical solutions.

Civil society in Russia is under transition, the possibilities for public mobilization depend on informal networking, which is specific to the Russian context. The comparative analysis of the civil society requires consideration of two pair of notions: statism and governance and private and public spheres. Governance as a liberal concept is not recognized and applied by the state, and there is deficit in its understanding and lack of capacity for both state and non-state actors.  At the same time, third sector is growing within the civil society in Russia, and extends its cooperation to the global networks. The Russian administration fails to recognize this growth and, instead of studying and practical introduction of governance concept, tries to promote the dissipation of civil society into cooperating top-level elite with wider access to resources and power and the rest of NGOs, deprived of support from the state. In addition, civil society organizations and self-government institutions are divided and are not yet fully cooperating with each other. The development of civil society in Russia depends on governmental policy, which is characterized as a compromise between the pluralistic agenda and the monocentric public sphere and accumulation of power by the state political elite.

This ’imitation of democracy’ is particularly obvious after the recent transformation period in 1990s with the liberalization of the public discourse, freedom of ideological disputes and  pluralism of opinions and ideas. The resulting wave of self-organization in the civil society included the rapid capacity-building for the non-state political actors, and IPO in particular. However, the state’s response included both introduction of the dominant ideology and vertical subordination structure in the government in the interests of the short-term stability instead of the long-term cohesive process of the civil society consolidation. This has lead to the polarization of the ideological disputes and subsequent marginalization of the alternative or opposition agendas, reflecting the deficiency of the relevant conceptual civil impact upon the national policy.  New legislation introduced in the liberal market conditions, highly unfavorable for the marginal groups, aggravates their economic situation.   

With no clear strategy in relation to migrants, expatriates and minorities, the emerging  problems are not critically assessed and transformed into a comprehensive policy on nationalities in Russia. And, as the development of the national policy is not a priority, the capacity of the state to respond to the new ethnic demands is also limited. Though declaration of this policy in the Russian Constitution exists, and the pro-indigenous legislation has been introduced by the RAIPON at the federal level, the securing of the indigenous peoples’ rights is not ensured in practice. On the contrary, the lack of support by the majority of the national population, the existing opposition of the authorities in the regions and the liberal agenda by the state deprives indigenous peoples of access to their vital resources and lands. In this situation, the political opportunities for indigenous peoples and their organizations have determined the following actions - direct contact strategy (meeting with top-level officials in the state and abroad) and lobbying at the margins (via the Public Chamber and Federal Assembly). These political activities of the IPO in Russia have a tendency to continuation in the near future.

See also: Semenova (2007), Political mobilisation of northern indigenous peoples in Russia. Polar record 43(223):23-32.


Tamara Semenova, Senior Researcher
Russian Research Institute for Cultural and Natural Heritage, Moscow, Russia
tams (at)

Tamara Semenova is senior researcher at the Institute of Cultural and Natural Heritage under Russian Academy of Sciences and Ministry of Culture. She is a PhD student in political science, majoring in international relations at the University of Helsinki.

A selection of Semenova’s research activities include:

  • participation as a senior researcher in the British-Russian project on "Cultural landscape as a heritage feature: comparative analysis" funded by the British Academy of Sciences; 
  • an international research project on "Indigenous peoples as international actors" funded by the Finnish Academy of Sciences.
  • a participant in the Council of Europe formal meetings in Russia and CIS on spatial development and heritage conservation,
  • a member of Global Environmental Facility in Russia in the project "Persistent Toxic Substances, Food Safety and Indigenous Peoples of the North in Russia",
  • an expert in the Review Committee of the Environmental Impact Assessment (Expertiza) of the State Committee of the Environmental Protection (Goskomekologia).