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Rubles and Reindeer

Rubles and Reindeer

The opinions expressed herein are the writer’s and do not reflect those of their employer.

I. Introduction

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which makes it an appropriate moment to discuss the plight of one of Russia’s largest indigenous populations who were victims of a modernizing and oil hungry Soviet Russia: the Khanty. According to a profile by the Guild of Inter-Ethnic Journalists, the Khanty currently have a population consisting of about 30,000 people, most of whom live in the region named for them, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug (KhMAO). The Khanty are traditional, nomadic, reindeer-herding peoples that have long lived in western Siberia. As stated in a Russian state news profile, from 1930-1940 the autonomous okrug (or region) was “legitimized” by the Russian government, which intended to bring the Khanty into an official and governed status within the Soviet Union.

Today, the Khanty are one of the few remaining indigenous groups with their own autonomous region. Unfortunately for the Khanty, their historic region and home for centuries just so happens to sit on top of one of Russia’s three largest oil basins. In fact, 75 percent of Russia’s oil production comes from the region and the Western Siberia Oil Basin that lies under the KhMAO accounts for 67 percent of Russia’s oil reserves according to the International Journal of Energy Economics and Policy. The location of this particular oil basin puts the reindeer-herding Khanty in a precarious position and they are losing the fight for their traditional rights. They will continue to lose these rights as they confront a much stronger Russian government and Russian oil industry and there is not sign to this slowing down. The resulting environmental degradation that occurs all the while is a source of argument as well with the abuse of land and resources that could set the stage for worsening conflict. A Russian government that would support the ecology of the Khanty lands, assist representation and/or protect the local language would be the solution to this grievance; will the government actually do it is the true question.

II. The natives, oil and environmental degradation

The Khanty historically lived largely untouched alongside the Russian Empire in a fur-trading region with timber to trade, according to the region’s official website. Once oil was discovered in the 1930s and aggressively tapped in the 1960s, the once undamaged, scenic landscape yielded 70 billion barrels of oil over the following 40 years, as Paul Starobin wrote in National Geographic magazine in 2008.

A March 2017 Guardian article on the Khanty by Alec Luhn documented a specific grievance in the Khanty community that encompasses many of the problems they face (such detailed cases do not usually exist). A sub-region of the KhMAO, known as Surgut, is home to the oil and gas giant Surgutneftegaz, which was created as a combination of a few different state oil companies from the Soviet era. While this massive oil company continually drills into the Siberian land, a Khanty population of 4,000 in Surgut continues to hunt, fish, and herd reindeer as they have for centuries. With Russia’s economy in a slump, drilling increased in an effort to energize the economy with oil exports. As a result, the Kremlin knocked down Surgut’s protected status in 2013.

To compensate the Khanty for their land, Surgutneftegaz planned to pay individuals approximately 170,000 rubles (~$2,500) for the rights to their land. However, the contract that the companies have the natives sign is in Russian – a language in which many Khanty are illiterate. Lukoil, one of the largest oil companies in the world, offered 5 million rubles (~$84,700) to one family for a large parcel of land in another part of the KhMAO as reported by Georgy Borodyansky’s Open Democracy article from 2014.

Some land is worth more than others, but the variation in payouts illustrates that these companies have the ability and the will to pay off the population at any amount. Neither sum of money is enough to sustain the large family units the Khanty live in, especially when in some cases the population in question does not live close to another village, so they are unable to easily access food supplies and other goods. In fact, as Andrew Wiget and Olga Balalaeva wrote for Cultural Survival, a group that is known for research into indigenous populations, the food that the Khanty can gather from their limited river and forest land, they are legally unable to sell due to Russian government restrictions. These paltry payouts will not support them, nor are they able to support themselves. Though to the Khanty, money is not their utmost concern – the interruption of a lifestyle that they have maintained for centuries is.

A key issue regarding this situation is the local’s lack of voice in their local government. Lukoil was formed from Soviet state-owned western Siberian oil companies and Sugutneftegaz is another former state-owned oil conglomerate, which provides them strong government ties and influence. With the many sanctions hitting the Russian oil and gas industry, limiting technology to Russian domestic technologies, an oil company succeeding helps the economy keeps the country afloat. The head of Surgutneftegaz, Vladimir Bogdanov, is one of Russia’s wealthiest men. He is a member of the Khanty-Mansi okrug local government, and uses only Russian technologies and contractors. In fact, he employs a third of the city of Surgut’s 300,000 citizens as documented by Voice of America’s Russian service.

The aforementioned rollbacks on environmental protections are a result of Bogdanov’s clout. His domestic enterprise actually benefits from foreign sanctions and also from the powerless ethnic minority that is unable to push back due to oil’s economic importance. In fact, it is not only Bogdanov that represents the interest of oil in the local KhMAO government. A publication from Cultural Survival, noted in 1996 that not a single Khanty member was in the local representative council. The article goes on to describe how those who move into the KhMAO do so looking for oil work without any attachment or care for the community as a whole or the environmental situation at hand. Without a local voice, the risk of the land slipping further into ruin is more likely.

The degradation of environmental resources and general disregard for the Khanty’s lifestyle is the largest source of grievance between the Khanty and their Russian counterparts. The KhMAO suffered a great amount of damage due to the high oil yield the land has experienced. The landscape in 90 percent of the oil-producing areas has been damaged or destroyed, according to a Georgy Borodyansky’s 2014 Open Democracy article. In addition, there are constant forest fires that threaten the locals’ way of life and the lives of the reindeer they rely upon. Oil drilling fires and overall degradation have led to around 54 million acres of reindeer pasture being decimated according to an Ed Ayres piece in the World Watch journal.

The continuing uncertainty in environmental conditions led some of the Khanty victims to speak at the United Nations Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) summit in 2015 to air their grievances to a larger audience. The locals’ calls to the Russian government for an alleviation of drilling activities only results in the government willing to make monuments or national parks out of little corners of affected lands and, of course, allow the oil companies to pay off the locals. Unfortunately, as Wiget and Balalaeva’s article notes, this solution is hardly helpful because oil drilling already blocks access to traditional religious sites that may not have appeared on maps when drilling sites were set up. The oil companies and the indigenous population have no common interests and the former are absolutely powerless vs the latter who have local and national government’s ear.

III: Potential for violence and mitigating the conflict

The conflict’s potential for violence appears quite low. Research on this issue has only revealed a small number of violent incidents, including a 1930s revolution against collectivization and a story recounting a Khanty man shooting an oil company employee’s dog for biting his reindeer in Luhn’s Guardian article. Since, Khanty are a religious, hunting and gathering group that are in an extremely disadvantageous position against the Russian oil companies and they have no reason for violence. If they even consider fighting back or staging another rebellion, the Russian military, which has been known to use violence in suppressing violent conflict (i.e. the wars in Chechnya and Dagestan), would swiftly crush any opposition and likely elect another regional leader into power that would gracefully change laws and allow for more drilling. The more likely battle is a cultural one in which Khanty could lose their language and perhaps become extinct as an ethnic group.

The Khanty language is not widely spoken and Russia’s dependence and promotion of Russian, Khanty as well as other indigenous languages are in danger. Many Uralic languages have already gone extinct (including some Khanty dialects) and very few people today speak Khanty, according to an article on the website Languages in Danger. With fewer children speaking the language, its potential for survival is extremely low. With language, a key identifier of an ethnic group’s existence, its extinction would be a blow to the Khanty’s survival. The Russian government’s efforts to save the Khanty language are just as paltry as the oil companies’ payouts. The possibility of Khanty people eventually taking their payouts, giving up their land and moving to cities to start a new life or joining an oil company to stay close to home are the greatest threat to the culture’s survival. And this is the grimmest part of the conflict between the Khanty, the Russian state and the oil industry. The way to transform the conflict is a proactive resolution and assistance in preserving the Khanty culture, as well as to open up more opportunities for the Khanty population itself. Currently there is no violence in the region but that is simply a sign of Russian government intimidation.

Wiget and Balalaeva previously noted that not a single member of the Khanty community was on the local government in 1996. With statistics hard to come by, it is likely that this situation has not improved. For the conflict to mitigate, the Khanty will need to have more representation in their local government.  The federally-appointed current governor of the KhMAO is a woman by the name of Natalia V. Komarova from Western Russia with a background in construction and economics. This illustrates how people not from the KhMAO region are deciding on what happens to it. Ms. Komarova made a statement through UNESCO’s Russia branch that focused on promoting sustainable development and water protections in the region, but made no mention of drilling or its ramifications. Russia’s UNESCO branch also hosted conferences with the local universities, which provides a good start to promoting sustainability, but did not produce results. Having Khanty members on local councils and in State Duma seats is important, as it would check Ms. Komarova’s power in regard to processes that endanger the local ecology. She has also served on the Duma’s committee on natural resources, which influences her decision making on what is best for the Russian economy; especially given her economic educational background. While the Russian government has allowed UNESCO to establish climate change groups at the local university, but Moscow is too top heavy for this to have any effect in the short term where short term change is necessary.

IV: Specific recommendations

The problem with offering recommendations for a solution between the Khanty and the Russian government-backed oil industry is that the damage is mostly done. The derricks have been raised, the land destroyed, water resources contaminated and reindeer population reduced. Furthermore, recommendations only offer an opportunity to control or mitigate the damage rather than solve the grievance. It is important to understand what will not work before designing recommendations that could help. When dealing with the Russian Federation, for instance, sweeping recommendations that limit or hurt the oil industry will likely receive swift vetoes, as the country depends upon the extraction of natural resources. Also, intergovernmental organization decrees (like the United Nations Human Rights Council) would be taken as an insult and/or violation by the Kremlin. Any effective response must come at the local and state level.

The responses and recommendations for resolving the Khanty’s grievance with the Russian state and the country’s oil industry in the country are as follows: 1) restore environmental protections on the land with local engagement; 2) mandate the Khanty have representation in the local government; 3) provide the Khanty language with protected status while creating more local schools that teach Russian as well.

1) Restoring environmental protections is the most crucial recommendation, as the land can become uninhabitable if drilling and oil exploration are to continue at the current pace. The Russian government should meet with the local population, understand their concerns and decide with them how to properly protect their land and reindeer. The reindeer are extremely important for the Khanty, but due to drilling, it is estimated the region’s reindeer population fell by 28 percent during the 1990s as John Ross noted in Smithsonian Magazine. Data on the current status of the reindeer population decline is not easy to find. However, if oil production has yielded 70 billion barrels in the past 40 years, it is unlikely the population decline has ceased.  Allowing the land to sink further into an oil-soaked ruin, in which the rivers and forests routinely catch fire will cause problems for the native population and Kremlin alike. Adding more bureaucratic hoops to the government’s process for approving drilling operations will at least slow down the degradation and possibly lead to the reconsideration of some oil drilling operations entirely.

2) As noted above, another key issue is the Khanty’s lack of representation in local government. Mandating two Khanty representatives in the office of the governor and encouraging others to run for local council positions is crucial. The reason for having two is that there would be a better dynamic for discussion and more diversity from even within the Khanty community. A federally-appointed governor like Natalia Komarova needs to be balanced by local, indigenous representatives. The same is true for oligarch Vladimir Bogdanov and local government member Vladimir Bogdanov. This sort of influence without Khanty opinions present is dangerous. Having political checks on this influence can mitigate the disparity the Khanty population experiences as a result of its minority status in the Russian Federation.

3) The Russian government needs to work on protecting the language while bringing the Khanty population in from the fringes of Russian society. The population of Khanty in the KhMAO is only 19,068 people (1.3 percent of the population) according to the 2010 Russian census. Declaring the language endangered would attract some needed attention to this issue within the country. The language issue is lower priority compared to the other two recommendations, as it relates to the culture’s survival, and not specifically the people. It is part of a greater challenge as Khanty typically live in more remote sections of the KhMAO, and have less access to public schools. Improving educational opportunities is essential in not leaving a population in the fringes of society.

V: Final words

When studying any Russian indigenous group it is important to understand that many of them are endangered to a severe degree. The fact that the Khanty population still contributes to a percentage of the overall Russian population is a positive sign and should lead to the Kremlin’s further preservation of it. Unfortunately, as Cultural Survival discussed in 2014, within Russia, the native population councils/forums are either relatively powerless or nonexistent. This will need to change if any of the recommendations made above are going to take place. The Khanty should be able to choose whether to integrate fully into Russian society or not. Living on top of an oil gold mine should not be the reason for their demise, but in this case it is. Currently, there is no violence and there likely will never be. The population could die out quietly, before it ever fights back against the government or oil industry. If the culture dies off, the Russian government would be to blame for being complicit in the booming oil industry’s abuses, given the oil companies’ Soviet history and close ties to the Russian state. The fate of the Khanty lies in the hands of the Russian government.

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