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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Russia

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2 July 2015
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Russia, 2 July 2015, available at: [accessed 20 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

According to the 2010 census, nearly 20 per cent of the Russian Federation's population identify themselves as belonging to ethnic groups other than the Russian majority and there are more than 170 peoples recognized in the country, including indigenous peoples. Diversity is entrenched in the very structure of the Federation, with 21 ethnic republics in which local languages are recognized as official alongside Russian. Despite this, under President Vladimir Putin an emphasis has been placed – in official discourse, the education system and the media – on national unity and Russian patriotism, a trend that continued during 2014. Throughout the year, authorities continued to repress civil society organizations, including those working on minority and indigenous peoples' rights, through the application of the controversial 2012 'Foreign Agents' law that requires NGOs in receipt of foreign funding and engaged in 'political activities' to register as an 'organization performing the functions of a foreign agent'. Among others, the Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) Memorial, which had campaigned against discrimination against Roma and migrants, closed its office in St Petersburg in April 2014 following a court ruling requiring it to register as a 'foreign agent'.

In March, following civil unrest and protests in Ukraine, Russia annexed Crimea after a referendum that was condemned by international observers as neither free nor fair. Unsurprisingly, this development and continued fighting with pro-Russian armed separatists in eastern Ukraine has had a profound impact on Russian society. Among its consequences has been the acute politicization of issues concerning Ukraine, and at times direct harassment of Ukrainians residing in Russia. For example, in April 2014, a swastika was painted on the door of the flat belonging to a Ukrainian residing in Vologda, while flyers were stuffed in the mailboxes of other residents in the same building 'informing' them, through the use of derogatory terms, that a Ukrainian lived there. While such direct harassment has been uncommon, Ukrainians have reportedly been affected by a general atmosphere of intimidation, particularly in light of the state media's biased coverage of events, routinely linking Ukrainian nationalists to fascism. At the same time, developments in Ukraine have overshadowed the actions of ultra-nationalists, resulting in their public events, such as anti-immigration rallies, gaining less media attention and public support than in previous years.

The conditions of migrant workers have continued to deteriorate. Migration regulations are continuously modified and are becoming increasingly restrictive. In addition to bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining work and residence permits, since 2013 law enforcement officials have used particularly repressive means to crack down on illegal immigration. Measures have included police raids and the rounding up of people on the basis of their 'non-Slavic appearance'. For example, between 23 October and 2 November 2014 the Moscow authorities implemented 'Operation Migrant 2014', reportedly arresting 7,000 migrants in the first four days, in some instances resorting to violence; some of those arrested had administrative or criminal charges brought against them. A similar operation took place in St Petersburg in September and October 2014. The absence of registration or even identity documents has made migrants – and some particularly disadvantaged minorities such as Roma – vulnerable to police abuse, leading to illegal searches, arbitrary detention and extortion of bribes. Ultra-nationalist groups have carried out their own attacks on migrants, in a form of vigilantism seeking to combat crimes allegedly perpetrated by ethnic minorities and illegal immigration. The groups most at risk of ethnically motivated violence have been people of 'non-Slavic appearance', particularly people from the North Caucasus (Russia's southern republics), the South Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as Roma. The SOVA Centre's preliminary data for 2014 indicate that 19 people were killed and 103 injured in Russia as a result of hate crime; as in previous years, most victims were from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Instances of hate crime can go unreported. For example, the Moscow Helsinki Group in 2014 documented cases of Meskhetian Turks in the south of Russia who had been victims of ethnically motivated attacks, and who did not report these instances to the police – due to fear of reprisals and distrust of law enforcement officials themselves. Meskhetian Turks are a minority who have been subjected to widespread harassment and discrimination, and hundreds of whom are still reportedly stateless.

Indigenous peoples, besides enduring higher unemployment rates, poorer standards of living and lower life expectancy, face limited opportunities for political participation. In September, representatives of indigenous peoples' organizations were prevented from leaving Russia to attend the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York. Various means were used to this end, including obstructing their journey to the airport (e.g. Valentina Sovkina, head of the Saami parliament of Kola Peninsula), or the confiscation of passports at Sheremetyevo airport before their flight (e.g. Rodion Sulyandziga, director of the Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North).

As in previous years, 2014 saw poor implementation of the legal rights of indigenous peoples, which include their free access to lands in 'territories of traditional nature use' (TTNUs). These are protected territories, which require impact assessments before the exploitation of their natural resources (oil, gas and metals) or construction projects (such as pipelines and dams) can take place. Though Russian law provides that TTNUs are to be established at the federal, regional and local levels – and some TTNUs have been designated at the regional level (Khanty-Mansi Autonomous okrug and Khabarovsk krai) – the federal authorities have continued to refrain from designating TTNUs at the federal level. Moreover, in December 2013 the definition of TTNU changed from 'specially protected natural territories' to 'specially protected territories'. This lowers the legal status of such territories and eliminates requirements to conduct environmental impact assessments before commercial projects are implemented.

Two-thirds of the approximately 250,000 persons belonging to indigenous communities do not reside in urban areas: they are scattered around two-thirds of Russia's territory, often in regions with limited access to public transport or means of communication. As a result, they do not benefit from the essential infrastructure and political institutions available in urban areas, frequently leading to their social and political marginalization. Their children often have no choice but to study in special boarding schools which, in addition to separating children from their parents, tend to have lower educational standards than regular schools. This can make the preservation of their languages, many of which are on the verge of extinction, logistically difficult: the remoteness of these locations, and the vast distances between speakers of these languages, complicate the organization of own-language tuition.

Levels of urbanization in Russia are high: nearly three-quarters of its population live in urban areas. Small villages have continued to be depopulated as their inhabitants – including those belonging to minorities – have left rural areas for cities to seek employment opportunities. This trend leads to the reduction in the number of locations where people belonging to the same minority live in substantial numbers, reinforcing a tendency among new generations growing up in urban areas that are effectively monolingual. Moreover, ongoing plans for the 'optimization' of the education system have led to the closure of small village schools, which are more likely than city schools to teach minority languages, or to provide instruction through the medium of these languages.

While access to services is generally better in cities than in rural areas, some of those belonging to minorities residing in urban centres continue to experience extremely poor living conditions. This is particularly the case with Roma settlements and the typically overcrowded areas where migrant workers reside. Both groups have remained affected by sub-standard living conditions due to poverty and discrimination. Announcements of housing for rent are often accompanied by statements 'only for Russians' or 'only for Slavs', resulting in darker-skinned people being penalized. Roma have at times been subjected to expulsion from their settlements and the destruction of their houses, without alternative accommodation being provided. These groups have further been the targets of 'special operations' carried out by law enforcement officials, nominally for document checks but often leading to ill-treatment.

Cities have also been the location of the majority of violent attacks against minorities: according to the SOVA Centre, in 2014 most such incidents occurred in Moscow and St Petersburg. On 15 May, hundreds of football fans in Moscow chanted racial abuse and nationalist slogans as they marched to a migrants' dormitory, before being stopped through the intervention of the riot police. Raids took place on commuter and underground trains throughout the year, perpetrated by right-wing extremists. In some instances those who tried to defend 'non-Slavs' were themselves physically attacked.

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