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Moscow orders closure of indigenous peoples organization

Nenets reindeer hurders near Naryan-Mar in the very northern part of the Barents Region are among the indigenous peoples that are members of RAIPON. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Russia’s Ministry of Justice orders close-down of RAIPON in what is another crackdown on NGOs in Russia. The organization has an official cooperation agreement with the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

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RAIPON, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East, is under increasing pressure after the federal Ministry of Justice said that the statutes of the organization are not in line with federal law and that it therefore must be closed down, the Russian Agency of Social Information reports.

The organization plays a central role in international cooperation among indigenous peoples and other Arctic states. Last spring, the Norwegian Barents Secretariat signed an official cooperation agreement with RAIPON.

Regret closure
“We regret a closure of RAIPON, says head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat Rune Rafaelsen to BarentsObserver.

“We have a close and good cooperation with RAIPON because indigenous peoples contact across the borders is one of the core topics mentioned in the Kirkenes declaration,” says Rune Rafaelsen. Signed in 1993, the Kirkenes declaration formalized the Barents Euro-Arctic Cooperation.

RAIPON has reportedly made several attempts to adjust its statutes in line with the requirements of the ministry. However, the steps taken have not been approved, supposedly because they were not sufficiently authorized by the member organizations. The association has twice gone to court to dispute the ministry decision, however the attempts have failed, and the organization now intends to appeal the verdicts, Deputy leader of the association, Pavel Sulyandzigi says. He also confirms that the organization is reaching out for help to its international partners.

Represents 300,000 people in Russia’s north
Over the 20 years of its existence, RAIPON has worked actively to protect indigenous peoples’ human rights and legal interests, as well as to promote their right to self governance. RAIPON represents 41 groups of Indigenous peoples, in total some 300,000. They live in 60 percent of the whole territory of the Russian Federation from Murmansk to Kamchatka.

Federal legislation passed over the last years has made it increasingly easy for Russian authorities to crunch bothersome non-governmental entities. However, RAIPON is far from an ordinary NGO operating in a specific field of interest, but an organization representing a wide range of interests and serving a significant part of Russia’s Arctic population. Furthermore, the association has been heavily engaged in a number of legislative processes involving Russian Arctic territories and represents Russian indigenous interests in a number of international fora.

Arctic Council meeting this week
Among the international structures where RAIPON is represented is the Arctic Council, where it as a member of the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs has the role as a permanent participant. Representatives from RAIPON will meet at the upcoming Arctic Council meeting in Haparanda, northern Sweden on Wednesday. The closure of the organization is then expected to be an hot issue among the delegates of the eight Arctic nations.

RAIPON also has a special consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council and is observer in the Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum of the United Nations Environment Program. Members of RAIPON’s presidium are members in the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, as well as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, UN Expert Mechanism on indigenous rights, and the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

RAIPON important for Barents cooperation
Rune Rafaelsen says the three indigenous peoples groups in the Barents Region have relations with RAIPON; the Sami, the Nenets and the Veps.

“Thus, it is natural for the Barents Secretariat to have cooperation with RAIPON. We have also facilitated for contact between RAIPON and Norwegian authorities,” says Rafaelsen.

In June 2008, Foreign Minsiter Jonas Gahr Støre met with RAIPON President Sergey Kharyuchi in Kirkenes, northern Norway. RAIPON also took part in a conference arranged by Norway’s Foreign Ministry in Tromsø in September 2012. The conference discussed development of mining industry in the Barents Region, an area were indigenous peoples have lived their traditional life for centuries.

“Our agreement with RAIPON expires in 2013 and we were looking forward to prolong it, but if RAIPON doesn’t exist anymore, the cooperation with indigenous peoples in northern Russia could be weaker,” says Rune Rafaelsen.

Close cooperation with Moscow
Beyond the accusations from the Justice Ministry, it is not clear what more might have caused the souring relations between Moscow and RAIPON. According to Sulyandzigi, the association has worked closely with federal authorities for many years and relations have been good, also within international fora like the Arctic Council.

Like in the Nordic countries and other Arctic states, the wellbeing of indigenous groups is a top priority also in official Russian Arctic policies. Also the new Russian Law on the Arctic, a document currently under elaboration, is expected to highlight the importance of the indigenous peoples of the region.

Serious impact
Anja Salo is adviser on indigenous peoples issues with the Norwegian Barents Secretariat. She says a possible closure of RAIPON will have serious impact on the indigenous peoples in the Barents Region.

“If Raipon as an organization is shut down it will  have serious impact on the indigenous peoples in the Barents Region. They represent both the Nenets people, the Veps people and the Sami people on the Russian side in important forums such as the Arctic Council and the UN. The indigenous peoples in Russia will lack a common political voice in order to influence on the decision making process on the federal level, and it will also restrict the activity of international cooperation in the field of indigenous affairs, says Anja Salo to BarentsObserver.

“Raipon has a unique knowledge about the indigenous situation in Russia and has an enormous network around the world. Because of that  they are a key partner for the Working Group of Indigenous Peoples in the Barents Region,” says Anja Salo.