2014.06 Indigenous peoples of Russia. Country profile. World Bank publication

© 2014 The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/
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Executive Summary

A popular saying holds that, “In Russia, everyone is indigenous.” Indeed, there is some truth to this statement, as most ethnic communities in today’s Russian state resided—ab origine — within its current territorial borders. Many of these communities self-identify as both Russian citizens and as distinctive ‘peoples’. Some maintain customary cultural, economic, social, and/or political institutions that are separate from those of the dominant society and culture. Some claim collective attachment to geographically distinct habitats or ancestral territories and to the natural resources therin. Some speak distinctive languages. The World Bank’s concept of Indigenous Peoples (IPs), as elaborated, under Operational Policy (OP) 4.10, is therefore pertinent to at least some of these groups.


This Country Profile has several specific aims. One is to provide Bank task teams with an understanding of some of the historical, legal and social issues that are involved in making a determination to apply OP 4.10. If OP 4.10 is invoked, this report seeks to inform task teams of some of the key concerns of IPs and the requirements of the Russian legal context that should be taken under consideration to enhance project sustainability. Another aim is to define priority issues of particular concern to IPs in the Russian Federation that the Bank might reference as it continues to work with the Government of the Russian Federation to implement the Bank’s Country Partnership Strategy (CPS)’s Theme 2: Expanding Human Potential.

IPS in the Russian Federation

Discussions of ethnicity in the Russian Federation are both complex and sensitive due to historical legacies of state- and nation-building. As the Russian Empire expanded in the 17th century, it subsumed numerous, diverse peoples. During the Tsarist period, state policies focused on asserting state political and economic control over northern and eastern territories. They otherwise paid little attention to reforming or integrating traditional political institutions and subsistence systems of newly subjugated peoples— though in later years there was an increasing pressure to- ward ‘Russification’. With the fall of the Russian Empire and the ensuing economic, social and administrative reforms instituted under the Soviet Union, ethnicity developed into a central political issue—with sizeable minority populations vying with the Central Government for territorial control and sovereignty. In contrast to previous eras, the modes of life of indigenous populations were forcibly changed during the Soviet period. Since the end of the Soviet era, both minority and indigenous communities have had to re-negotiate their place within a multi-ethnic, multi- cultural Russia.

a) Russian definition

The concept of indigeneity has considerably evolved throughout the recent history of the Russian state. Prior to the Revolution of 1917 the peoples today classified as “indigenous” were seldom referred to in state policy, except in general terms such as “stray persons of different origin” found in 1822 in the Charter for the Management of Persons of Different Ethnicity. During the Soviet period, the terms “native peoples and tribes of the Northern regions”, “small peoples of the North,” and “peoples of the North,” were used sequentially to define legal categories of peoples targeted for special state policy protections. With the post-Soviet (1993) Constitution of the Russian Federation, the concept of “indigeneity” was introduced via provisions for “small-numbered Indigenous Peoples.” This legal category was later refined by the ‘United Register of Indigenous Small-numbered Peoples of the Russian Federation’ codified by the Government of the Russian Federation on March 24, 2000.

The Russian Unified Register enumerates a list of formally recognised indigenous groups. It now comprises 47 ‘numerically small’ minority peoples, of which 40 in- habit territories belonging to Siberia, the Russian North or the Russian Far East. Other indigenous groups include IPs living in the Caucasus, the Volga, and the steppe zone, as well as the small peoples of north-west Russia2. In the modern Russian state, official identification of ethnic groups as “Indigenous Peoples” is based on the following criteria:

  • Living in the historical territories of their ancestors.
  • Preserving their traditional way of life, occupations, and folk art [handicrafts].
  • Self-recognizing themselves as a separate ethnicity.
  • Numbering at most 50,000 people within Russia.

IPs’ advocacy groups often decry the definitional approach taken by the Government of the Russian Federation. Indigenous communities that are larger than 50,000 cannot be included in the Unified Register and they are thus not eligible for the benefits of the IP status. However, there are larger ethnic groups in the Russian Federation that share the characteristics and challenges of small-numbered IPs but do not enjoy recognition or legal protections (such as priority access to natural resources such as fishing and hunting grounds). The requirement to maintain a traditional way of life and inhabit certain remote (especially Northern or Far East) regions of the country is also of concern, as it restricts the freedom of IPs to engage with the modern economy and hinders their competitiveness.

As of 2010, the peoples recognized as small-numbered IPs comprised ca. 316,000 individuals. 258,000 of them are small-numbered IPs of the North, Siberia, and the Far East, residing within 28 constituent political administrative units of the Russian Federation. The size of these groups varies from fewer than 300 to more than 40,000. According to the 2010 census, the population of IPs in Russia has been modestly growing. A comparison between the results of censuses held in 2002 and 2010 reveals that the IP population increased during the period by 9,567 (representing a population growth in 16 out of 47 recognized IP communities). The census also revealed that the number of women in most IP communities outweighs the number of men. The IP population is currently concentrated in original territories designated for IP communities, and only 4.3 percent of IPs reside outside of these territories. Nearly 65 percent of the recognized IP population resides in rural areas, often constituting the majority of farmers in mixed communities.

The median age of the IP population is relatively young and their education level is relatively low. The median age of IPs ranges between 21 and 29 for most indigenous groups. Compared to averages in the Russian Federation, IP communities have more population below working age, and less population above working age. This statistics also reflects the fact that IP groups have higher birth rates and higher mortality rates compared to the average in the Russian Federation. Infant mortality is 1.8 times higher among IPs compared to the Russian Federation average. Education levels of IP communities are relatively low, but vary from one group to another. Among Nentsy, for example, more than 25 percent of the population lacks primary education. In other groups, more than 10 percent of the population lack primary education. Russian is the first and main language for more than 90 percent of IP communities. Levels of unemployment among the IP population are 1.5-2 times higher than average in the Russian Federation. A considerable part of the working IP population indicates that its primary income derives from private farming.

B) The World Bank’s definition

The definition of indigeneity is a central part of the World Bank’s OP 4.10. OP 4.10 notes that a wide range of terms may refer to peoples that would be recognized as Indigenous Peoples for purposes of policy application, including “indigenous ethnic minorities, aboriginals, hill tribes, minority nationalities, scheduled tribes, or tribal groups” (paragraph 3). However, “[b]ecause of the varied and changing contexts in which Indigenous Peoples live and because there is no universally accepted definition of Indigenous Peoples” (paragraph 3), OP 4.10 does not “define the term.” Instead, it states that ‘distinct’ and ‘vulnerable’ social and cultural groups that possess the following cumulative requirements would trigger the policy for operational purposes: self-identification as members of a distinct indigenous cultural group; collective attachment to geographically distinct habitats or ancestral territories; distinctive customary cultural, economic, social, or political institutions; and an indigenous language.

The definitions used by the World Bank and the Russian Federation currently diverge. OP 4.10 applies unambiguously to small-numbered IPs residing in the Northern and Far Eastern areas of the Russian Federation. However, OP 4.10 could also be triggered by the presence of distinct and vulnerable sociocultural groups that are not covered by the Russian definition.

Legal protections for IPS

Protections granted to IPs as part of OP 4.10 and by Russian legislation are as follows.

a) Participation in development processes

A central pillar of OP 4.10 is the requirement for “free, prior, and informed consultation” with IPs regarding projects that affect them. The scope of IPs’ participation within Bank- financed projects includes participation in the process of project preparation for the purposes of ascertaining and responding to the concerns of IPs. Such participation is predicated on full disclosure about the nature and intention of the proposed project activities. Broad community support is seen as a necessary precondition of project approval.

Russian federal law formally requires the participation of IPs in development contexts, but this requirement is not always implemented in practice. The formal legal requirement includes IPs’ participation in monitoring the use of land resources, adoption and implementation of federal and regional laws, environmental and ethnological assessments, and more. However, despite legal safeguards that require informing and consulting IPs in development processes, there is a lack of a systematic consultative framework. IPs remain underrepresented in executive and legislative bodies at the national level, and their representatives do not always have opportunities to participate in consultative working groups (whenever such groups are created) to review new legislation.

b) Lands and related natural resources

OP 4.10 refers to the protection of lands and related natural resources. Recognizing that “Indigenous Peoples are closely tied to land, forests, water, wildlife, and other natural resources,” OP 4.10 requires projects that ‘affect such ties’ to pay attention to the customary rights of IPs pertaining to lands and territories, the need to protect such lands, the cultural and spiritual values that IPs attribute to such lands, and IPs’ natural resource management practices.

Formally, Russian law offers IPs several protections related to the use of lands and natural resources. These protections aim to ensure that IPs retain access to their customary territories for the purposes of traditional economic activity, participate in the enforcement of state legal protections, and retain access to material and financial resources required to maintain such areas. However, the Russian Land Code also rules out any form of land tenure other than rent and private property. This contradictory approach creates severe difficulties for IPs in asserting their rights to land and resources. While government representatives maintain that indigenous groups rarely pay any fees for the use of land, IP representatives contend that they do pay such fees, and even if these are small, they nonetheless impose an economic burden on indigenous communities.

Russian law also provides that the land utilized by an indigenous community for traditional economic activities can be formally recognized as a “territory of traditional nature use.” These territories can be assigned to that community to use free-of-charge for a certain renewable period of time. IPs living in these territories are guaranteed several privileges: the right to continue occupy the land and use its renewable resources for traditional activities, the right to participate in decision-making when industrial development in the territory is considered, and the right to receive compensation when industrial development occurs that interferes with their access to land or damages the environment. However, IP organizations maintain that these provisions are often not implemented.

Hunting rights and access to forests, and aquatic resources present a challenge. These areas are regulated by codes which define limitations to the concepts of usufruct and ownership and obligate IPs to compete in commercial tenders for hunting and fishing grounds with private businesses. These legislative provisions substantially endanger IPs’ continued access to their sources of subsistence, food, and income.

In practice, the majority of IPs has no permanent legal rights over the land and natural resources that they depend on for their survival. Although the constitution of the Russian Federation allows for varied forms of land and natural resources ownership (private, state, municipal and otherwise), most of the land and subsoil resources in Russia are the property of the state. Agricultural, forest, pasture and other land parcels utilized by private entities are primarily leased from the government. IPs’ rights to land and natural resources are consistent with this general framework; they are accorded rights to use the land and its renewable and common resources while title ownership remains with the state.

Reindeer herders are particularly vulnerable and dependent on access to land. Reindeer communities represent a considerable portion of the indigenous population that preserves traditional lifestyle, and unrestricted access to land is critical for the preservation of their sources of livelihood. However, as reindeer herding is typically nomadic, the access rights of these communities are not sufficiently protected, and they may not be able to graze their reindeer due to changes in land use induced by commercial projects. In such cases, physical displacement does not occur due to an official decision to relocate the community, but rather because lands on which the community used to graze its reindeer become affected by industrial projects and are no longer suitable for reindeering purposes.

c) Commercial development of natural and cultural resources

OP 4.10 provides that the commercial development of the natural and cultural resources of IPs is conditional upon their prior agreement to such development. This requirement applies to projects involving “the commercial development of natural resources… on lands or territories that Indigenous Peoples traditionally owned, or customarily used or occupied” as well as projects involving “the commercial development of Indigenous Peoples’ cultural resources and knowledge.”

Territories inhabited by IPs of the North are affected by an ongoing expansion of industrial operations, mostly in the extractive industries. IPs and their representative organizations note that such industrial activity often occurs without prior consultation with IPs about planned activities — let alone adequate compensation or benefits-sharing arrangements. This situation is exacerbated by both federal and regional government bodies’ lack of appropriate guidelines and the legislative provisions that exist carry no sanctions for their violation. Large infrastructure development projecs in the North and Far East regions of the Russian Federation are particularly worrisome in terms of their negative effect of the livelihood of IPs. Recent reports of industrial operations in indigenous territories operating without consultation, consent or even information sharing have come from Tomsk oblast, Yamal Nenets okrug, Altai republic, the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Kamchatka territory, and Sakhalin oblast.

Russian legislation does not limit tenders and auctions of land, forest and water areas in territories where IPs live and for the natural resources they use. This situation effectively reduces the hunting grounds and pastures for IPs. Moreover, the law has no regulation that obliges license holders to provide indigenous users access to areas that they use for traditional livelihood. Such legislation creates grounds for conflicts and lawsuits where IPs have to defend their right to traditional livelihood.

Fishery presents a particular challenge. Access to fish stocks and fishing grounds is especially critical, as fish constitute the single most important source of nutrients for many IPs. In spite of this right being protected by federal law, fishing authorities pursue highly restrictive policies and impose often arbitrary and non-transparent restrictions on indigenous fish-dependent communities that make traditional fishing practices impossible.

d) Physical relocation of indigenous peoples

OP 4.10 requires borrowers “to explore alternative project designs to avoid physical relocation of Indigenous Peoples.” This requirement reflects the recognition that “physical relocation of Indigenous Peoples is particularly complex and may have significant adverse impacts on their identity, culture, and customary livelihoods.” In those “exceptional circumstances, when it is not feasible to avoid relocation”, borrower relocation must have “broad support” from the affected IPs communities as part of the free, prior, and informed consultation process.

Russian law does not contain provisions that require the consent of IPs for involuntary resettlement. The lack of protections for IPs in the Russian Federation against government or private sector project-related involuntary relocations is a serious issue, as physical displacement can cause irreparable damage to a way of life if access to ancestral territories is severed. However, physical displacement of indigenous communities in Russia is more likely to occur due to project-induced changes in land use rather than by official government fiat.

e) Developmental assistance

OP 4.10 provides that the Bank may offer financial assistance to support initiatives that protect IPs. At a member country’s request, the Bank may support the country in its development planning and poverty reduction strategies by providing financial assistance for a variety of initiatives. Russian national policy objectives for development assistance to IPs largely correlate with OP 4.10. Yet, in spite of legislative improvements envisioned in a 2009 Federal Decree on the Concept of the Sustainable Development of the Small Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation, little has been accomplished so far to help realize these objectives.


In sum, there is a gap between formal IP rights under the Russian legislation and their practical implementation. Formally, IPs in the Russian Federation have a wide range of special benefits and rights guaranteed to them, broadly paralleling the special considerations and requirements for participation and consultation called for in OP 4.10. However, they are not always attainable. Contradictory laws and regulations as well as a lack of enforcement can result in the de facto denial of many of the rights accorded to IPs. Many IP organizations maintain that the Constitution actually affords little space to IP communities (as differentiated from individuals). As a result, IPs and their representative organizations tend to refer to international law — rather than Russsian law — to substantiate community claims to specific rights and freedoms vis-à-vis conflicting laws and activities of central and regional state bodies. The outome is a tension-ridden relationship between the state and indigenous communities.

The cumulative effects of historical circumstances and current socio-political conditions aggravate existential threats posed to IPs. These include the on-going degradation of their environment caused by resource exploitation, the relatively inferior state of their health, the rapid loss of culture, language and traditional knowledge, the impoverishment of indigenous rural populations and the profound environmental changes being brought about by global climate change. In this context, the IPs consulted for this report talked about development that balances economic potential and resource extraction with ecological and cultural sustainability.

IPS’ core developmental priorities

The following ve areas can be considered to be core developmental priorities of IPs in the Russian Federation:

  • Protection of Rights to Land and Resources. IPs in the Russian Federation desire coherence, consistency and certainty in regard to state legal formulations concerning their access to land and resources. They are also in need of assistance to obtain such access.
  • Participation. IPs seek the right to participate fully and effectively in the decisions that will concern their lives and livelihoods. They seek the widespread acceptance of this right, along with support for the creation of mechanisms guaranteeing this right that would allow them to be involved in the crafting of laws and regulations affecting them.
  • Rights Awareness and Access to Justice. IPs wish to have full access to information that affects their lives and livelihoods and to raise awareness in indigenous communities of the rights they are entitled to. In those cases where IPs are excluded from exercising their rights to participate in development processes, they wish to have access to effective — and legally established — forms of recourse.
  • Benefits-sharing. IPs desire fair and equitable benefits to project-affected indigenous communities based on just compensation for damages and impacts. Programmatically speaking, initiatives in support of education and access to health services are the most frequently cited community social needs. There is also an increasing awareness of the need for targeted gender-based initiatives.
  • Cultural Survival. Declining population sizes combined with increased acculturative pressures have brought some peoples’ very existence into question. IPs are concerned about their ability to carry their culture to subsequent generations and hope to use any development initiative to advance that goal.

Possible directions for further action

  • Support for Indigenous Priorities. To support indigenous priorities, it may be useful to develop appropriate regulatory frameworks, both at the federal and regional levels, to extend protection of rights to land and resources and to enhance participatory approaches. Capacity-building efforts could address the need for raising rights awareness and increasing access to justice, while programmatic initiatives could speak to benefits-sharing preferences and cultural heritage protection measures.
  • Supporting Concrete Initiativies. It could be promising to support initiatives that make the development process more inclusive of IPs, and raise the capacity of both local governments and indigenous communities to collaborate on development projects. Other types of initiatives include recognition of customary land tenure systems and establishing data baselines of indigenous communities focusing on traditional economic activities and making this information publically available.
  • Ensuring the Engagement of IPOs. As a means of helping to ensure that developmental initiatives are devised with the active participation of IPs, representative Indigenous Peoples Organizations (IPOs) could be engaged as interlocutors on projects affecting IPs communities.
  • Engagement with the Private Sector. A unified approach could be devised to support corporate engagement with indigenous communities regarding projects that will affect those communities. This could include encouraging responsible private sector relationships with project-affected IPs through voluntary compliance with the provisions of IFC ‘Performance Standard 7 (Indigenous Peoples).’ Following on these initial developments, a new paradigm of community engagement with the private sector can be explored based on a dynamic three-way partnership between indigenous communities, local governments, and companies.

census, ethnicity, of official identification of ethnic groups, small-numbered IPs, statistics, definition, World Bank, country profile, Dennis-Aaron, Guldin-Gregory, Бережков-Д.В., Бережков Д.В., hunting rights, land rights, self-governance, self-determination, laws, analysis, legal, territories, resettlement, cultural survival, private sector, Russian Empire, Soviet Union, nationalities, nationality, USSR, minorities, small numbered, small-numbered, Constitution, OP 4.10, free, prior, and informed consultation, consent, consultative status, Regional Council of Representatives of Indigenous Peoples, WB Policy, natural resources, compensation, Federal law, projects, access to justice, gender, health, education, finance, investments, private sector, population, Sakhalin 2, NAO, Yamal, Yanao, okrug, Nenets, IPY-Nenets, reindeer herding, Russian Center for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North (CSIPN/RITC), mortality, physical relocation

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