Dmitry Berezhkov. COVID19 Economic Recovery: Implications to Indigenous Peoples of Russia

High Level Political Forum 2022

SIDE EVENT ON COVID19 Economic Recovery: Implications to Indigenous Peoples

July 6, 18.00- 19.30 New York time

Organized by Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG) and Indigenous Peoples Rights International (IPRI)

Thank you very much for the opportunity to participate in this side event.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Russia in March 2020. That was later than most European countries, and Russian authorities implemented some measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Still, the virus went from big Russian cities to remote villages in the Russian Arctic, Siberia and the Far East after a while. 

The Russian Federation is a vast country with weak and expensive transport linkages between regions. That prevented the quick spread of the virus in remote territories of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East, where indigenous peoples live. However, later it was brought to the Northern regions in abundance by the workers of industrial companies who regularly came to traditional lands of indigenous peoples being riched in natural resources for extracting oil, gas, and other raw materials. Unfortunately, extractive companies did not stop their work during the COVID time. They failed to implement adequate preventive measures against the epidemic, so industrial projects were the primary source of COVID-19 in Russia’s Northern territories where indigenous peoples live. 

The health care system in Russia was not prepared well for the virus’s spread. It was also reformed just before the COVID-pandemic by the Russian Government, which resulted in a catastrophic reduction of the medical facilities, especially in rural and remote regions, which are home to indigenous peoples. In addition, Russia’s under-funded healthcare system, which was restructured several years before the crisis, was poorly prepared for a surge in coronavirus cases: protective equipment such as masks and gloves were often lacking, and there were not enough beds and other necessary equipment and medical supplies for intensive-care patients, especially in remote rural territories. 

According to the State Statistic Agency, the general number of hospitals closed in Russia from 2005 to 2018 is more than 4 thousand. The most significant number of closed medical facilities were located in rural areas. Remote areas of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East, where most indigenous peoples live, became the most sensitive to the closure of medical facilities due to the size of the territory, harsh climatic conditions, and the low transport accessibility of the indigenous communities. 

The response measures implemented by the Russian Government put some indigenous communities in a stressful situation because of the cut connections between different parts of society. According to numerous independent researches, the state economic support of Russian citizens during the forced quarantine downtime was inadequate. Its receiving was hampered by multiple bureaucratic obstacles that were especially difficult for vulnerable groups, including indigenous people. The ability of indigenous peoples to receive the state’s compensation benefits for the lost revenues is even lower because of the lower education level, insufficient access to relevant information, and poor infrastructure in remote villages. 

Even during the COVID-19 crisis, some state officials tried to use the response measures to promote their own political agenda while violating the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination, which is a long-time trend in today’s Russia. 

For example, in the middle of May, authorities of the oil-reach Nenets autonomous okrug and the economically weak Arkhangelsk oblast signed the agreement to merge these two constituent entities of the Russian Federation into one broader region. They argued for this initiative by falling oil prices in the world’s market because of the COVID-19 crisis. According to their argumentation, both areas come to an unfortunate economic situation, and only the process of merging the regions could save the local economy. 

Regional authorities declared the process of merging between two regions without any consultations with Nenets indigenous people and other non-indigenous populations. As a result, local residents, both indigenous and non-indigenous, started the protests around Nenets okrug against the process of union, despite the prohibition of mass gatherings in the region because of the COVID-19 quarantine measures. 

In general, the outbreak of COVID-19 became a severe threat to the sustainable development of indigenous peoples of the Russian Arctic, Siberia, and the Far East. 

Unfortunately, Russian authorities have no disaggregated data on indigenous peoples on virus spread as well as on other important indicators concerning the indigenous peoples’ life, wellbeing and development. The other problem is that, according to independent researchers, the statistical data on COVID-19 in Russia is manipulated by authorities due to political reasons. 

The economic recovery of the world’s economy from the COVID crisis coincided with the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine at the beginning of this year. 

Russia’s aggression has already claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, both among the civilian population, military, and paramilitary groups. It has pulverized Ukrainian cities, destroyed Ukrainian infrastructure and further resulted in the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Additionally, it exacerbated the ongoing food crisis in the Global South, increased pressure on Europe’s economy and launched an extended economic recession in Russia.

Since the first hours of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western governments, one by one, announced economic sanctions against Russian government agencies and institutions, businesses, politicians and other individuals. The sanctions severely restricted financial transactions between Russian entities and their foreign counterparts, freezing the Government’s financial assets abroad, limited technological know-how transfer, and complicated Russian exports, aviation and shipping. It is estimated that the volume of sanctions imposed on Russia is the highest ever imposed on any nation in modern history. 

With the closure of Western markets, the Russian Government is tightening its focus on the Indian and especially the Chinese market. However, while Chinese and Indian businesses are generally interested in Russian raw materials and the Russian market, they are much less interested in following international human rights and environmental standards. 

There are a lot of other consequences for indigenous peoples of Russia concerning this war. People died on both sides. Indigenous enterprises which produce, for example, reindeer meat for Western markets from Yamal and the other Arctic regions are now met with the situation when they cannot deliver their products to Europe. 

For example, cross-border cooperation among indigenous peoples was destroyed significantly in the Arctic region. In addition, seven Arctic state members of the Arctic Council stopped their cooperation with Russia.

But the most dangerous thing besides the political repressions of the Russian Government against independent indigenous leaders and NGOs is the continuing pressure from the extractive business, which is trying to use wartime to loosen the environmental standards for operations on indigenous lands.

Thank you for your attention!