- Adyghe in the Russian Federation
- Altai in the Russian Federation
- Avars in the Russian Federation
- Bashkirs in the Russian Federation
- Buryats in the Russian Federation
- Chechens in the Russian Federation
- Chukchi in the Russian Federation
- Chuvash in the Russian Federation
- Cossacks in the Russian Federation
- Dargins in the Russian Federation
- Dolgan in the Russian Federation
- Evenk in the Russian Federation
- Ingush in the Russian Federation
- Jews in the Russian Federation
- Kabards and Balkars in the Russian Federation
- Kalmyks in the Russian Federation
- Karachay and Cherkess in the Russian Federation
- Karelians in the Russian Federation
- Khakass in the Russian Federation
- Khants and Mansi in the Russian Federation
- Komi in the Russian Federation
- Komi-Permyaks in the Russian Federation
- Koryaks in the Russian Federation
- Kumyks in the Russian Federation
- Lezgins in the Russian Federation
- Mari in the Russian Federation
- Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks in the Russian Federation
- Mordovans in the Russian Federation
- Nenets in the Russian Federation
- Nogai in the Russian Federation
- Ossetians in the Russian Federation
- Roma in the Russian Federation
- Russian or Volga Germans in the Russian Federation
- Sakha (Yakuts) in the Russian Federation
- Tatars in the Russian Federation
- Tuvans in the Russian Federation
- Udmurts in the Russian Federation
- Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs in the Russian Federation
Main languages: Russian
Main religions: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Shamanism
According to the 2010 national census, the main minority groups include Tatars 5,310,649 (3.87 per cent), Ukrainians 1,927,988 (1.4 per cent), Bashkirs 1,584,554 (1.15 per cent), Chuvash 1,435,872 (1.05 per cent), Chechens 1,431,360 (1.04 per cent), Armenians 1,182,388 (0.86 per cent), Avars 912,090 (0.66 per cent) and Mordovans 744,237 (0.54 per cent) The remaining 8.5 per cent of the population is made up of numerous other, much smaller, ethnicities. While the total population in Russia is 142,856,536, only 137,227,107 responded about their ethnic origin in the census and so the population sizes produced are calculated from the latter figure.
The 2010 census lists 193 ethnic groups (and subgroups) besides Russians. While ethnic Russians tend to identify with the Russian Orthodox faith, in 2010 there were over 16.4 million Muslims in Russia, in addition to people affiliated to numerous other faiths. The Russian language is spoken by nearly the entire citizenry (99.49 per cent), and the Russian language and culture overall dominate the country’s public life. According to official figures, 277 languages were spoken in Russia in 2010, of which 39 were languages of instruction in schools and 50 were taught as subjects.
Minorities that have been granted territorial recognition can be broadly divided into two categories: religious and linguistic minorities. This distinction does not reflect any official division between groups based on religion or language, but rather the primary element around which group self-identity is formed in each case. Religiously defined groups form the largest set of minorities. The Russian Federation (RF) contains a number of Buddhist groups, mostly of the Lamaist faith, including Buriats, Kalmyks, Tuvans. Since the late 1980s, there has been a strong revival of Buddhism.
There are also substantial Muslim populations, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a revival of Islam and Muslim culture. Most Muslims are of the Sunni branch of Islam. A number of Muslim political parties have been formed. The territorially based Muslims can be subdivided into two main geographical groups: Tatars and Bashkirs of the Middle Volga, and peoples of the North Caucasus.
Dagestan in the North Caucasus is one of the most ethnically complex areas of the former Soviet Union. The republic has no titular population. Except for Russians, the largest groups – Avars, Dargins, Kumyks, Lezgins – are all Sunni Muslim.
Linguistically defined groups form the second main category of minorities. There were 19 Finno-Ugric peoples listed in the 2010 census. While according to the census results, there are nearly 2.4 million Finno-Ugrians in the Russian Federation, they are only in the majority in Komi-Permiak.
There are substantial variations in the conditions of different minorities and indigenous peoples within the Russian Federation. A first basic distinction can be made between those groups belonging to ‘titular nationalities’ and ‘non-titular nationalities’ (in this report ‘nationality’ is used in the sense of ‘ethnic group’, as per the Russian natsional’nost’). Titular nationalities are those that had a territory assigned to them during the Soviet period. The resulting territorial units made the transition into the post-Soviet period, e.g. the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic became the Republic of Tatarstan, one of the constituent parts of the present Russian Federation. Before the annexation of Crimea, there were 21 ethnic republics out of a total of 83 territorial units (subiekti, or ‘subjects’) of the Russian Federation – a number that has now risen to 22 republics and 85 territorial units, though the additions are still recognized internationally as Ukrainian territory.
However, the conditions of the republics vary greatly, particularly with regard to the ratio of representatives of titular nationalities versus ethnic Russians residing within their borders. For example, within the Republic of Tatarstan, Tatars are a numerical majority, outnumbering ethnic Russians (53.2 per cent Tatars versus 39.7 per cent Russians). In the case of the Republic of Karelia, Karelians are a very small numerical minority: 7.4 per cent versus 82.2 per cent Russians, according to the 2010 Census. Titular nationalities in ethnic republics benefit from a range of rights. Among other things, the republics can pass constitutions that protect the right of titular languages and cultures; and schools provide teaching of, and at times through the medium of, titular languages. However, the benefits arising from titularity are correlated to local conditions, such as strength of numbers, and the territorial concentration of persons belonging to the titular nationality. In the case of Karelia, the concrete advantages deriving from titularity are minor, given that, as noted, Karelians are only a very small numerical minority within the republic. Moreover, many persons belonging to ethnic groups live outside their ‘own’ republics. For example, only 2 million of Russia’s 5.3 million Tatars reside in the Republic of Tatarstan.
Other minorities do not benefit from having a territorial unit within the Russian Federation and therefore only have a limited degree of autonomy. Some of these minorities have kin-states that were once Soviet republics, such as Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians and persons from Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). Among the many groups that lack an officially recognized homeland are Jews; Russian or Volga Germans; Meskhetians or Meskhetian Turks; Roma; Cossacks; and most of the smaller indigenous peoples of the north, Siberia and Far East.
The indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East are placed in a separate category. Russian law refers to them as ‘small-in-number’ as the number of persons belonging to each such group does not exceed 50,000. Russian federal legislation grants them special rights with regard to land and the preservation of their traditional way of life. However, obstacles are often encountered in the exercising of these rights, and in the enjoyment of the protection formally afforded to indigenous peoples by Russian legislation. Moreover, standards of living, as well as levels of education, tend to be lower than for the rest of the population. Official documents list 46 different indigenous peoples. The biggest community is the Nenets with 44,640 people; the smallest have only a few hundred representatives or even fewer (two groups have fewer than 100 members).
According to the 2010 census, there are 205,000 Roma in Russia. Their communities generally face sub-standard living conditions, difficulties in socio-economic integration and, at times, segregation of children in schools. Both migrant and Roma settlements have been targeted by law-enforcement officials.
Many immigrants enter Russia to work, particularly with a view to sending financial help to their families in their countries of origin. According to data of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), in 2013 Russia was the second recipient (after the United States) of international migrants – 11 million out of a total of 232 million international migrants worldwide. The 2010 census recorded 11.2 million people born outside Russia and 865,000 foreigners permanently residing in Russia, of which 42 per cent were from Central Asia. There is much demand and reliance on foreign workers in the Russian economy, especially in light of the demographic decline of the Russian population. There are, however, very high levels of immigration that are not legalized, due to the highly bureaucratic and burdensome nature of the procedures to obtain work permits and residence registration.
According to estimates by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2009 there were 50,000 stateless persons in Russia. The Council of Europe has devoted considerable attention to the fate of Meskhetian Turks, who are among the stateless persons residing in Russia. This minority was deported from Georgia to Central Asia in the Soviet period and left Central Asia in 1989 over security concerns. They resettled in various regions, including in Russia (especially Krasnodar Krai), and experienced difficulties in obtaining Russian citizenship in the post-Soviet period. According to figures provided by the Russian authorities, nearly all Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar Krai have been granted Russian citizenship; however, this fact is disputed by human rights activists, who argue that in the south of Russia hundreds of persons have still not been granted Russian citizenship, despite repeated appeals to the local authorities. They can only rely on passports of the defunct USSR as a means of basic identification. Between 2004 and 2007 approximately 11,000 Meskhetian Turks emigrated to the United States thanks to a resettlement programme. The stateless persons who remain in Krasnodar Krai suffer from widespread discrimination: in addition to Meskhetian Turks, other minorities have suffered a similar fate – Batumi Kurds, Hemshils and Yezidis.
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 190 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. This has been reflected in the increasing attrition of a range of rights for minorities and indigenous peoples in the country, from language and land rights to freedom of expression and security. This is against a broader backdrop of state repression that has seen many basic rights rolled back in recent years, particularly in areas where the state is actively engaged in conflict.
The invasion of eastern Ukraine in February 2014 and the subsequent annexation of Crimea by the Russian authorities were accompanied by a crackdown on human rights in Crimea that mirrors the government’s increasing repression of Russian citizens, particularly minorities and indigenous peoples, within its own borders. The ongoing conflict, waged by ‘separatists’ against Ukraine with the support of the Russian military, resulted in 478 civilian deaths in 2017 and has been characterized by frequent human rights violations. The Russian authorities, who now hold primarily responsibility for the protection of Ukrainian citizens in Crimea due to their de facto control of the region, have instead contributed to the deteriorating security environment by actively targeting activists, particularly those belonging to the indigenous Tatar population.
The autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, an ethnically diverse, Muslim majority region home to a total of roughly 15 million people, have been the site of ethnically and religiously-based insurgencies since the fall of the former USSR. Repressive governance in the region takes a particular toll on women and LGBTQ persons. Russian national law arguably infringes on women’s and LGBTQ rights – in 2016 Russia decriminalized domestic violence other than those resulting in broken bones, while the notorious ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law remained in place – but local government practices add another layer of risk for these groups. Domestic violence in the North Caucasus, which surveys indicate far exceeds the national average, is governed by three sets of law – customary, Shari’a, and Russian federal law – all of which are open to interpretation. Meanwhile, human rights organizations have documented a systematic campaign by Chechen authorities to arrest, torture and even kill anyone suspected of homosexuality.
Political struggles in the North Caucasus, including extended periods of conflict in Chechnya and security operations in neighbouring republics, have also stoked hostility and conflict against North Caucasians migrating within the Russian Federation. Migrants from other minority communities face similar hostility, reinforced by nationalist rhetoric in political and public discourse that draws a divide between ethnic Russians and other ethnic groups. Xenophobic sentiment is also directed towards the millions of Central Asian labourers working in Russia, who are also regularly vilified as ‘illegal immigrants’. As a result, there have been regular incidents of violence targeting mainly non-Slavs, including migrants from the North Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as people of African origin. According to the Moscow-based SOVA Center, around 5 people were killed and 66 wounded in racist and neo-Nazi attacks during 2017; while this represents a decline from the last few years, the patterns of attacks nevertheless highlights the persistent prejudice that minorities and migrants face. Most of the victims were of Central Asian origin, though attacks on people of Middle Eastern and sub-Saharan African origin were also recorded.
While there is much demand and reliance on foreign workers in the Russian market, especially in light of the demographic decline of the Russian population, there are high levels of immigration that are not legalized due to the highly bureaucratic and burdensome nature of the procedures to obtain work permits and residence registration. In recent years, the conditions for migrant workers have continued to deteriorate: regulations are continuously modified and are becoming increasingly restrictive. In addition to the bureaucratic hurdles involved 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’. 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. This official persecution has emboldened ultranationalist groups to carry out their own attacks on migrants and ethnic minorities in a form of vigilantism seeking to combat crimes allegedly perpetrated by these groups.
The right to freedom of religion of some minorities in Russia is at times restricted, through arbitrary application of legislation and discrimination by the government, judges and the police. Among others, those most affected are some Protestant and ‘non-traditional’ religious groups (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses), given that their teachings are often regarded as a possible threat to stability. In July 2016, President Putin approved a package of new ‘anti-terror’ measures, commonly known as the ‘Yarovaya laws’, that have been widely criticized by human rights organizations. One measure prohibits ‘missionary work’ outside of a list of designated areas including religious buildings and cemeteries; convicted violators are subject to fines of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles (roughly US$80 – US$830). Russia’s slippery legal definition of missionary activity allows the law to be applied to almost any manifestation of religious belief.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim to number roughly 170,000 in Russia, faced significant state pressure. In April 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the church ‘extremist’ and ordered its liquidation. The state may now legally seize the organization’s national headquarters and 395 sub-branches nationwide, while those who continue their religious practice may be subject to prosecution. Thanks to a ‘Yarovaya’ amendment that increases penalties for organizing and/or participating in a banned religious organization, the latter may face fines of between 2 and 4 years’ income or up to 10 years’ imprisonment. There have also been instances of harassment of Muslim communities practising non-traditional forms of Islam, particularly in the North Caucasus. Some Muslims and members of other religious communities have been detained and tried on criminal charges of extremism. In the North Caucasus region, security agencies have raided Salafi mosques and detained hundreds of congregants at a time.
The authorities continue to maintain tight control over the publication of any materials that are thought to contradict the government’s official stances. The federal authorities continue to update the Federal List of Extremist Materials: according to the SOVA Centre, it was updated 33 times during 2017, with the addition of 330 items (reaching a total of 4,345 proscribed materials). The banned materials, besides a significant portion of extremist nationalist output, also includes various religious texts such as Islamic and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature.
Another way that the state exerts considerable control over civil society is through restrictions on the funding of Russian NGOs by foreign organizations, including those protecting minority and indigenous peoples’ rights. Law No. 129-FZ (known as the law on ‘undesirable’ foreign organizations) was adopted on 23 May 2015: it targets foreign or international NGOs implementing ‘undesirable’ activities (representing a threat to the country’s ‘constitutional order, its defence potential or national security’). The law foresees the banning of organizations engaging in such activities and the prosecution of Russian activists or organizations involved with them, including those in receipt of their funding.
The provisions thus threaten the funds of minority and indigenous organizations from foreign entities. Obstacles to international funding continue the trend of 2012 provisions that require Russian NGOs to register as ‘foreign agents’ when they receive funds from abroad and implement ‘political activities’. For example, the organization Nuori Karjala (Young Karelia), which promoted the languages and cultures of the Finno-Ugric indigenous communities of the Republic of Karelia, was included by the Ministry of Justice in the register of ‘foreign agents’. As a result the organization decided to cease activities in August 2015. The only non-Russian institution from which the organization had received funding was the UN, which had given a grant of US$10,000 for an education project.
Russia’s indigenous communities continue to be marginalized and remain vulnerable to land rights violations due to the state’s failure to designate specific ‘territories of traditional nature use’ (as foreseen by Russian law). There is often limited consultation with indigenous peoples on matters of interest to their communities and insufficient access to effective remedies in case of rights violations. In some cases, the judiciary has targeted indigenous human rights defenders. Russia’s soaring oil production has affected many indigenous communities, particularly in Siberia and the Far North. In October 2016, for example, authorities in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region re-zoned a nature reserve at Lake Numto, a holy site for the Khanty people, to allow oil drilling, despite reported local opposition. The elimination in 2013 of a legal requirement for oil and gas companies to perform official consultations with indigenous populations before starting drilling projects on land vital to their livelihoods paved the way for the re-zoning.
The poverty and exclusion of many indigenous communities takes a heavy toll. While Russia has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world, indigenous youth in Siberia and the Far North, including the Buryat, Mari, Tuvan, Evenk, Udmurt, Altai and Yakut people, are disproportionately at risk. Siberian regions with large indigenous populations were the clear leaders in this grim statistic, with one, the Republic of Buryatia, posting a nearly 70 per cent per cent increase in youth suicide. The reasons for elevated suicide rates among these groups are unclear, but past studies have cited damage to ancestral lands by extractive industries, causing the loss of traditional cultures, and the difficulties of adapting to urbanization, in addition to factors like widespread unemployment and alcoholism.
Roma communities, one of the country’s most stigmatized communities, suffer sub-standard living conditions, significant social barriers and in some cases segregation of children in schools. Roma settlements have been targeted by law-enforcement officials. Furthermore, community members face serious problems in securing employment due to negative stereotyping and obstructions to renewing temporary residence permits. Lacking representatives in positions of authority, their political concerns have remained unheard: the economic, social and cultural rights of Roma are also violated through blocked access to housing, health care and education. Against this backdrop of profound discrimination, Roma are frequently the victims of racist violence.
The Russian Federation, formerly the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), stretches from Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states in the west, to the Pacific coast in the east and from Finland and the Arctic Sea in the north to the Caucasus, Central Asia and China in the south.
The consolidation of the Russian state by Ivan the Fourth (the Terrible) in the 16th century was brought about by the conquest of the Muslim Tatar khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan on the river Volga. The Tatar elite retained their language and religion on condition that they served the Tsar. Thus, Russia has since that time had a large Tatar population, Tatars are now the largest ethnic minority in Russia after Ukrainians. The conquest of the Kazan Khanate in 1552 opened the way to Russian expansion into Siberia, which brought new communities under Russian control. The conquest of the Caucasus region in the nineteenth century, accompanied by the incorporation of a variety of Central Asian populations, further shifted the ethnic composition of the empire. By the end of the nineteenth century, the expansion of the Russian Empire had brought several hundred different ethnic communities and a variety of religious minorities under Russian control.
Although incorporation into Russia marked the end of independence for the conquered peoples, initially little was done to extinguish their separate identity. Indeed, provided these groups were prepared to accept the authority of the Tsar, representatives of the minority communities could advance to high positions within the imperial order. From the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the processes of urbanization, industrialization and the migration of Russians to the new ‘Russian lands’ gathered pace. For the first time, local identities and ways of life faced a serious challenge.
1830s onwards: Russification
From the 1830s, the Russian authorities began to promote Russification and conversion to Orthodoxy, especially among Muslim Tatars. This initial drive led to civil unrest and the policy was moderated. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, Russification was again pursued, although, at this stage, the idea of creating a specifically ethnically Russian order was balanced by the aim of building a powerful imperial state.
Growing national sentiment among many of the minority populations in the Russian Empire was accelerated by the collapse of the tsarist order in 1917. In the civil war that followed, the Bolsheviks developed a pact with leading ethnic groups that offered these groups territorial advantages in return for their allegiance. With the eventual triumph of the Soviet forces, the practice of granting ethno-territorial autonomy to leading ethnic groups was institutionalized as an organizing principle of the Soviet state.
Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic
In 1918, the predominantly ethnic Russian core territories of the Russian Empire were reconstituted as the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Within it a wide variety of groups were awarded varying degrees of territorial autonomy, marking an important distinction from the imperial administrative structure. In place of the pre-revolutionary arrangement of provinces (guberniya), the Soviets introduced an administrative system built around a structural asymmetry based on ethnicity. Although this system underwent a prolonged evolution, ethnicity remained a central principle at the heart of the Russian administrative order. By the 1980s, the RSFSR was organized into 88 administrative components (subjects) of higher than city and district level. These subjects were divided into two categories.
First, ethno-territorial units: 16 autonomous Soviet socialist republics (ASSRs) – based around sizeable non-Russian ethnic groups and considered the embodiment of the national statehood of their titular populations; 5 autonomous oblasts (regions) (AOs) – smaller ethnic-based units; 10 autonomous okrugs (districts) (AOks) – the lowest level ethnic units, situated within an oblast or krai (province). Second, the remaining areas of the RSFSR, comprising most of its constituent members and accounting for about 70 per cent of its territory and more than 80 per cent of the population, was divided into territorial formations: six krais (mostly large and lightly populated areas), and 49 oblasts – largely ethnically homogeneous, Russian-populated districts. In addition, Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersburg) were given a status broadly equivalent to that of an oblast. Despite the fact that the Soviet Constitution accorded Russia the status of a federation, the federal structure of the RSFSR was largely a fiction. Regional and minority interests were subordinated to the security, economic and diplomatic concerns of the Soviet government. Steps were taken to ensure that the ethnoterritorial units did not develop as centres for nationalism.
A wide variety of minority populations were subject to deportations – notably peoples of the North Caucasus and Volga Germans – and to forced assimilation to the prevailing Russo-Soviet culture. From the 1930s, teaching of Russian became compulsory and many native languages disappeared from schools. The migration of Russian-speaking Slavs to the previously non-Russified regions reinforced the process of Russification.
Despite these measures, from the 1960s a growing ethnic and then national awareness came to characterize many of the minorities in the RSFSR. The emergence of indigenous political and cultural elites within many of the minority territories during Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure as General Secretary of the Communist Party further accelerated these developments. In the 1980s, the combination of growing nationalist sentiment, the emergence of a reformist General Secretary (Mikhail Gorbachev), and the ethno-territorial arrangement of the Russian Federation provided the conditions for minority issues to assume central significance in the RSFSR.
The perestroika period
Under Gorbachev, rising ethnic tensions on the periphery of the Soviet Union was accompanied by increasing tensions in the RSFSR itself. In the latter years of perestroika, the nominally federal structure of the RSFSR assumed a real significance for the conduct of domestic politics. Following the elections for the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1990, a strong movement for increased regional powers, built on an alliance between regional economic interests and local nationalist groups, developed in the ethnic territories, especially the ASSRs.
Emboldened by the new freedoms of the period, this movement was further encouraged by the struggle for power between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Russian democrats saw the haemorrhage of power to the regions as a means to undermine further Gorbachev’s position. As a result, substantial autonomy was granted to the republics by Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. In a speech in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, in September 1990 Yeltsin called on the republics to ‘take as much independence as you can handle’.
Gorbachev, too, sought to use the republics, but his plan was to enlist them against the Russian democrats and thereby prevent the disintegration of the Union. In the All-Union Law on the Delimitation of Powers between the Soviet Union and the Subjects of the Federation (26 April 1990) the ASSRs, like the Union republics, were described as ‘subjects of the federation’. The first draft of the Union treaty (November 1990) put the ASSRs on a par with the Union republics – both were described as republics and as sovereign states.
The opportunity for increased autonomy created by the political struggle at the centre accelerated moves to assert local control. The drive for greater autonomy was led by the ethnic republics, particularly Tatarstan, with Bashkortostan and the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) close behind. In summer/autumn 1990, following the Russian Declaration of Sovereignty, a number of the ethnic republics adopted declarations of sovereignty. The extent of powers claimed in these declarations varied considerably, with Karelia acknowledging that some powers would be delegated to the RSFSR and to the Soviet Union and Tatarstan adopting a declaration that failed to mention the RSFSR at all.
The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 marked a new phase in the development of the minorities issue in Russia. The final demise of the Soviet system led to the creation of a new Russia but this was not a nation state, rather a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural state. After independence, Russians and minority populations faced two principal and interrelated challenges.
First, the position of ethnic Russians, Russian culture and history, and the Russian language in the new Russia needed to be determined. In the late 1980s, while powerful ethno-national popular fronts emerged in the Union republics, the multi-ethnic nature of Russia militated against this in the RSFSR. Instead, a Russian democratic movement was formed around a civic notion of Russia. After independence, growing ethno-nationalism induced the disintegration of the democratic movement. Determining the nature of Russian national identity – whether it is to be centred on ethnic Russians or incorporate the diversity of peoples and cultures of the Russian Federation (RF) – became one of the central issues in Russian politics.
Second, due to the link between territory and political/economic rights that developed in the late 1980s, the administrative arrangement of the RF became extremely important. The contradiction between the Kremlin’s desire to maintain dominance over the regions and the wish of many of the minorities for autonomy or even independence fostered a power struggle heavily informed by ethnicity between federal and regional authorities. The issue of who has a right to an ethnic territory and the rights and obligations of these regions became a dominant theme in Russia.
In response to these challenges, a formal constitutional process developed to try to remake Russia and to define the position of the minority populations. This process involved changes in the rights of some ethnic territories and peoples, the negotiation of a federation treaty, the April 1993 referendum and December 1993 parliamentary elections and a new Constitution, and the negotiation of a series of bilateral agreements between Moscow and the republics. Change has involved large-scale migration and bloody conflict.
Forging a new Russia
After independence the central authorities were committed to the idea of moving the foundation of the federation onto a territorial, rather than ethno-territorial, basis. However, the conflict between the executive and the legislature in Moscow from early in 1992 initially encouraged a further disintegration of the federation. Both branches of central government offered increased rights to the regions in return for their support.
The first republics to challenge Moscow were Chechnya-Ingushetia and Tatarstan. In November 1991, the leadership of Chechnya- Ingushetia declared independence from Russia and immediately set about consolidating its independence and securing international economic and political support.
As the drive for autonomy gathered pace in the RF, the fight for ethnic territories became more intense, particularly in the North Caucasus. In early 1992, following failure over Chechnya, which had separated from Ingushetia, and as other republics pushed for increased rights vis-à-vis the centre, Moscow began to campaign for the implementation of a new federation treaty. In negotiations, the ethnic republics proved the most intransigent and the central authorities eventually gave in to a number of their demands; in particular, in the treaty the republics were described as ‘sovereign’ republics within the Russian Federation. In its final form, the federation treaty consisted of three sets of agreements reflecting the unequal distribution of power between levels of administrative units. Each agreement outlined a different distribution of power between Moscow and the regions, with the ethnic republics receiving the greatest autonomy. At the end of March 1992, the treaty was signed by all the subjects of the Russian Federation, except Chechnya, Ingushetia and Tatarstan.
Overall, the new federation treaty did little to clarify the division of powers between the centre and the regions. The delegations from the republics of Bashkortostan, Karelia and Sakha only agreed to the treaty when President Yeltsin and Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of the Supreme Soviet, signed bilateral addenda granting them additional rights.
By January 1993, the politics of ethno-regionalism had produced a situation in which the Russian central authorities had recognized the special nature of most ethnic-based administrative units within the RF and had given some of the AOs the status of republics. Republican status had been reached by 21 units, leaving six krais, 49 oblasts, one autonomous oblast and 10 autonomous okrugs. Of the 21 republics, 17 had formerly been ASSRs (Chechnya-Ingushetia was divided) and four were former AOs once attached to krais (Altai from Altai Krai, Karachai-Cherkessia from Stavropol Krai, Khakassia from Krasnoyarsk Krai and Adyghea from Krasnodar Krai) which had been elevated to republic status. Tatarstan won a series of special treaties with Moscow, giving it a very high degree of autonomy.
Prior to 1993, Yeltsin and his team had, at best, a poorly developed nationalities/regional policy for Russia. Following fighting between North Ossetians and Ingush (November 1992), the first signs of a change at the centre began to emerge. Sergei Shakhrai, a specialist on ethnic issues, was placed in charge of regional and nationalities policy and a more directed and coordinated policy began to develop. In April 1994, a decree established the Ministry of Nationalities and Regional Policy. The foundation of this new approach was to be a new Russian Constitution. In early 1993, when a constitutional assembly convened to work out the final draft of the new Constitution, one of the central issues was the distribution of powers between the centre and the regions.
President Yeltsin’s decision to abolish the Russian Supreme Soviet in October 1993 halted, at least temporarily, regional challenges to central authority. Following the use of force against the White House, Yeltsin moved against the regions, disbanding the local soviets and transferring power to the head of the local administration. The system of executive power was then used to generate support for the new Russian Constitution, which was meant to institutionalize a shift in power from the regions back to the centre.
The position of minorities within the Russian Federation
The disintegration of the Soviet order, coupled with the radical political, economic and social reforms instituted in Russia since the late 1980s, exacerbated inter-ethnic tensions and highlighted the complex ethno-political inheritance from the Russo-Soviet imperial order. The principal legacy of this earlier period is an intricately interwoven set of ethno-territorial units, sizeable minorities outside or lacking their own ‘homeland’ and significant populations opposed to rule from Moscow. After independence, minority communities had simultaneously to redefine their relationship with Moscow and begin to come to terms with the Russian colonial past. Negotiating the process of building a new multiethnic, multicultural Russia has generated a wide variety of problems and, on occasion, violence.
The Constitution, which was adopted in December 1993, contained important changes from the draft produced by the constitutional assembly in the summer. The principle of equality for all regions, which aimed to stem the disproportionate drift of power to the ethnic republics, was established. At the same time, the non-ethnic Russian character of the federation was acknowledged (sovereignty was located in the ‘multinational people of the RF’). The Constitution also guaranteed the language rights of the non-Russian populations, thereby reinforcing the Declaration on the Languages of the Peoples of Russia (25 October 1991), which granted all peoples the choice for their language of education and upbringing. However, the previously guaranteed position of minority representatives in the legislature was ended when the Council of Nationalities was replaced by an upper chamber with each subject of the federation electing two representatives.
In fact, the new Constitution failed to clarify the precise division of powers between the federal centre and the provinces. Despite the equality among the subjects of the federation institutionalized in the Constitution and the apparently clear delimitation of authority, relations between the centre and the regions continued to be characterized by a struggle for power. This situation led Moscow and some of the republics to conclude bilateral treaties. The first treaty to delineate responsibilities and powers between the federal and republican authorities was signed with Tatarstan in 1994 and was followed by treaties with other republics. Following treaties with the republics, Moscow concluded bilateral agreements with many of the oblasts.
From the early 1990s, the struggle for power between the federal authorities and the ethno-territorial units gradually transformed the RF from a unitary empire into something that resembles a federation. However, although the struggle for a genuine federation fostered a transfer of powers to the ethnic republics, it also reinforced the link between control of territory and the power and rights that minorities can enjoy. In this way it accelerated the competition between ethnic groups to claim their own ‘homeland’. Faced with these problems, the federal authorities repeatedly stressed the need to move the basis of the federation away from the ethnic principle and on to an arrangement in which all subjects would have equal status. Such a change would, however, require groups to abandon their aspirations for nationhood.
The ethnic republics fiercely resisted any moves to undermine their position. The conclusion of a series of bilateral treaties with the republics indicates that federal authorities have accepted that these areas cannot be forced to participate in the federation. The continuing struggle between Moscow and the ethnic republics, especially the decision to invade Chechnya in 1994, suggested however that basic problems remained.
Determining the federal structure of the RF will not, however, solve the basic question about the dominance of Russians. The ‘race for sovereignty’ in the early 1990s helped provide many of the leading minority groups with a guaranteed legal status and, in principle, republican- level support for the development of indigenous cultures and languages. In many of these regions, however, the numerical dominance of ethnic Russians and other Slavs ensures that ethnic autonomy is largely a fiction. For those without an officially recognized homeland, the pressures to assimilate was even greater.
While the struggle for power between the ethnic republics and Moscow was taking place, there was also a general revival of the linguistic, cultural and ethnic practices of minority populations in the RF. Religious organizations also emerged in all the main minority groups. A relationship of ‘confessional coexistence’ developed between the Russian Orthodox Church and many of the other faiths of the RF. Some sections of the Orthodox movement, however, called for the prohibition of ‘non-traditional religions’ such as Mormons, Hare Krishna and Protestant groups and have promoted anti-Semitism.
The North Caucasus
The North Caucasus was annexed by tsarist Russia in the early nineteenth century but not fully pacified until the 1860s. In the twentieth century the region has been subject to a range of turbulent developments ranging from the civil war to deportations (1940s). Since the demise of the Soviet system, the North Caucasus has emerged as the most ethnically volatile region in the RF. The area is riven with territorial and border disputes involving many of the more than 60 distinct national, ethnic and religious groups (Christian and Muslim) in the region. In response to the new challenges that have faced the peoples of the region, a number of initiatives to create organizations to challenge Moscow’s control of the region have been launched.
The First Congress of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus met in August 1989 with the Abkhazia region in Georgia playing a leading role. The aim of the congress was to work towards the creation of a Caucasian Federal Republic. The emergence of this organization was a sign of the growing discontent of the local leaders with the RF and a response to the emergence of Cossacks as an organized force. At the end of its Third Congress in November 1991, the congress became the Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, incorporating 16 nations. In October 1992 it became the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus. The Congress created a Confederation of Caucasian Republics – continuing the tradition of the Union of Mountain Peoples created in 1917. Despite efforts to present a unified political front, it has proved difficult to establish a common agenda and internal rivalries over territory and relative influence in the region remain intense.
Beyond the Caucasus area, people from the region have faced popular prejudice and harassment by the Russian authorities, in part because of the conflicts in the Caucasus and in part reflecting the widespread perception that people from the region are involved in criminal activities.
The Dagestan ASSR in the North Caucasus was established in January 1921. The republic declared its sovereignty in May 1991. The complexity of minority issues in Dagestan – there are at least 32 separate ethnic groups within its borders – and the close identity between many of these groups and certain territory led to calls for the republic to become a federation. Establishing a balance of ethnic groups in the republic proved to be a particularly difficult and delicate task. Dagestan is the centre of Islam in the North Caucasus.
The situation in the North Caucasus subsequently deteriorated, beginning with the First Chechen War from late 1994 to August 1996 and the resumption of hostilities between Russian armed forces and militant groups in 1999. The North Caucasus afterwards continued to suffer from the knock-on effects of the Chechen conflict and the radicalization of the region as a whole. Despite a number of setbacks, including the assassination by Russian special forces of key leadership figures, the Chechen resistance still succeeded in mounting operations exporting the conflict to other areas of the North Caucasus. In October 2005, for example, over 130 people were killed in militant raids in the Kabardino-Balkarian capital
The Russian state also encountered the first serious legal sanctions deriving from human rights violations in the Chechen conflict in July 2006, when the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled the Russian government responsible for the disappearance and death of a young Chechen man. The case was the first of many similar claims. In a landmark case in July 2007, the ECtHR ruled that the Russian government was responsible for the ‘disappearance’ and death of a young Chechen man, Khadzhi-Murat Yandiev, in 2000. It was the eleventh ECtHR ruling against Russia for disappearances, deaths and disproportionate use of force stemming from the Chechen conflict. Moscow has not complied with the rulings. In June 2007, however, there was a rare conviction of four Russian soldiers in a domestic court for the killing of Chechen civilians in 2002.
Following years of conflict, Chechnya is now ruled as an autonomous republic within Russia by Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel who was nominated for the Chechen presidency by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2007. Since then, while the region has remained relatively stable, Kadyrov’s rule has been widely criticized for a range of human rights violations, including the imposition of a compulsory Islamic dress code on women and a litany of abuses carried out by the ‘Kadyrovsty’, his paramilitary force. Most notoriously, Chechen authorities have launched a vicious assault on anyone suspected of homosexuality, with reports of dozens of men arrested, tortured and even killed.
The north, Siberia and Far East
The indigenous peoples of the north, Siberia and the Russian Far East have been under a variety of economic, linguistic and cultural pressures since Russian expansion into their homelands in the twelfth century. Their shamanist practices have been repeatedly attacked. Under the Russian and Soviet empires, the image of these regions as frontier zones and state subsidies encouraged in-migration by Slavs.
Within the Soviet Union, native peoples were gradually pushed towards extinction by policies promoting modernization, forced settlement and russification. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, these peoples were able to organize themselves more effectively and Russian migration and industrial exploitation slowed. However, native peoples also had to face a new set of challenges, the most important of which, land privatization, threatened the security of their land rights and their aim of creating ‘reserved territories’. The growing demands for access to the resource-rich areas of the north by domestic and international mineral extraction companies has raised the issue of what rights the native peoples should have in the future economic exploitation of their homelands.
The centrepiece of the Russian government policy was the Council of Ministers decree (11 March 1991) ‘On the State Programme for the Development of Economy and Culture of the Minority Peoples of the North 1991-5’. The Committee for the North and Minority Peoples was created in the Council of the Federation in April 1994. The Russian parliament passed a law ‘On the Foundations of the Legal Status of the Indigenous Peoples of the Russian North’, although President Yeltsin vetoed it in the summer of 1995 under pressure from the oil and gas lobby.
Several years later the situation of the peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East was still ‘critical’ according to some analysts. Accounting for only 260,000 people, these peoples currently live across areas covering more than half of the territory of the Russian Federation. Russia has not signed the only international instrument explicitly addressing the rights of indigenous peoples, the Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. However, nominal progress has been achieved in the expansion of national legislation dealing with these peoples. In 1999 Russia adopted the Federal Law on the Guarantees of the Rights of Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the Russian Federation, which established a wide range of rights for numerically small peoples. In 2000 the Federal Law on General Principles of the Organization of Communities of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East was adopted; in 2001 a Federal Law on the Territories of Traditional Nature Use by Indigenous Numerically Small Peoples of the North Siberia and the Far East was adopted.
Despite these positive legislative steps the lack of implementation at the practical level has limited the potential benefits to the numerically small peoples supposedly the beneficiaries of these laws. By 2004 no federal funding had been allocated for the realization of indigenous rights and federal laws had not been backed up by national, regional or local enforcement laws or mechanisms. The small peoples of Siberia, the North and the Far East continue to confront serious problems of discrimination, land use and ownership and environmental damage caused by the activities of Russian and multinational enterprises exploiting oil, timber, coal, mineral and gas reserves in the region.
The issue of land rights is perhaps the most fundamental. Although the 2001 Federal Land Code gives a priority right to the acquisition of land to those already having possession rights on this land, a provision which on paper benefits indigenous peoples, indigenous communities themselves are generally too geographically dispersed, remote from administrative centres and ill-informed of legal developments to take advantage of this provision. Regional and local authorities have done little to remedy this situation as they often stand to benefit from the activities of private companies using indigenous lands for industrial production.
The ‘Concept Paper on the Sustainable Development of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East of the Russian Federation’ was adopted in February 2009. It outlines a comprehensive federal policy on indigenous peoples from 2009 to 2025. The policy aims are the enhancement of socio-economic conditions and standards of living; and the protection of the environment, culture and traditional way of life of indigenous peoples. Despite these guarantees, there are a number of concerns relating to their legal implementation. Although resources have in the past been allocated from the federal budget to support indigenous communities, there has been criticism relating to the paucity and mismanagement of funds. Indigenous peoples continue to suffer from difficult socio-economic conditions and low standards of living.
The Putin era
With the accession of President Putin in 2000 the Russian Federal Government has pursued a politics emphasising equality rather than supporting ethnic minorities. While ethnic minorities still retain some positions of power in local governments, Putin has opposed special measures for ethnic minorities and ethnic regions as part of his larger efforts to funnel power into a vertical, federal structure with federal districts governed by presidential representatives. Tax systems have been restructured, and restrictions have been put on governors to inhibit regional autonomy in favour of greater federal control.
Across different political domains, the Putin era has been characterized by renewed efforts to centralize political authority and limit opportunities for dissent. Trends towards a centralization of political authority have been observed in a number of fields. Putin’s second term saw a tightening on freedom of expression; while a diverse print media may exist, electronic media rarely criticize the president and routinely criticize his opponents. Restrictions were also imposed on NGOs and civil society groups, above all those funded by Western institutions, by a controversial NGO law. The political party system was also reconfigured. The threshold for representation in the Duma was raised to 7 per cent. From 1 January 2006, a new law came into force requiring all parties to have at least 50,000 members and branches distributed across at least half of the federation subjects – a move precluding regionally or ethnically based parties.
Re-centralization has also been evident in Putin’s management of Russia’s federal system. The regime effectively abandoned the mechanism of bilateral treaty ties between Moscow and federal subjects in favour of concentrating political power in individuals or institutions more amenable to central control. At the end of 2004 the system of directly elected regional governors was abolished in favour of a presidential appointee system. Regional governors now appoint senators to the Federation Council, and regional laws are required to comply with federal legislation. Nonetheless, regional parliaments still play a role in appointing half of the Federation Council’s senators and approving presidential nominees for the post of governor.
At the same time the Putin regime was shaken in 2004 by a series of domestic disasters highlighting centrifugal forces, including the assassination of pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmed-haji Kadyrov in May, a Chechen militant raid into neighbouring Ingushetia in June, bombings of passenger jets in August, the Beslan hostage crisis of September and continuing social unrest in the North Caucasus. These developments, appended in official government discourse to the global ‘war on terror’ have certainly motivated further moves towards centralization of power witho
- Amnesty International
- Arctic Studies Center, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- European Centre for Minority Issues
- Moscow Helsinki Group
- Non-Violence International, Newly Independent States
- Russian Academy of Sciences (Institute of Ethnography)
- Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North
- SOVA Center for Information and Analysis
- Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO)
Ukrainians, Belarusians and Kazakhs
- European Roma Rights Centre, Budapest, Hungary
Russian or Volga Germans
Updated December 2020
We stand up for minority and indigenous rights. Find out howLeart more about us
11 October 2023
Caught in the crossfire: Minority languages in Ukraine
In Ukraine, the Russian language isn’t going anywhere, for now at least. But as war wages on, the language issue looks like it will…
Reports and briefingsView all
25 November 2014
Protecting the Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples in the Russian Federation: Challenges and Ways Forward
This report provides an overview of the present situation of minority and indigenous peoples’ rights in Russia. It examines the…
Guides and toolkits
9 March 2016
Minority Rights in the Russian Federation – Legal Framework Review
Russia is relatively ethnically diverse state, with a number of minorities, migrant communities and indigenous peoples within its…
9 March 2016
Monitoring toolkit CD ROM – A methodology guide for Russian non-governmental organizations on monitoring and documentation activities
Russia is a country with remarkable levels of diversity including around
- Russian Federation
Don’t miss out
- Updates to this country profile
- New publications and resources