Staunton, June 16 – Moscow’s harassment of activists among the numerically small peoples of the North continues, but the latest instance of this – Moscow’s demand for the extradition of one of them – fails when Oslo refuses to extradite the former vice president of the Russian Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON).
Last Thursday, Norwegian police detained Dmitry Berezhkov at the request of Russian officials pending a court hearing. That hearing took place on Saturday; the court held that “the conditions for extradition to Russian authorities are not present” and therefore orered his release (barentsobserver.com/en/politics/2013/06/dmitry-freed-jail-15-06).
Berezhkov’s detention, the latest move by the central Russian government against RAIPON, sparked outrage among the community of Northern peoples and more generally. (See the international petition at change.org/petitions/prime-minister-of-norway-jens-stoltenberg-stop-the-extradition-of-dmitry-berezhkov-to-the-russian-authorities
(It is possible Moscow officials thought they could get away with this move because they have already managed to shut down the RAIPON website (Raipon.info) which has not been updated since May 13 and another site that covers these issues, finnougr.ru, is currently on its annual three-week vacation.)
But the media in Scandinavia made the Russian request and Berezhovsky’s detention front page news. Aili Keskital, the former president of the Norwegian Sami Parliament, expressed her horror about what had happened and said she had “little confidence” in Russian courts. One paper called Berezhovsky “Putin’s Prisoner.”
“To fabricate false charges of crimes against dissidents,” that paper’s editors said, “is just another weapon in the [Russian] president’s arsenal against opposition and dissent.” No court in Norway or any other free country should view this as “in any way an ordinary criminal case” but must see it as a political one.
Putin and the oil and gas interests with which he is allied have targeted RAIPON for months. Last November, the Russian justice ministry ordered that NGO closed because it supposedly had failed to conform to Russian law (barentsobserver.com/en/arctic/moscow-orders-closure-indigenous-peoples-organization-12-11).
The organization responded by changing its rules and gained official registration this past spring (barentsobserver.com/en/society/2013/03/hard-fought-new-life-raipon-15-03). But then Russian officials intervened to oust Berezhovsky and other leaders of the old RAIPON and install more pliant successors (barentsobserver.com/en/politics/2013/06/dmitry-berezhkov-arrested-norwegian-police-14-06
But even they have not been pliant enough apparently. Russian officials have charged some RAIPON activists with being “foreign agents,” they have brought to trial other activists from among the numerically small peoples of the North, and they have taken other administrative steps to limit its activities (finugor.ru/node/41063finugor.ru/node/41054).
Besides the obvious threat to civil society and the rule of law that these Russian actions represent and the way in which the Russian authorities are seeking to involve foreign governments, Moscow’s moves reflect the importance of the numerically small peoples of the North and RAIPON, their most important and active organization.
That group represents only about 300,000 people, but their home regions cover almost 60 percent of the Russian Federation and include much of Russia’s oil and gas wealth whose untrammeled development RAIPON has regularly opposed. And the group has been a thorn in Moscow’s side in addition because it is an active member of many UN bodies.