Thursday, July 23, 2015

Buryats Invoke UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples to Block Monument Honoring Cossacks

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 23 – Efforts by the ethnic Russian mayor of Ulan-Ude to erect a monument in honor of the Cossacks have been blocked by the objections of Buryat activists who have invoked the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, prompting the Buryat Republic head to overrule the mayor of that region’s capital city.

            The invocation of the UN Declaration means that what might otherwise have been a local controversy too small to attract anyone’s attention has the potential to become a rallying cry not only for other non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation but also for former Soviet republics as well (

            The declaration specifies that “indigenous peoples became victims of historic injustices as a result among other things of their colonization and the loss of their lands, territories and resources which blocked the realization by them in particular of their right to development in correspondence with their needs and interests.”

            Because of that past, it continues, the governments of the countries on which indigenous peoples live and who have signed the declaration as Russia has have taken upon themselves the responsibility to reach an agreement with these peoples before “taking and implementing legal or administrative measures which may affect them.”

            The successful invocation of this UN rule potentially has widespread application in the Russian Federation, but even the specific conflict that led to this action is intriguing as an indication of the tensions between ethnic Russians and minorities and between elected officials like the mayor in this case and Moscow-appointed ones like the republic head.

            Earlier this year, the Buryat Republic government adopted a nationality policy which sought to balance the interests of the various nations who live on its territory and which representatives of those nations felt meant that nothing could be done for any one of them without the concurrence of the others.

            But then Ulan-Ude Aleksandr Golkov ignored those expectations, convened a meeting of Russians to which no Buryats were invited, and decided unilaterally to erect a monument to the Cossacks who he argued were the founders of his city.  Not surprisingly, that action outraged some Buryats.

            It even provoked some to insist that “Ulan-Ude is the most ancient city of Russia” and that the founders of [that city] were the Huns, not the Cossacks” who came centuries later.  “If anyone deserves a monument in Ulan-Ude, journalist Tatyana Nikitina declared, “it was the Huns and not the Cossacks.”

            The Buryat media filled up with stories that stressed that “the indigenous Buryat people are against the erection of a monument to Cossack colonizers on the native land of the indigenous Buryat people” and accused Mayor Golkov and his team of taking actions that might appeal to Russians but that offended the Buryats.

            One group of Buryat activists was particularly outraged that Golkov had even told one republic paper that he had “only one shortcoming: ‘that he was not a member of the titular nationality,’” a comment that these Buryats saw both as an insult to them and an attempt to mobilize local Russians.

            The mayor’s action threatened to trigger clashes between the ethnic Russians and the Buryats, and in order to prevent that, given that his job might very well be on the line if they occurred, republic head Vyacheslav Nagovitsyn in early June overruled the mayor and declared there would not be a monument to the Cossacks in the center of the capital city.

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