Secluded Arctic region rejects Putin in rare protest

Moscow (AFP) – Lyudmila Laptander, an activist advocating autonomy for her mineral-rich Nenets region in the Russian Arctic, worries authorities are planning to sacrifice its traditions for the promise of economic enrichment.

“If Nenets is merged with another region, I worry that no one will look after our language or our traditions, and that our small villages in the tundra will be forgotten,” said Laptander, 61, a member of the Yasavey cultural group.

The autonomous region on the edge of the Arctic Ocean was gripped by protests in May against the government’s plans to integrate it with neighbouring Arkhangelsk.

The initiative, which aimed to streamline the extraction of the vast region’s mineral wealth, was buried after its 44,000 inhabitants voiced opposition to the move in a rare protest vote against President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

In a nationwide ballot that ended last week on reforms to the constitution proposed by Putin, Nenets was the only region in Russia out of 85 to reject the proposals, with more than 55 percent voting against.

While the vote sent a clear signal to Moscow, it was also a warning to local politicians facing re-election later this year.

“The president can stay in power if he wants, but no one touches our autonomy,” said Viktoria Bobrova, 57, a local activist and retired civil servant.

“We will continue the fight during the September regional election.”

– Generous subsidies –

The Nenets region is best known for its extreme weather conditions and the nomadic reindeer herders who call the vast tundra of Russia’s Arctic home.

For generations, its local tribes have lived in tents buttressed by wood, guided by shamanistic beliefs that teach respect for the land.

Yet there are fears that this way of life is being threatened by Russia’s strategic priorities, including mineral extraction and new Arctic shipping routes opening as temperatures rise.

The indigenous Nenets people make up around 18 percent of the population of the resource-rich region, which Moscow has granted control over its own budget.

Many residents fear merging with neighbouring Arkhangelsk would lead to severe cuts to generous subsidies that make possible regional traditions including reindeer herding.

“It’s already hard to live here, far away from everything,” said Tatiana Antipina, a local entrepreneur.

“We don’t want our standard of living to fall any more.”

In the run-up to the vote on the constitutional amendments proposed by Putin, Nenets residents pressed ahead with the campaign against the merger, including petitions, demonstrations and protests online.

Organisers sent leaflets by boat and helicopter to the region’s most secluded villages.

– ‘Train to the Moon’ –

Activist Bobrova said the “no” vote on Putin’s reforms was the only way to ensure that “our desire for autonomy was heard”.

For others, it was an opportunity to voice frustration that the authorities have abandoned remote Arctic hamlets, like the fishing village of Volonga.

The secluded settlement, nestled on the banks of the Barents Sea, has an official population of just 35 people.

All of the 17 residents that voted cast their ballots against the reforms.

“There is nothing left here. There are no jobs. The village is falling apart,” Mikhail Khozyainov, a 62-year-old former salmon fisherman, told AFP.

“Why would we vote for the new constitution?”

Regional activists closely monitored polls for signs of violations — a valuable exercise ahead of local elections on September 13, they said.

After the constitutional vote, acting regional chief Yuri Bezdudnyi conceded that the merger was no longer on the table.

But the activists remain on alert, saying the merger could still happen in the future.

They are also wary of a sweeping infrastructure project to develop the Arctic.

Local authorities have backed the construction of a deep-water port in the village of Indiga which will be linked to Arkhangelsk by a new railway.

“This line would be difficult and expensive to build because it crosses large swampy areas,” Bobrova said.

“It would be like sending a train to the moon!”