Analysis

The Pomors: regionalist movement or potential separatists?

At the end of 2013, on December 30th, Vladimir Putin signed a law that would make spreading separatist views a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in prison. The primary goal of this piece of legislation was to tackle increasing public support for the idea of relinquishing mainly Muslim territories in the Northern Caucasus. Vassili Gerassimov describes one of the many complex identities in the Russian Federation.

A group of Pomors.

A group of Pomors.

In the 1990s, the fledgling Russian Federation had to convince non-Russian Republics to stay. Boris Yeltsin negotiated his way through this problem, for instance with his famous appeal for Tatarstan  to take as much sovereignty as you can swallow. This was seen as the most effective approach at a time when the central government was also introducing the multiparty system, free market and federalism. Chechnya’s open challenge to the centre changed the political gravity, causing a bloody military conflict, which Vladimir Putin had to solve. Putin made his policy of fighting separatism in any part of the Russian Federation evident to everyone. Nevertheless, official policy and a variety of separatist movements continue to co-exist in an uneasy balance.

One of the recent examples of a kind is a trial, which started on 21st of November 2012 in Arkhangelsk. President of the Association of the Pomors of Arkhangelsk Oblast Ivan Moseyev was charged with inciting ethnic hatred against Russians and spying for Norway. His activities have attracted not only support among the local population, many of whom are suffering from the collapse of the local economy and the absence of aid from Moscow, but also from rights activists from throughout the Russian Federation and internationally. The latter support appears to be why he is being tried in a Russian court.

Pomors are a subethnos within the Russian ethnicity. Many people around the White Sea refer to themselves as Pomors or claim to be of Pomor origin. For most people Pomor is a purely regional term. There are, however, nowadays also a small group of people who define themselves as ethnically Pomor. During the 2002 census 6571 individuals (the great majority of them in the Arkhangelsk Oblast) chose to identify their ethnicity not as Russian but as Pomor. Whereas Pomor is an uncontested and unproblematic term on the Norwegian side it is contested and politicised on the Russian side.

In 1987, one of student societies of Arkhangelsk Medical Institute, of which Ivan Moseyev was a member, started discussing the so-called “Pomor idea”. Eventually, they produced an article called “We are for Promor Republic!”, which was published in newspaper “Volna” in January 1991. They proclaimed: “UNESCO is developing a project of United States of Europe which are based on the existing nation-states. Arkhangelsk Oblast has an opportunity to become one of these states.”

Moseyev has since 1992 been the chairman of the National Cultural Centre Pomor Renaissance. This led to creation of a variety of Pomor organisations, which maintained its activity since 1992. What is more, Moresyev started demanding official recognition of Pomors as an ethnic minority and an indigenous people. This step could potentially lead to benefits in traditional crafts for inhabitants of White Sea coast and, also, “the right to possess and use traditional territories and natural resources along with others indigenous ethnicities of the North”. In 2007, there was the First Unity Congress of Pomors, where the declaration was adopted. Furthermore, Pomor organisations united in November 2011 into the Association of Pomors of Arkhangelsk Oblast. While Moseyev has been celebrated in Norway, he has been a marginal figure at home.

In terms of culture, Pomor activists organised a variety of conferences, exhibitions, expeditions. In 2010, Moresyev together with Thor Robertsen, who is declared to be a leader of Norwegian Pomor Brotherhood branch, published a book, which contained eleven fairytales from both sides of the Russian-Norwegian border. The fairytales were presented in three languages; Russian, Norwegian and Pomor language.  There are attempts to develop the Pomor language: there are claims that so-called Govoria is a separate language (i.e. not Russian), secondly that it is the language of the indigenous population.

To sum up, the Russian authorities deal with a small movement, which is well-organised, institutionalised and has a support from abroad. Currently, it does not claim to be separatist, but purely regionalist, with the aim of expanding its powers of self-rule, to demand its official recognition, and to develop its identity. Nevertheless, in times of weakness the region could shift its rhetoric and action to separatist one, as one could see during the fall of the USSR, when national-liberation movements were being formed in a short period of time. Unfortunately, that is why the Kremlin is unwilling to give leeway to people like Ivan Moseyev. 

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