Fourth World nations1–what the UN calls indigenous peoples–are caught up in violent conflicts between Russia, the United States, and their proxies. Russian and American violent confrontations have killed thousands of indigenous peoples—forcing their relocation as refugees, while intimidating nations into subordination to the state. The significance of Fourth World nations in geopolitics is little understood by the United States government and many other states’ governments, but it is fully understood—and used—by the Russian government.
Consequently, Fourth World nations, until recently, thought only in terms of their “rights,” rather than the strategic role they play in global contests for power and wealth. They are only now beginning to get a taste of what is meant by modern international engagement as the United Nations prepares to convene the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in September 2014. For most of the representatives attending UN meetings concerning “indigenous issues”, their policy emphasis is about gaining respect and asserting their rights as collectives and individual human beings. Virtually no thought is given to the strategic position Fourth World nations occupy in the global contests between states, corporations, and organized crime—all of which have a stake in controlling land, resources and people.
The United States government does not choose to be concerned with Fourth World nations except to prevent their departure from a state’s control. “We deal with matters concerning relations between states—not with internal populations,” one US Department of State official informed me some years ago. The US government really can’t be bothered with the concerns of the world’s original nations, to have a policy other than to say: “indigenous peoples should not have a ‘veto’ over the decisions of state’s governments. And so the US government officially has one policy regarding indigenous peoples: they should not have the right of free, prior, and informed consent when a state decides matters that affect their lives and property. Thus, most states’ governments view the geopolitical position of Fourth World nations as irrelevant to matters of war and peace, power and wealth.
In the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sudan, Nigeria, Mexico, Argentina, and other countries around the world, the geopolitical position held by Fourth World nations is crucial to the stability, power, and wealth of those states and yet their presence is little mentioned in diplomatic circles. This is particularly true of Russia, which has a specific Fourth World policy factored into its foreign, as well as domestic, calculations,. While the United States basically ignores indigenous peoples in international diplomacy—despite US foreign policies constantly bumping into the geopolitical interests of indigenous nations2—Russia’s policy, the so-called “Nationality Policy”, is cynical and downright fraudulent.
Russia’s cynicism was exposed on July 16, 2014 at the United Nations, where its representative spoke before the United Nations Informal Consultation on the “Outcome Document” draft language being considered for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. The Russian diplomat could hardly contain her disdain for the Outcome Document’s process and intended purpose as she made statements dripping with sarcasm and rejection. Not surprising, given that the Russian government joined eleven other states in abstaining from voting on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when it was adopted by the General Assembly on September 13, 2007.3
Rebuilding a Failed State-Empire
For centuries Russia has engaged in a strategy to weaken and absorb Fourth World nations. Now, as part of its grand design, it moves to reclaim and control states in its “near beyond”—states that broke away from the Soviet Union when it collapsed, including Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia. That the Russian government seeks to apply political and military intimidation to control and subordinate Fourth World nations as it seeks to reabsorb errant former states is quite clear. That approach is built into President Vladimir Putin’s charge to the Duma (Russian legislative assembly) to adopt his new nationalities policy proclaiming all indigenous peoples as “Russians”. In a speech before the Presidential Council on Inter-Ethnic Relations, Putin argued in favor of his nationality policy by claiming the purpose of such a policy is “the strengthening of harmony and accord” among Russian citizens, “regardless of their ethnic or religious memberships”, so that they will see themselves “as citizens of a single country.” Stalin’s “Russiafication”4 policies claimed the same high principles.
The Putin-sponsored and now adopted Nationality Policy states:
- The Russian language is the fundamental basis of the unity of the country;
- Creation of a single standard national history textbook is necessary, one which stresses “the uninterrupted path of Russian history and the interconnection of its various stages;”
- Support the work of the 989 national-cultural organizations;
- Oppose the return of cultural monuments confiscated by the Soviets because to allow that would open a “Pandora’s box of problems”; and
- Hold major sports and other international meetings to help fuse the various peoples of the Russian Federation into one.
Putin’s Nationality Policy is even a radical departure from Stalin’s own Russification policies since Putin now it proffers a section that essentially claims that all peoples inside the Russian Federation are “Russians.” According to this dictate, Russia as of July 17, 2014 does not have any indigenous peoples. All the different peoples are to be considered Russians and must speak one language: Russian. That is a fundamental rejection of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Now, Russia holds that it is not responsible either to the international community or its domestic populations for upholding the rights of indigenous peoples—it is essentially a rogue state when it comes to the question of indigenous peoples’ rights. The United States and many other states at least give lip service to the “rights of indigenous peoples.”
Russia’s aggressions against indigenous peoples flow from self-conscious fear and insecurity. Since indigenous peoples are located in most of the Russian claimed territories—remote areas laden with resources such as petroleum energy, timber, diamonds, precious metals, and water resources—Russia has little or nothing, except when it takes from them. Russians primarily live in the urban areas of Moscow and St. Petersburg and along the east-west railway. Elsewhere the populations are non-Russian including: Bashkirs, Buryats, Chechens, Chuvash, Karelians, Komi, Ossetians, Chuckchee, Udmurts, Yakuts, Avars, Dargins, and scores more across the land. What is called the Russian Federation would be better called a “state of many nations”—the opposite of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Russia Falls and Sees Fourth World Nations
The Soviet Union collapsed on December 21, 1991 and the heavy weight of Russian aggressive control over more than 150 indigenous nations was lifted. Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen, had risen to the position of Speaker of the Supreme Soviet—the Russian Parliament—and thus became the second most powerful politician next to Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet collapse. He clashed with Yeltsin over the new constitution. Among other things, the distribution of power between Yeltsin as President and the President of the Supreme Soviet was debated, and a key issue concerned how indigenous nations would share in political power within a new Russian Federation. The Chechens had declared their independence in September 1991, forming the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria—essentially the first indigenous nation to break away from the Soviet Union. Other nations large and small expressed varying degrees of independence from or their filial obedience to Moscow.
In March of 1992, Yeltsin and Khasbulatov agreed on a Federation Treaty that provided for political autonomy for eighty-six of the eighty-eight different national polities (smaller nations were subordinated to the individual polities). Taxation authority at the local level was recognized and local law-making was recognized. The remaining two political entities—Chechens and Tartars—did not sign the Federation Treaty. By 1994, Tartarstan (most Tartars who had been removed from Crimea by Stalin and relocated just south of Moscow) signed an accord where their political autonomy and governmental powers were to be guaranteed. The Chechens would not negotiate.
I was invited by Speaker Khasbulatov to meet with indigenous leaders in Moscow at the Kremlin in the spring of 1992—about six months after the Soviet collapse. During a long meeting I learned of their aspirations as “partners” in the new Russia. We discussed the new Treaty and whether something like this existed in other countries. I suggested that they would need to be cautious since the Russians would not be used to the idea of subordinate nations becoming equals.
Those were heady days in the Russian capital and across Russia’s claimed territorial expanse. I met with representatives of the Komi, Chukchee, Ingushs, Ossettians, Yakuts, and others. All expressed great confidence in their relationship to a new Russia. But, what was not known at the time was the split inexorably developing between Khasbulatov and Yeltsin. Yeltsin was jealous of his political authority and saw Khasbulatov as a rival instead of a partner. Khasbulatov’s Supreme Soviet sought to exercise co-equal power with the President. Yeltsin responded by directing the military to physically attack the Supreme Soviet in October 1993, blowing cannon shells into the building. The military attack resulted in the parliament’s dismemberment and the arrest and jailing of Khasbulatov. The newly formed Duma, which replaced the Supreme Soviet, later pardoned Khasbulatov who then returned to private life as an economics professor. The Chechen had been removed figuratively and actually and Russia could claim absolute control of the federation.
Forcing State Integration
By December of 1994 Yeltsin’s government directed a ferocious military attack on the nascent Chechen Republic, far outnumbering Chechen defenders. His aim was to prevent Chechnya’s successful separation from the new Russia. Yeltsin’s military gambit to pull Chechnya back into the Russian fold failed miserably due to a combination of Chechen stealth, Russian troops’ lack of knowledge of the mountainous regions of Chechnya, and the unwillingness of many Russian troops to fight Chechens (most of the reluctant soldiers were from neighboring indigenous territories and simply laid down their weapons and went home). The Russian official practice of placing Russians high in the military command structure and non-Russians in the foot soldier levels had essentially backfired. Yeltsin’s Chechen war lasted almost two years, but was met by wide opposition in the Russian public as well. Despite the loss of as many as 14,000 fighter’s lives, nearly 100,000 civilian deaths, and 500,000 displaced people, the Chechens persisted in the opposition to Russian aggression. Chechnya continued to resist in its effort to pull away from Russian control.
The Russian government’s military and security strategists saw that some Russians and other non-Chechens could be used as a fifth-column to undermine what was a near universal decision by Chechens to remain separate and independent of Russia. By clandestine means, the Russian government infiltrated the population, supplied funds, military equipment, and introduced mercenaries—a tactic that would be later used in efforts to nip off parts of Georgia and Ukraine (more on these later). With promises of recognition by the Russian government, minority and indigenous peoples within Chechnya were being lured to oppose the Chechens. Russia chose to use the fears and weakness of indigenous groups against a greater foe with promises and money—both of which would later be withdrawn after Russian control was secured.
The United States government—so widely popularized as the defender of human rights—remained on the sidelines indirectly endorsing the carnage imposed on Chechnya. Indeed, when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the United States policy was largely aimed at maintaining the status quo and preventing nations and states from separating from Russia. When it became obvious that Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Moldova, and other peoples were going to pull away from Russia whether the US government opposed their separation or not, US foreign policy experts began to line up in support of the new realities. But where Fourth World nations like Chechnya sought their freedom, the US government fell silent.
The Chechen war with Russia was later followed by a number of other peoples breaking away including Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians, Ukrainians, Turkmen, Kazakhs, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians. In each of these breakaway states there were also indigenous peoples who did not necessarily consent to remain part of the new states. Among these were the Ossetians and Abkhazians in Georgia, and the Crimean Tartars in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia recovered from the near “re-collapse” of the Russian Federation to become the primary source of gas and other petroleum products for the “near-beyond” and the European states farther west, setting in place a kind of economic co-dependency. What Russia had actually begun to put in place was the same type of framework Stalin had established between the Soviets by spreading the industrial (military, agricultural, and natural resources) capacities between them so that no Soviet could control an industry. That co-dependency resulted in the dictator’s ability to manipulate the weakness of the diverse populations. Putin has taken up Stalin’s lesson and applied it in terms that would not make the capitalists too wary. Just as Stalin was shielding his weaknesses by careful tactical maneuvers, so has Putin. By dividing the diverse populations Stalin caused them all to depend on his authority and decisions. Putin is doing the same.
Yeltsin was not a tactician when he faced the diversity of nationalities claimed by Russia. Yeltsin thought brute force would shield him from appearing to be weak by preventing exposure of the fears, inferiority complex, and economic shortcomings of Russia.
Putin’s Russian Expansionist Scheme
Putin picked up where Yeltsin left off with the Chechens by continuing to war against them until he was able by force placement of “loyal-to-Putin” Chechens in positions of power.
Putin challenged Georgia using Abkazia and Ossettia as pathways to undermine and weaken independent Georgia. Using the same approach as previously introduced in Chechnya, Putin claimed he was defending Abkazians and Ossetians from Georgian depredations that didn’t actually exist. Russia offered Ossetians promises of status in the Russian parliament and recognition of their language. Abkazia was offered “independence” under Russian protection (as long as the sea port was available to Russia for exports). Georgia was cut off from the Black Sea (Abkazia) and undermined by the fifth column (Russian guns, money, and mercenaries) in the name of protecting Ossetians. Withdrawing Ossetia from Georgia basically cut the country into two pieces. Georgia eventually bowed to Russia and became a petroleum customer. The United States government offered only a muted recognition of Russia’s violations of international law and swallowing of Fourth World nations.
Putin claimed Russians and Tartars were being abused in the Crimean Region of Ukraine as annexation of a significant part of the independent state simply “happened.” While claiming the Russians were under threat from Ukraine the Russians offered the Tartars money, their own language and schools, and even a place in the parliament in an effort to win their endorsement of what would become Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the doorway to eastern Ukraine. Crimean Tartars were not wholly willing and indeed expressed opposition to Russia, but may saw the “recognition” of their rights as an important difference between Ukraine and Russian policies. More than 700,000 Crimean Tartars were helpless to prevent Russia from swallowing them whole.
The United States government has demonstrated an appalling ignorance of Russia’s “swallowing” of Fourth World nations while it undermines states it seeks to control. US foreign policy experts prefer to hold their heads high and see only conflicts between states while the very underpinning of those states—Fourth World nations—is systematically intimidated, violently attacked, and made part of the geopolitical game of power and wealth. The US government, European Union and other states have yet to discover that Fourth World nations are central to global stability in the 21st century.
The US, European Union, Japan and even China could reverse and prevent the weakening and even destruction of Fourth World nations by states such as Russia by advocating and implementing new international protocols setting out procedures for establishing democratic dialogue between states’ and nations within mutually determined intergovernmental negotiations. Adopting such a policy affirms the commitment to fairness, honor and democratic dialogue—concepts claimed by the international community. In other words, it is in the interest of states that want to stabilize global relations that they engage Fourth World nations and their legitimate governing bodies. By so doing the weakness of Fourth World nations within existing states cannot be so easily used by expansionist regimes and, yes, extremist non-state organizations seeking to attack states like the US. Formalizing the principle of free, prior and informed consent state three times in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples must be a priority of states wishing to advance democratic dialogue as a working instrument of global peace and stability.
The Center for World Indigenous Studies drafted the Joint Statement of Constitutional and Customary Indigenous Governments5 to spell out the terms of a protocol for Fourth World and States’ intergovernmental relations. This Statement outlines the essential tools for pushing back the bully states that commit violence against the global peace while advancing the principle of free, prior and informed consent for the benefit of both Fourth World nations and states.
Plainly stated, the Russian government has played on the fears and weakness of indigenous nations for decades to gain political power over other peoples—ultimately to enrich the Russian elite. Russian expansion is underway as Russia nibbles at Fourth World nations to gain economic and power advantages over non-Russian peoples. The clear reality is that no matter what the promises have been to grant or recognize indigenous peoples—the exercise of their own legitimate powers, the practice of language and culture, and to hold and control their own resources—Russia has ultimately reneged, as its new Nationalities Policy of July 2014 clearly demonstrates. The Russian government lies to indigenous peoples to gain land and resources and it is unwilling to consider the mandates and principles contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. According to Russia’s president, there are no longer indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation—only Russians who must watch [Russian] sports and speak Russian. Russia’s government openly and unapologetically seeks the forced integration of states and nations; and so far there is nothing that can stop it when other states overlook the strategic significance of Fourth World nations.
Dr. Ryser earned his doctorate in international relations with a concentration in Fourth World Geopolitics—the conduct of political relations between indigenous nations and metropolitan states. He is the Chairman of the Center for World Indigenous Studies (www.cwis.org) and the author of Indigenous Nations and Modern States, released by Routledge in 2012.
1. Peoples that comprise internationally unrecognized nations. There are 5000 to 6000 representing a third of the world’s population whose descendants maintain a distinct political culture within the states, which claim their territories and their populations. Fourth World nations are often divided by state’s boundaries imposed over their larger territories. The United Nations notes no more than an aggregate of 360 million people making up Fourth World nations, but the actual number is closer to 2.3 billion representing a third of the world’s population whose descendants maintain a distinct political culture within the states which claim their territories
2. US foreign policies all too frequently demand active engagement with Fourth World nations, e.g., Afghanistan (Pashtun), Pakistan (Pashtun, Boluchi), Iraq (Kurds, Assyrians, Yezidis, etc.) Syria (Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Circassians, etc.), Lebanon (Palestinians, Druz), Israel (Palestinians, Bedouins,), Yemen, Laos (Laotians), Cambodia (Khmere), South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Chad, Nigeria, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, the Philippines, Ukraine, Nicaragua, Burma (Rohingya, Karen) and more.
3. One hundred forty-three member UN states voted in favor while the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand voted in opposition. Abstaining from the vote were: Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa, Ukraine. Absent for the vote were the states of: Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gambia, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Israel, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Montenegro, Morocco, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Romania, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Tajikistan, Togo, Tonga, Turkmenistan, Tuvalu, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Vanuatu.
4. A form of cultural assimilation process during which non-Russian communities, voluntarily or not, give up their culture and language in favor of the Russian one. Originating in the 16th Century the policy was repeatedly applied to peoples near and inside Russia and with great intensity by Stalin. Between the 1920s and 1930 the Russian government practiced the policy of “indigenization”: recognizing and endorsing cultural diversity among the various indigenous groups. That policy changed 180 degrees in the 1930s.
5. Presented the United Nations in May 2014 with the endorsement of eleven Fourth World governments representing more than 30 million indigenous people.