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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Reclaiming The Frontiers

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 30 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Indigenous peoples in both the great plains of the United States and the far north of the Russian Federation are increasing their share of the population in the areas of their traditional settlement and hence their claims to political power.

A small part of this shift in the ethnic balance reflects new increases in the birthrate and life expectancies of some of the native populations, but most is the result of the departure of the former settler populations -- whites in the case of the United States and ethnic Russians and more generally Slavs in the case of Russia.

Data from the 2000 U.S. census released last week provide a remarkable portrait of this change, one that may be duplicated in Russia when Moscow conducts its first census next year, the first since 1989.

In the ten U.S. states in this region, total population has declined in some or even most of the counties, the administrative units by which these states are divided. In North Dakota, for example, population fell in 47 out of 53 counties over the last decade. And in some places, the number of residents per square mile has fallen below one, the Census Bureau's definition of a wilderness area.

As a result and for the first time since white settlers displaced Indians more than a century ago, many of the formerly all-white counties in these states have seen their populations decline precipitously as young people move away to find jobs.

But as the whites have left, Native Americans have returned to take advantage of jobs in casinos allowed on Indian reservations or increased the number of children they have in the expectation that they can look forward to brighter prospects for themselves and their future. And in ever more counties, Native Americans form a majority or at least an increasingly significant political minority.

So far, however, this demographic shift has not had significant political consequences at the state level, because even in Oklahoma, which has the highest percentage of Native Americans in its population, 11 out of every 12 residents is white. Below that level, however, demographic change is rapidly translating into political change, with Native Americans either taking power in counties or cities or becoming a voting bloc others must appeal to.

And that pattern, one in which native populations dominate small units but the dominant ethnic community controls the larger one, has serious implications for the future of the United States and some important lessons for other countries, like the Russian Federation, where the balance between natives and settlers is shifting at least in certain portions of the territories involved.

First of all, this demographic shift highlights the role that central governments play in determining the pattern of settlement and hence the ethnic politics in particular regions. In the U.S., Washington first sponsored white settlement on the territories formerly occupied by Native Americans and then maintained that settlement pattern by subsidizing agriculture there.

But Washington also has provided special benefits to Native Americans, extending to Indian reservations certain rights other regions do not have. And as agricultural subsidies have fallen, these have become increasingly important in determining the demography of the American great plains.

In Russia, the same thing is true. On the one hand, Moscow first subsidized and then ended special supports for ethnic Russians who moved to the far north. And on the other hand, Moscow created ethnic territories for the indigenous groups of the north that have become increasingly important for the native populations as ethnic Russians have moved out.

Second, the demographic shift in the U.S. calls attention to the ways in which a demographic trend gradually rather than suddenly redefines the situation. The changes in the balance between whites and natives in the Great Plains states over the last decade are part of a tectonic shift that has been building for some time and is likely to continue in the future at an ever increasing pace.

In the short term, however, the translation of demography into politics is likely to remain slow. Again, the same pattern holds in Russia's north. There too the demographic trends have been relatively slow-moving and their impact on politics still largely below the radar screen of most people in Moscow and the West.

And third, the demographic shift in the U.S. identified by the census points to a new kind of political struggle ahead. Those who want to maximize the influence of Native Americans will want to shift decisions as much as possible to the local level, while those who seek to restrict that influence or to maximize the impact of whites will do just the reverse. That kind of politics is nothing new, but because it has an ethnic dimension, it may ultimately become more intense.

The same pattern is to be found in Russia. There, discussions about who decides what and at what level are sometimes cast in terms of the need to redraw the boundaries of the federation's regions and republics. But behind those words are the same kind of demographic shifts that ever more people are likely to attend to as more census data becomes available.