One of the most prominent challenges for indigenous peoples ever since the onset of colonial restructuring of their societies and economies is the issue of marginalization on their own land.
Questions of ownership, but also the right to utilize land in a certain way and ultimately the self-determination of indigenous peoples have gained growing importance in social, economic and political discourses, especially with the rise of indigenous peoples movements after the second world war around the Arctic.
In this context falls the concept and establishment of obshchinas, that are a specific phenomenon of Russia and inextricably linked to historic and contemporary socio-economic processes there.
The origin of the concept can be summarized as follows: Historically, Russian ethnographers used the term obshchina to denote the basic unit of indigenous political economic community, based on family-clan relations. The concept evolved through the nineteenth century to include the notion of territoriality: an obshchina was then known as an indigenous family-clan, a political community that exercised control over its traditional lands and resources.
It is a kinship / clan based concept to describe the local economic influence of indigenous people over their land. Even though the indigenous societies became restructured – often by force – the term obshchina endured. The term and concept somewhat experienced a "renaissance" when after the collapse of the Soviet Union the federal government created legislation to enable indigenous peoples to assert claims to traditional lands and resources in 1992. Despite some delays due to the turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union, places such as the Sakha Republic within the Russian Federation was allowing the creation of obshchinas already the same year.
However, the process of redistribution has been quite difficult. District level governments (governments below the republic or provincial levels) are required to grant sufficient land to support traditional activities such as reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing. Land is granted only for traditional activity purposes; industrial resource development and other "modern" activities are beyond the mandate of obshchinas.
This can be seen as somewhat ambiguous, as it could be interpreted as a prolongation of paternalistic approaches of states towards their indigenous peoples or even discriminatory, as it seems that indigenous people are not allowed to "modernize" their livelihoods.
In terms of the type of legal rights accorded to obshchinas, it is notable that they are much weaker than the comprehensive land claim agreements in North America. Obshchinas do not provide proprietary rights, but do create exclusive rights of usage to obschina members. They can in theory stop modern resource development on traditional lands. However, this right in principal is limited, as resource development can prevail with appropriate compensation to the members of an obshchina.
With the development of Russian society after the soviet collapse, the courts have increasingly shown efforts to enforce established Indigenous people's rights, making the federal system more considering towards the special features of indigenous peoples cultures.
Sources: Arctic Human Development Report: Land Claims, Ownership, and Co-management Answers.com Indigenous Rights and Self-determination: Models and Options