Saturday, January 12, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Komis Get a Nationality Ministry Again But Will It Save Them?

Paul Goble

Baku, January 11 -- The Komis again have a ministry of nationalities but its leaders appear more concerned about using it to counter Finno-Ugric activities in the West than about saving a 250,000-member community whose future is very much in question because of a rising tide of social and economic problems.
On January 1, the Komi Republic government reestablished a ministry for nationality affairs, an institution that had existed between 1995 and 2003 but whose responsibilities had been assumed by a department within the republic’s ministry of culture (
The ministry’s head, Valeriy Korobov, who had been first deputy culture minister, said this week that the republic had abolished the earlier Minnats because its leaders had focused too narrowly on folkloric issues and that his had been created because Komis are increasingly interested in their roots and the rebirth of national traditions.
Moreover, he said, the new ministry, which includes representatives from various other administrative organs, will focus on a broad range of issues and play a coordinating role in the defense of the Komis and other minorities in a republic where ethnic Russians form nearly 60 percent of the population.
But his further comments suggest that Korobov, his staff, and the republic leadership may be more concerned with using this ministry to fend off international criticism of how the Russian authorities are treating Finno-Ugric populations than in actually addressing the problems of that community.
He pointedly noted that his ministry will have a special department for work with Finno-Ugric groups elsewhere and Komi diasporas in particular, and the republic media noted that along with this ministry, officials there have created a Finno-Ugric Cultural Center of the Russian Federation (
That institution will presumably work to counter the criticism officials and intellectuals in the three independent Finno-Ugric states – Estonia, Finland and Hungary – have levied at what is going on with their co-ethnic and co-linguistic communities in the Russian Federation.
That possibility, even likelihood, helps to explain the caution with which Komi intellectuals have greeted the restoration of an institution whose demise they opposed ( They clearly hope it will do something for their community whose members are suffering so much.
One indication of just how bad things are came less than a week after the new ministry was created. Health officials reported that the Komis are literally drinking themselves to death, consuming as much as nine liters of pure alcohol per capita every year (
Not only is that figure dramatically higher than in earlier years, but it is one liter more than the World Health Organization has said is the amount capable of damaging the genes of those who consume it. And since this figure is for the entire population, actual consumption by adult males is undoubtedly much higher still.
In addition to that looming health problem, the Komis face many of the same difficulties their fellow peoples of the Russian North do. And three of these problem areas were the subject of intense and worried coverage in the media of this enormous and increasingly troubled region.
First, officials reported that nearly half of the 40 languages spoken in this region are at the edge of extinction in this generation, and despite efforts by the Russian government to slow this process, the majority of young people in most of these language communities do not speak their native tongue (, January 9).
Second, reflecting Vladimir Putin’s efforts to combine smaller non-Russian regions with larger Russian ones, Arkhangelsk officials may stop construction of what would have been the only road linking the Nenets District with the rest of Russia
And third, the folding in the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous District into Irkutsk Oblast has undermined the interests of the Buryats, highlighting the duplicity of the promises made before the referendum and prompting their leaders to fight back ( and
Of course, in some parts of the Russian North relations between officials and members of the titular nationality and its intellectual leaders are better than others. In the Komi Republic, for example, they have been relatively good -- a least compared to the situation in the Republic of Mari El.
There, the ethnic Russian president has never been able to find a common language with that Finno-Ugric nationality. Instead, he has acted as if he were the leader of an occupying force, alternately treating the Mari as the enemy and staging ceremonies to suggest otherwise (
Given these problems, the recreation of a nationalities ministry in the Komi Republic is very much a step in the right direction, but it may be that those who created in it were more interested in such imagery than they were in making sure that the Komis and their fellow peoples of the North have a future.

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