Baku, May 18 – Among the more disturbing actions of the Putin regime have been its moves to assume control over nominally public organizations, thus freezing out popular activists of one kind or another while allowing the Kremlin to point to the existence of these institutions as evidence of Russia’s supposed progress toward democracy and a civil society.
An especially noxious example of this, albeit one that has occurred far from Moscow, involves the ways in which the Kremlin and its local ethnic Russian allies have moved to take control of and then throttle what had been the most important public initiative in the Middle Volga republic of Mari El, the Congress of the Mari People.
Throughout the post-Soviet period, that independent body had been a thorn in the side of officials there, repeatedly calling attention to the repressive moves of the government and, what undoubtedly is far worse from the perspective of Moscow, ensuring that information about these actions reached Finno-Ugric activists and supporters abroad.
But according to two analyses of how the Russian bureaucracy took control of the VIIIth Congress of the Mari People, Moscow and its man on the scene, Mari El President Leonid Markelov, will have less reason to worry about this group saying anything untoward in the future (www.mari.ee/rus/articles/soc/2008/05/04.html, www.mari.ee/rus/news/soc/2008/05/06.html).
In an article entitled “A Congress of the People or a Gathering of Bureaucrats” and posted on a Mari site based in Estonia, Ivan Nikolayev describes just what the officials did. (In a separate article posted on the same site, Anna Shiryayeva provides statistics on attendance and content analysis of resolutions that support Nikolayev’s report.)
At the April 16-19 congress, the bureaucracy packed the house and ensured that only people it approved of were elected and that all resolutions were enthusiastic about what local and all-Russian officials have done – including a reference to the construction of a 1.5 km road between two villages -- a major departure from all previous meetings of this group.
But this outcome was possible, Nikolayev says, only because of “the great importance” the officials devoted to the preparation of the meeting and to ensuring that Markelov, Russian presidential advisor Modest Kolerov and Regnum agency head Boris Sorkin had the chance to speak and to set the tone for the sessions of the congress.
In short, Nikolayev said, what the powers that be had demanded was that “’the Mari theme’ be closed down in an intelligent way, by the hands of the delegates” themselves. That is what the authorities achieved at this meeting, although it is far from clear whether they will be able to stifle the voice of this people.
However that may be, the congress took place “as scripted,” with speakers saying what they were supposed to say, delegates agreeing to what they were supposed to agree, and both electing the officials they were supposed to elect, Nikolayev says, even when that mean that the congress had to ignore its own rules.
And that is just what the authorities forced the congress to do. In order to elect Larisa Yakovleva, a United Russian Duma deputy, to a leadership post, the organizers had to scrap provisions in the charter saying that no one could be elected who was simultaneously serving in a party or government post. And that is just what the congress did.
Given this, Nikolayev asks rhetorically, “what role was left to the participants of the Congress, who had come, it is laughable to say, to discuss ‘the consolidation of the Mari people, the unification of the joint efforts of Mari society living in various regions and countries in order to preserve the unique national culture and the actual problems of the Finno-Ugric world?”
Clearly, officials had decided to allow them only to serve as pawns “in this great game,” even to the point of insisting that the congress assemble under the slogan, “The Mari World and Civil Society”—even though, as Nikolayev cleverly notes, “the Mari world remained on one side and civil society on the other.”
The Mari people can be proud, the activist says, that they organized seven real congresses even though officials have made a mockery of the eighth, installing people in office who represent the powers and not the people and forcing delegates to vote for things that they have no role in drafting.
As to the future, Nikolayev says, there are two obvious directions in which public life among the Mari is likely to develop. On the one hand, the officials will be able to use the past authority of the congress to boost themselves, but because they are subverting it, they will find it ever less useful.
That is because, he continues, “slaves cannot build a competitive economy: they are simply not interested in doing so.” The new “autocracy” will attract some humble and obedient servants but it will never be able to attract genuine “partners,” the very thing a civil society needs in order to work.
And on the other, Nikolayev says, the Mari people will find ways to create new “all-Mari unions” beyond the control of the bureaucracy and the territory of Mari El. They will develop “a more mature platform for the unification of all and not just some of the [Mari] organizations” and thus be better positioned to advance their national interests.
To the extent that happens, the bureaucratic takeover of the Congress of the Mari people by officials like Markelov and Kolerov may prove to be just as much a Pyrrhic victory for them as the 1934 Congress of the Communist Party, which took place under the slogan “the Congress of the Victors,” but whose members were overwhelmingly swept away in the purges.