Monday, June 30, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Estonia, Russia Clash on the Future of Finno-Ugric Peoples

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 30 – Estonian and Russian officials clashed over the weekend about the fate of the numerically small but politically sensitive Finno-Ugric nations in the Russian Federation, an exchange “Gazeta” said was the first “international scandal” in Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency and one that points to more problems ahead for these officials and their peoples.
In the course of the World Finno-Ugric Congress, Medvedev met with the presidents of Estonia, Finland and Hungary, the three independent Finno-Ugric states. His meetings with the leaders of Finland and Hungary reportedly went well, but his session with Estonia’s president Toomas Hendrik Ilves clearly did not.
Medvedev suggested that the two discuss “the remarkable number of problems” in the relations between Russia and Estonia, to which Ilves responded, speaking English rather than Estonian, that it would be a good thing if “the public rhetoric” surrounding their bilateral ties were to be dialed back (
But while the conversation between Medvedev and Ilves may have been somewhat tense, the problems really began with the remarks Ilves made after that session and with speeches delivered by others to the plenary sessions of the congress as well as with the comments officials and scholars offered about both sets of remarks.
In his speech, Ilves noted that only three of the 24 Finno-Ugric peoples had achieved independent statehood, something he implied that others should hope for even if the current prospects seem bleak: “Freedom and democracy were our choice 150 years ago when even poets did not yet dream about state independence,” he said.
“As soon as you get a taste of freedom,” the Estonian leader continued, “you will understand that this is a question of survival, without which it is impossible to operate.”
Not surprisingly, given the less than warm relations between Moscow and Tallinn – more than one Russian commentator today noted that when there are general problems in a relationship, almost anything can be the occasion for a conflict – many of the delegates from the Russian Federation responded very negatively to the Estonian president’s statement.
Representatives of the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District, for example, told Russian journalists in widely quoted remarks that they were surprised by Ilves’ remarks and that they could not imagine how they would cope “without Russia.”
But the strongest attack against Ilves came from Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the international affairs committee of the Duma and a frequent critic of the policies of the Baltic countries. “I consider,” he told journalists, that an attempt has again been made to politicize the Finno-Ugric process,” an action that he said was “extremely incorrect” at such a conclave.
He said that albeit “in a much camouflaged form,” Ilves had issued “certain appeals to the Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia to think about their own self-determination,” appeals that had left him angry and disappointed because he suggested it showed that “Estonia in the person of its president cannot see the forest for the trees.”
Then, when he delivered his speech to the congress, Kosachev expanded on these remarks. “One should not resolve problems by trying to sharpen ethnic conflicts,” he insisted, especially in the Russian Federation where “we have no problems with the survival and good neighborly relations of people of the most varied nationalities.”
In response to those words, the Estonian delegation including President Ilves stood up and left the hall. The audience applauded, according to Kosachev because they did not approve what the Estonians were doing but far more likely because so many of them, who have been and remain victims of Moscow’s policies, did.
Estonian officials were unanimous in saying that the Estonian delegation had done the right thing, standing up for their fellow Finno-Ugric nations and refusing to sit still for what they and Finnish President Tarja Halonen said was Kosachev’s tendentious account of the state of Finno-Ugric life in Russia (
But Russians were outraged. “Nezavisimaya gazeta” today offered the observations of three Moscow commentators. Valery Tishkov, the director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, dismissed the very idea of any “commonality of a Finno-Ugric world” – “at least from the political point of view (
It is “one thing” in Hungary, Finland and Estonia, “where these peoples are the titular” nationalities. “It is an entirely different thing in Russia where they are minorities” and where they are “not in such a catastrophic situation as some want to suggest.” Consequently, urging them to seek their own state is “a cover form of separatism.”
Tishkov who has often reacted angrily in the past to concern in Europe and more generally about the fate of the Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia, insisted that the government in Tallinn “would not permit a Russian or small Finno-Ugric minority in Estonia to define itself in this way.”
Konstantin Voronov, a senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow, was equally dismissive, saying that the Finno-Ugric issue was a “’sleeping’ problem, which “our Estonian partners want to politicize,” despite Moscow’s willingness to allow minorities autonomy as in Tatarstan and Chechnya.
And Dmitry Suslov, a researcher at the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, summed up what Medvedev, Kosachev and all the others on the Russian side almost certainly feel. “This scandal cannot radically affect Russian-Estonian relations because today they are not in the best condition” given, among other things, last year’s dispute over the Bronze Soldier.

UPDATE for July 1: Russian efforts to change the rules under which the International Consultation Committee of Finno-Ugric Peoples operates between congresses failed, when the congress itself voted down a Medvedev-backed plan to shift the headquarters of that committee from Helsinki to the Russian Federation. Backers of the plan included the delegations from Mordovia and Mari El, whose members, one Finno-Ugric site, said are officers in the Russian special services (

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