Staunton, September 9 – As ever more of their members recognize, Russia’s numerically small nationalities need state autonomy if they are to survive, a conclusion that puts them on a collision course with Moscow which is seeking to amalgamate some of them with larger and predominantly Russian units and to reduce the meaning of autonomy for those who retain it.
But it is not only the threat from Moscow that is of concern for many groups, either because they are combined together in officially bi-national republics like Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria or because they are subordinate to another non-Russian group either one completely different as in Daghestan or one relatively similar as in Mordvinia.
The last case is especially instructive about the state of place of ethnic relations in the Russian Federation, and today, on the Svobodnaya pressa portal, Anton Razmakhnin considers the case of the Erzya, a Finno-Ugric community in Mordvinia that increasingly feels itself to be oppressed by their fellow Finno-Ugrics, the Moksha, as well as by the Russians.
Indeed, he says, while most Russians lump the two groups under the common designator of Mordvin, the rule of Nikolay Merkushkin, a Moksha, and his Russifying language and culture policies has made the life of the Erzya minority “unbearable” and is prompting that community to think about the formation of a separate republic svpressa.ru/society/article/29858/).
Razmakhnin spoke with Ivan Yelayev, an Erzya lawyer, who now lives outside of Mordvinia “because of security considerations”, given his opposition to Merkushkin’s Moksha-dominated regime and his support for Erzya causes, including the embattled Erzya language newspaper there.
Yelayev said that since Merkushkin came to power in 1995, the Erzya have been mistreated, with the Moksha powers that be there refusing to fulfill even their most “elementary” responsibilities toward the Erzya. Indeed, he said, within the last year, he had buried several relatives who had been denied medical treatment because of their nationality.
Moreover, “Merkushkin and his clan” have done everything to prevent the Erzya from developing their own businesses, setting up obstacles and blocking their participation in public life. Consequently, also officially, the Erzya are part of the Mordvin nation, “we do not have freedom of speech in our own republic!”
Yelayev said that the only way out, one that he and others have long opposed but now conclude is necessary for the survival of the Erzya, is the formation of a separate autonomous republic. “Now patience is already running out and not only with me but with the majority of Eryzans.”
The Erzya people, he said, are subject to double discrimination: first by the Moksha of Merkushkin and then by Russians who “discriminate against the small peoples of Russia,” Yelyayev said. Russians criticize him for not speaking Russian well, forgetting that his native language is not Russian but Erzyan.
As a result of this situation, even though the Mordvin constitution specifies that the republic has “three national languages – Russian, Erzyan, and Moksha – only the first of these is used.” Government officials exclusively and the media overwhelmingly do not use either of the Mordvin languages.
Many Erzya had assumed, Yelayev said that separatism and the formation of a separate republic would not solve things. “But now, it seems, [he and they] are prepared to struggle for the separating out of Erzya autonomy,” thereby creating a territory on which their nation could survive and develop.
. To that end, the Erzya have appealed to international organizations, and at least some of the deputies in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have begun to take up their cause, if not to promote the formation of a new republic than at least to ensure that Moscow and Saransk follow their own constitutions and laws.
Similar problems and processes can be seen in other republics, Razmakhnin continues. The national republics, “one of the artifacts of Leninist and in fact Stalinist nationality policy combined peoples who were hostile to one another,” something repression kept out of sight but not out of mind.
“At a minimum,” the journalist says, “two examples of a good life constructed on the basis of national identity exist in the Russian Federation. One of them is Tatarstan where the standard of living is higher than the all-Russian … and [the other is] Chechnya,” where incomes are lower but “which is proud of the absolute defense of its residents before Russian laws.”
“It is another question whether the numerically small Erzyan will achieve such a degree of autonomy as the Tatars and Chechens. But it is important that they try. [And] it is completely possible that genuine federalism in the final analysis will bring Russia much more good than harm,” whatever some people think now.