Staunton, December 3 – Many analysts routinely assume that ethnic identity and the individual rights that are the foundation of a free society are competitive or even contradictory, but a conference at the University of Tartu in Estonia this week argued the reverse and suggested that “ethnic identity [itself] is the main precondition for democracy and freedom.”
Without a strong sense of ethnic identification, its participants argued, a society will often lack the social cohesion democracy and individual freedom require. Moreover, when one nation ignores the claims of ethnic communities within its population, that undermines the chances for democracy and individual rights.
Hosted this week by the Institute of the Rights of Peoples and the Oriental Studies Center at the Tartu, the conference featured reports by Estonian researchers Eiki Berg, Mart Rannut and Mart Laanemets as well as speeches by Estonian political figures Mart Laar, Mart Nutt and Andres Herkel. And besides Estonians, it drew guests from Udmurtia, Chechnya and Buryatia.
Sven Grunberg, the director of the Institute of the Rights of Peoples, argued that “it is the suppression of ethnic mentality that creates problems and not ethnic mentality or nationalism in and of itself as some tend to assert,” a view that all other speakers echoed in one way or another.
Andres Herkel, an Estonian MP who is vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said that Tallinn will continue to support peoples without statehood. He and other speakers said that the situation in the Russian Federation has fundamentally changed and that this change requires a new approach to such peoples there.
At the end of the 20th century, speakers said according to a press release, “peoples in the Russian empire felt optimistic” about their prospects for retaining their national identities and even achieving statehood, “today [these nations] are in considerably harder conditions,” something that requires new approaches.
According to Herkel, Estonian political figures can and will serve as “effective intermediaries” for these peoples to inform the Council of Europe an dother international organizations about the situation of these nations. “We have always done this before, and our contacts and meetings allow it to do it better still,” Herkel said.
The meeting was dedicated to the memory of Linnart Mall, an Estonian scholar who was the founder of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, a group that since 1991 has been an advocate for “indigenous peoples, minorities and unrecognized or occupied territories” in national and international forums.
Mall, who died this past February from cancer, was trained at Tartu State University and the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies in Soviet times. Between 1969 and 1973, he taught history at Tartu but was dismissed for his anti-Soviet and anti-communist views. Only in 1983 was Mall partially bilitated and allowed to teach again.
An internationally recognized expert on Buddhism, Mall himself converted to that faith, But he was also an activist not only for Buddhism – he helped to organize both of the Dalai Lama’s visits to Estonia (1991 and 2001) – but for his own nationality, the Estonians, and other numerically small peoples.