Russia, the world's largest country in terms of land mass, has some 145 million people and more than 160 nationalities, but international attention in recent weeks has focused on just one of these ethnic minorities, the Marii people.
Last month, the European Parliament adopted a resolution criticizing Russia for violating the rights of the Marii, a Finno-Ugric nation living mostly in the Marii-El Republic some 800 kilometers east of Moscow (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 24 May 2005). Attention for the Marii will likely be renewed this summer when the 10th annual International Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies meets in Marii-El's capital, Ioshkar-Ola, on 15-21 August. According to "Argumenty i fakty," No. 11, scholars from 23 countries including Germany, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States will be in attendance.
European Parliament deputies from Estonia, Hungary, and Finland -- all of which are predominantly Finno-Ugric countries -- prepared the 12 May resolution, which listed measures taken by the Marii-El administration against the indigenous minority. The document noted the difficulty the Marii people face in being educated in their native language, political interference by the local administration in Marii cultural institutions, and the limited representation of ethnic Mariis in administrative posts in the republic, according to "Novaya gazeta," No. 35.
The European Parliament resolution also lamented the lack of a free press in the republic and mentioned the severe beating of Vladimir Kozlov in February. Kozlov is the editor in chief of the international Finno-Ugric newspaper "Kudo+Kodu" and director of Mer kanash, a national public organization of Marii in Russia. In addition, three Marii journalists were killed in 2001, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 14 May.
According to the daily, the Marii number about 650,000 and make up about 40 percent of the population of the republic. According to data from local human rights organizations, in the last five years the number of republican officials who are Marii has fallen to just four. Mark Dyachkov, a Moscow-based specialist in socio-linguistics and the Marii language, told RFE/RL's Moscow bureau on 11 March, that in 2001, 60.3 percent of students in the republic were studying in the Marii language, but by 2001-02 this number had fallen to 37.1 percent. Since then, he believes this trend has intensified. Television and radio programs in Marii have been reduced to a minimum. Only short television news and daily radio broadcasts of less than an hour remain.
"Kodo+Kodu" Editor Kozlov told "Kommersant-Daily" that the human rights situation has only worsened since President Leonid Markelov's was elected to a second term in December 2004. Ethnic Marii generally supported Markelov's opponents, while the Kremlin and the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party backed Markelov (see "RFE/RL Idel-Ural Report," 17 May 2004).
"Russkii kurer" on 15 March argued that although Markelov may be engaging in the suppression of his political enemies, he provides equal opportunities for harassment to people of all ethnicities, be they Russian, Marii, or Jewish. The daily suggested that residents of the Marii El Republic aren't being subjected to anything more than the usual weak rule of law that characterizes many remote provinces.
Local police and administration officials also rejected the idea that there is an ethnic component to the incidents cited in the European Parliament resolution. An unidentified source in the republican Interior Ministry told "Kommersant-Daily" the notion that the republic has a problem with human rights violations is far-fetched. According to the source, the investigation into the beating of Kozlov is continuing and, according to preliminary findings, the reason is far from political. "It is most likely hooliganism," said the source, noting that Kozlov was beaten in an area of the city center where "adolescents with crowbars operate." Discussing the deaths of the other journalists, the source accused the European Parliament of using the deaths for cynical purposes.
The Marii-El parliament adopted a resolution on 30 May condemning the European Parliament resolution as the latest result of "a premeditated campaign of lies and insinuations distributed by the mass media of European countries." Marii-El lawmakers accused "political and nationalistic leaders" within the republic who "didn't win the population's support during the elections" of initiating an "information war" against the republican leadership. According to the parliamentarians, the aims of Markelov's political enemies happen to coincide with those of international forces who are trying "to attract attention from violations of the rights of Russian speakers in the Baltic countries."
"Russkii kurer" agreed with this analysis. "Every time Russia brings up at the European level the situation with Russian speakers in Estonia and Latvia, Tallinn and Riga will mention the Marii nightmare," the newspaper commented. Finnish lawmaker Henrik Lax told "Helsingen Sanomat" on 13 May that the Finnish government and President Tarja Halonen will be able to use the European parliament's resolution to stiffen their resolve in discussions with Russia.
The Russian leadership is not without tools of its own to respond to attempts to play the Marii card. According to "Russkii kurer," Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomoija has called on Moscow to invite an authoritative human rights organization to prepare an objective report about what is happening in Marii-El. If nothing is wrong in the republic, then a clean report from an internationally recognized human rights organization should put the focus back where most Russian policymakers want it: on rights of Russian speakers in the Baltics.
At the same time, if language expert Dyachkov is correct, paying attention to the cultural rights of ethnic minorities is vital not only to prevent brickbats from abroad but to promote peaceful interethnic relations domestically. He told RFE/RL that past "practice in European countries shows that where national minorities and languages have some kind of support from the government, they have the opportunity to develop freely and interethnic relations do not worsen, but become more harmonious."
Dyachkov is not optimistic about the rights of ethnic minorities in Russia. "The [current] centralization of the administration and the strengthening of the power vertical has led to a situation in which all state bureaucrats, including presidents and heads of republics, are named from Moscow," he told RFE/RL. "And I imagine the problem of preserving national languages is not a [pressing] issue for the Moscow leadership."