Brussels, 7 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- On 1 March, the European Union and Russia held their first-ever formal consultations on human-rights issues.
When the consultations were agreed last year, Russia indicated it was keen to raise the topic of the Russian-speaking minorities in Estonia and Latvia. The EU, in turn, was expected to focus on Chechnya.
Now, however, the plight of Russia's roughly 3 million indigenous Finno-Ugric people has forced itself onto that agenda.
The European Commission confirmed on 4 March that it is "concerned" over reports of repression targeting opposition figures, journalists, and indigenous officials in Russia's constituent Marii-El Republic.
Emma Udwin, a commission spokeswoman, told RFE/RL on 4 March that the issue was raised by the EU at the human-rights consultations that took place in Luxembourg.
"The EU does have concerns about this situation, and [we] took the opportunity of the launch of human rights consultations with Russia on [1 March] to raise this question with our Russian partners, and a discussion on the subject was held," Udwin said.
Numerous reports have emerged in recent months of brutal beatings of opposition figures and journalists in Marii-El. Elena Rogacheva, the Marii-El correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was a victim of one such attack on 7 January. None of the attackers have been caught.
The apparent wave of repression follows the reelection last fall of republican President Leonid Markelov, who has been accused of rigging the vote. Authorities have sacked indigenous Mari officials and teachers in areas that voted against Markelov.
Maris and other Finno-Ugric minorities in Russia have also sharply criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans for a shake-up of the country's administrative make-up. There are fears the plans could further undermine the indigenous autonomies in Russia.
One EU official, who asked to remain anonymous, said on 1 March that the issue of minorities in Russia had been addressed relatively briefly in that day's meeting. The EU side had submitted a formal request, asking Moscow to clarify the situation. The request specifically raised the situation of two minorities -- the Finno-Ugric population and the Meskhetian Turk community, most of which is currently in the Krasnodar region.
The Meskhetians were deported from Georgia after World War II by Josef Stalin. They have been offered entry to the United States.
Two of the EU's own Finno-Ugric member states, Estonia and Finland, were said to be behind the bloc's interest in events in Marii-El.
Spokeswoman Udwin said on 4 March that the EU will follow up on the issue. "We have a number of meetings coming up with our Russian partners at which it is possible to raise concerns," Udwin said. "I cannot [say] exactly at which point or by whom it will be raised, but the worries that we have, having been expressed once, will not now be forgotten."
However, officials say the next formal sitting of the EU-Russia human-rights working group will only take place sometime between July and December of this year, when Great Britain will take over the rotating EU presidency.
Meanwhile, the situation in Marii-El is receiving extensive media coverage in Finland and Estonia. On 22 February, Finland's biggest national daily newspaper, "Helsingin Sanomat," published a letter in support of Russia's Mari people, signed by -- among others -- former Estonian President Lennart Meri and a former speaker of the Finnish parliament, Riitta Uosukainen.