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Russia: European Parliament Denounces Rights Abuses In Russia's Marii-El Republic

The European Parliament on Thursday approved a nonbinding resolution that sharply criticizes Russia for tolerating ongoing abuses of human and minority rights in its autonomous republic of Marii-El. This is the first time the parliament has addressed the growing plight of Russia's indigenous Fenno-Ugric peoples, who number some 3 million people. Although the European Parliament has no direct say in shaping EU foreign policy, yesterday's declaration could move the issue higher on the bloc's agenda when it deals with Russia.

Strasbourg, 13 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament resolution reflects a growing suspicion within the EU that the widely condemned abuses in Chechnya only represent the tip of the iceberg.

While the offences documented in the resolution are nowhere near as serious as those reported from Chechnya, they raise concerns about the daily plight of Russia's many minorities. They also lead to questions about the Russia's commitment to the shared values it affirmed with the EU at their summit in Moscow on 10 May.

The resolution was supported by all major political factions in the European Parliament. It begins by recounting the international commitments Russia has undertaken to protect its minorities. It then lists abuses ranging from the harassment and killing of journalists and opposition figures to what appears to be a policy against the indigenous Marii language.

Gyula Hegyi, a Hungarian deputy, was one of the authors of the resolution. He told his fellow EU lawmakers on 12 May that the very existence of the Marii nation is at stake.

"We have to condemn these kinds of antidemocratic atrocities every time, but in the case of a small nation, attacks against the basic national institutions like schools and the media threaten the very existence of the nation," Hegyi said. "That's why we condemn the violence against the Marii minority in Russia."

Russia was sharply criticized by all of the roughly dozen European deputies who spoke during the debate. The discussion was dominated by representatives of the three Fenno-Ugric nations that are member states of the EU -- Finland, Hungary, and Estonia.
While the offences documented in the resolution are nowhere near as serious as those reported from Chechnya, they raise concerns about the daily plight of Russia's many minorities.

Some speakers appeared more willing than others to give Russian authorities the benefit of the doubt and regard the events as a local aberration. Among them was Esko Seppanen, a Finn and a co-author of the resolution.

"The events in Marii-El, which clearly involve violence and violations of human rights, must be subjected to a local criminal investigation," Seppanen said. "This would lend credibility to the rule of law in Russia."

However, most deputies said that Russia's minorities face a broader problem in the form of state-sponsored attempts to supplant their languages with Russian. Many noted that much of the opposition to the republic's Moscow-born president, Leonid Markelov, comes from the republic's ethnic Marii population. After Markelov returned to office under questionable circumstances last fall, he ordered the sacking of scores of Marii-speaking officials and schoolteachers in regions that voted against him.

A number of deputies suggested that Moscow's toleration of the situation in Marii-El is part of a wider drive to Russify Russia's minorities.

Tunne Kelam, an Estonian member of the European Parliament, underscored the dim future the Marii language faces in the republic.

"For example, education in [the] Mari language is provided only in some elementary schools [and not at all at higher levels], so that about 20 percent of the children can enjoy lessons in their mother tongue," Kelam said. "The publication of textbooks in Marii is practically nonexistent. So, the linguistic identity of the Marii is slowly fading away."

Kelam also noted that all of the 19 Fenno-Ugric peoples in Russia are minorities even in the regions that nominally afford them autonomy.

A number of deputies quoted Lenin's dictum according to which Czarist Russia had been a "prison of nations," drawing parallels with current conditions.

The European Parliament has no immediate powers to influence EU foreign policy, but its positions are an important factor in shaping the wider political debate in the EU.

Commissioner Stavros Dimas said the European Commission is aware of the "circumstances and situation” of the Marii people. He said the EU expects to use regular EU-Russia human-rights dialogue begun late last year to air its concerns about the way basic rights are safeguarded in Russia.