Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Marii El Begins To Look Like Belarus On The Volga

The fears of many foreign scholars that the Tenth Finno-Ugric Congress that took place this week in the capital of the Republic of Marii El would be hijacked by the republican government following the untimely death in July of its president have proved well-founded. According the Tallin-based Information Centre of Finno-Ugric Peoples and a U.S. scholar who attended the congress, the republican authorities went to extraordinary lengths to prevent any contact between foreign delegates and members of the Mari national movement Mari Ushem. At the same time, Marii El President Leonid Markelov assured congress participants in Yoshkar-Ola of his commitment to democratization and equal rights for the Mari minority, and he dismissed unfavorable commentary as "unfounded attacks by the Finnish and Estonian press." (For brief background on this minority group, see "Who are the Maris?" --> /featuresarticle/2005/08/99fff660-2b82-423e-968b-ed117d76e4b9.html .)

The official webpage of the government of the Republic of Mari El ( does not currently provide statistics on the ethnic composition of the population, or on the number of publications available in Mari, or on the percentage of the republic's schools where teaching is conducted in the Mari language. But Tunne Kelam, an Estonian deputy to the European Parliament, told RFE/RL earlier this summer that education in Mari is provided in some elementary schools but not at a higher level, and that consequently only some 20 percent of Mari children in Mari El are taught in their native language.

That lack of educational opportunities was just one of the shortcomings enumerated in a nonbinding resolution passed by the European Parliament on 12 May, which criticized the Russian government for tolerating abuses of human and minority rights in Mari El, including the killing of opposition journalists and politicians (see "RFE/RL Political Weekly," 24 May 2005). Hungarian Europarliamentarian Gyula Hegyi told fellow lawmakers in the course of the debate on that resolution that discrimination against the Mari is so intense that their survival as a separate ethnic group is in jeopardy.

Crackdown Intensifies

Europarliamentarians noted that the ongoing crackdown on the Maris intensified after Markelov was reelected as the republic's president last fall. They said he sacked scores of Mari-speaking local officials and schoolteachers in districts of the republic who had voted against him. Those reprisals prompted scholars and prominent political figures in Estonia, Finland, and Hungary to launch an international Appeal on Behalf of the Mari People in February of this year (
President Markelov recently affirmed that there are no notable interethnic tensions in the republic, and that everything is being done to promote the development of Mari culture. In that context, he cited the imminent launch of a Mari-language radio program. He also denied in that interview that the Maris are "nationalistic."

According to his official biography, Markelov, who is 42, trained as a lawyer and worked in the Mari ASSR Military Prosecutor's Office in the late 1980s. He was elected to the Russian State Duma in 1995, and first elected as President of Mari El in January 2001. But the mutual mistrust and hostility between the Maris and Markelov predates his reelection. Professor Yurii Anduganov, president of the International Finno-Ugric Congress, was constrained to leave Mari El three years ago for the neighboring Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug. Anduganov was killed last month in a car accident under circumstances that remain unclear.

An Official 'Witch-Hunt'?

Despite Anduganov's death, the Tenth International Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies opened as scheduled in Yoshkar-Ola on 15 August. But the number of foreign participants was far fewer than at the Ninth Congress in Tartu in 2000, according to a U.S. scholar who attended both gatherings. Local authorities appear to have made every effort to prevent members of the Mari organization Mari Ushem from making contact with the participants. Mari Ushem's application to the municipal authorities to stage a welcome meeting for foreign participants to the congress on 14 August was rejected. Members of Mari Ushem who ignored that ban and congregated outside the town's drama theater, carrying placards appealing to Russian President Vladimir Putin and comparing Markelov's reprisals to the Stalinist purges of 1937, have been threatened with arrest and trial. Participants at that meeting adopted a resolution "Against Violations of Human Rights, Basic Freedoms and Democracy in the Republic Marii El," in which they accused Markelov and his administration of ruining the region's economy by means of policies that have raised mortality rates; imposing a "global information blockade"; and of engaging in a "witch-hunt" against the Mari people. At the same time, they denied that they are in opposition to the Republic of Mari El leadership and rejected charges of "nationalism," a phenomenon that they said is alien to the Mari people.

Foreign delegates to the Yoshkar-Ola congress were subjected to clumsy and blatant surveillance by plainclothes security men who followed them everywhere. Estonian scholar Andres Heinapuu reportedly complained to Estonian radio on 16 August that the atmosphere at the congress was "like a prison," a remark that prompted Mari El Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Tarasov to assure on 17 August that the unprecedented security measures were part of the broader Russia-wide "Whirlwind" antiterrorism operation.

Lukashenka-Style Policies

In his address to the opening session of the congress on 15 August, which was packed with members of the Mari government bureaucracy, Markelov stressed his commitment to democratization, and in a subsequent interview with the BBC's Russian Service he affirmed that there are no notable interethnic tensions in the republic, and that everything is being done to promote the development of Mari culture. In that context, he cited the imminent launch of a Mari-language radio program. He also denied in that interview that the Maris are "nationalistic."

Some scholars might find some aspects of Markelov's policies reminiscent of those espoused by Belarus's President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and, on a purely visual level, the two regions have much in common. One British diplomat recently compared Belarus to a Soviet-era theme park (if one overlooks the absence of the ubiquitous 1980s slogans proclaiming Glory to Lenin! and Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!). A small town of Soviet-era buildings and parks, with clean air, Yoshkar-Ola too appears stuck in a time warp, devoid of the glitzy post-Soviet development projects that have mushroomed in larger Russian cities and even in neighboring Kazan. A Tatar academic who grew up in Yoshkar-Ola and returned there to attend this week's conference said nothing has changed since she left the city 30 years ago.

See also:

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