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World: Analysis From Washington -- Communities Linguistic And Political

Washington, 13 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The third World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples held in Helsinki this week called attention to the significance and vitality of linguistic communities and the difficulties of translating such communities into something more political.

Finnish President Tarja Halonen on Monday welcomed representatives of 21 nations which speak languages in the Finno-Ugric group. Only the three largest of these nations -- the 14 million ethnic Hungarians, the five million ethnic Finns, and the one million ethnic Estonians -- have their own states. They were represented by their presidents: Halonen of Finland, Ferenc Madl of Hungary, and Lennart Meri of Estonia.

Most Finno-Ugric groups are small minorities spread across northern Russia. Indeed, the largest delegation at the three-day session was from Russia. More than 300 people arrived in the Finnish capital to represent 17 groups. In addition, the delegation from Russia included Ethnic Affairs Minister Aleksandr Blokhin and representatives of both houses of the Russian parliament.

At her joint conference with Madl and Meri, Finland's Halonen said that the sessions had been "like a family meeting," although in an indication that these languages are not in every case so close as to be mutually intelligible, the three presidents spoke English among themselves.

Halonen said that "it's very important to feel an identity, your own background and cultural family." And she expressed the hope that "the presence of three presidents of three independent Finno-Ugric states will also give encouragement to those groups which are minorities."

Her two colleagues echoed these themes. Hungary's Madl stressed that "we must do more in legislation internally and internationally for the real protection of minorities." Estonia's Meri said the Finno-Ugric groups were all "like small islands." He said all of them face "the possibility of their languages becoming dead," something he urged the international community to try to prevent.

Perhaps significant in light of these calls was the presence at this meeting of representatives from the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the Europarliament, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

This is the third such conference of the Finno-Ugric peoples since the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union made it possible for these communities to interact on an official level. The first was held in Syktyvkar, the capital of the Komi Republic in the Russian Federation, in 1992, and the second took place in Budapest, Hungary, in 1996.

The Finno-Ugric groups emerged out of the migration of peoples from the Baikal region many centuries ago. For most of their subsequent history, they have lived separate existences and their languages and cultures have increasingly diverged. Sometimes this divergence has been the result of natural processes and sometimes it has reflected the policies of the governments of the countries in which they found themselves.

But in the last decade, these groups increasingly have sought one another out, with those which have achieved independent statehood now able to talk to those who seek greater protection of their linguistic and cultural rights or even political independence.

On the one hand, the three independent Finno-Ugric countries have sought to provide educational and publishing opportunities for their linguistic relatives. And on the other, the Finno-Ugric minorities in Russia and elsewhere have sought to revive and promote their own cultures, drawing on both this assistance and their own internal resources.

So far, these newly reasserted linguistic ties have become a source of pride. But they have not acquired a political coloration that might point to greater activism or a drive for some kind of broader political unity. That may be a source of strength in that these linguistic ties will continue to exist below the radar screen of those who might fear the resurgence of these cultures.

But it also means that organizations like the Finno-Ugric conference may become political battlegrounds in yet another way. Indeed, the presence of the large delegation from Russia in Helsinki this week recalls a Soviet-era practice in which Moscow attempted to exploit such nominally non-political groups to advance its agenda.

But in the post-Cold War era, such efforts could easily have the unintended consequence of generating a countervailing political force among peoples who have been separated for a very long time but who increasingly feel that they belong together.