HELSINKI, Feb 23 (IPS) - The Mari minority in Russia are facing a steady erosion of their cultural rights, a group of human rights campaigners have said in a protest statement.
The Mari are a branch of the Finno-Ugric of the Uralic people. The Uralics are an indigenous group spread across Russia and several of the ex-Soviet republics. Uralic is also a family of languages with two principal branches, the Finno-Ugric and Samoyed.
Uralic peoples differ from each other by race, religion and culture. The western Finno-Ugrians are quite different from the Khants and Mansis in Siberia who are closest to Hungarians. But Uralics share common origins and practices that include a close relationship with nature, both animate and inanimate.
The Mari number about three-quarters of a million, and about 43 percent of them live in Mari El, a formally autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. Most others live in neighbouring regions. They speak Volga-Finnic, a branch of the Finno-Ugric of the Uralic family of languages. Bee-keeping is major business in the region.
The Mari El Association in Moscow issued an appeal earlier this month highlighting the suppression of Mari peoples rights. That has led to an international appeal, signed mostly by Estonians, Finns and Hungarians. The signatories include also individuals from Britain and the United States.
”We the representatives and friends of the Finno-Ugric peoples of the world call on the Russian authorities at all levels to take immediate steps to end the attacks on members of the democratic opposition in the Republic of Mari El,” the petition says. ”We urge international human rights organisations to join us in this cause.”
The local Mari El government is dominated by Russian-speaking people.
Among those who signed the appeal are former
speaker of the Finnish parliament Riitta Uosukainen, former president of Estonia
Lennart Meri, long-term adviser to the U.S. government Prof. Paul Goble, composers
Veljo Tormis from Estonia and Kari Rydman from Finland, the first vice-president
of the European Parliament committee on foreign affairs Toomas Hendrik Ilves,
Prof. John Hiden from Britain, and former Finnish foreign
minister Pertti Paasio.
Paasio told IPS that the petition seeks to
tell the world what is going on within Russia. ”It will be a tragic loss to
multi-ethnic culture in Europe if the Russians succeed in totally
suppressing the Mari language and other minorities in the Russian Federation,” he said.
The Mari people have been given autonomy status by the Russian Constitution but the authorities have not implemented it in practice, Paasio said. Instead there has been a systematic attempt by Russian authorities to deny Mari people use of their own language or to engage in other cultural practices, he said.
Kalevi Wiik, a retired professor at the University
of Turku in Finland and a signatory to the petition says the director of Mari
theatre in Mari El was fired without any apparent reason
last month. Vladimir Kozlov, editor-in-chief of the Finno-Ugric newspaper 'Kudo+Kodu' was attacked and seriously injured, Wiik told IPS.
The suppression of the Mari people is ”a reflection of the non-democratisation in Russia today being carried out by the Russian leader (Vladimir) Putin,” Wiik said.
A pan-Slavic movement is seeking to pave the way for Russian-only culture in the country, Wiik said. The Komi people in the area are also threatened, he said.
Mari groups will host the next world congress of Finno-Ugric studies later this year.. The petition says it is therefore ”especially important now that the Russian authorities in Moscow and in Mari El do everything possible to end the abuse of the rights of the Maris.” . (END/2005)