Month: June 2008

The Field of Finno-Ugria

Leopoldo writes, on events at Khanty-Mansiysk:

“Ilves recently met Medvedev, with a result that was more or less zero-sum. But the Russian president unleashed Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Duma Committee on International Affairs, to attack Estonia (and Latvia). The usual story: discrimination against Russian minority; attempts to falsify history; fascists.

Then Ilves participated in the 5th World Congress of Finno-ugric Peoples, 28.06.08, in Khanty-Mansiysk. He gave a speech – see below -, in English. First there was furious criticism: why was the speech in English and not the Estonian president’s own national language? Very simple – the Russians, as usual afraid of Ilves and Estonians, indicated that no translation from Estonian into Russian would be available. Simple: let him talk in gobledegook; no one will understand.

English, however, is understood. The contents of the speech made the Russians spit blood. They claim that it basically incites Finno-Ugric peoples to seek independence.

Then today, in the ongoing World Congress Kosachev (after already having attacked Estonia the evening before at a press conference) rides again. Takes the floor and says that much was said some time ago about the beating up of a Mari national representative. But what about Estonia using violence against innocent people as happened during the Bronze Night when one person was also killed, the investigation about this having been inconclusive.

Then Ilves and the Estonian delegation stood up and left the conference hall. (Reportedly, some time later, also the Finnish and Hungarian presidents left).”

President of the Republic of Estonia at the 5th World Congress of Finno-ugric Peoples28.06.2008

June 28th, 2008 in Khanty-Mansiysk

No one is so smart as to dream up a detailed plan of social development in a way that it is immutable. True, that kind of planning has been tried repeatedly throughout history, and although always unsuccessfully, it will probably be tried again.

A plan is good, when its sustainability, the correctness of its chosen path is checked every day, when it is open to criticism and to change. This is the way free and democratic societies function, where those elected must ask the voter every day: am I doing the right thing? Am I going in the right direction, are my decisions understandable, do they satisfy you? This principle works just as well for communities smaller than the nation-state as well as for ones that are larger, such as international organizations.

Daily checks of our goals are also healthy for the world-wide finno-ugric community. And even if the questions might be unpleasant and the answers horrible. Without an internal audit it’s always even worse. Speaking here today I have to admit I do not have prepared answers for all finno-ugric peoples. I have my own personal answers, my own notions, my own preferences. Our joint answers can come only out of joint efforts, from co-operation.

So what is the big idea in finno-ugric common efforts? Are language and a language tree of people’s relatedness drawn long ago in the past enough to be the altar tryptich we bow down to? Is this enough to confirm our faith and provide the cement for remaining true to ourselves everywhere and for everyone? Can they be the inexhaustible source of pride?

Indeed, alongside the finno-ugric people, the indo-european, turkish-tatar, and other linguistic groups hold no language-centered world congresses to speak of. This is a solely Finno-Ugric distinction.

Language, and the preservation and development of languages, are truly important. But this can only occur successfully when we are engaged not in a narrow philological activity or garnishing for avcational ethnography, but a socially encompassing, in other words political, theme.

The three largest finno-ugric peoples have experience with this. After all, in the European Union, the supra-national organization to which Estonia, Finland, and Hungary belong, linguistic diversity, protection of languages and ensuring one’s ability to employ them at all official levels have been treated by all member nations as a political matter they have closely followedd.

The European Union umbrella has given the Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian languages new guarantees they have never before possessed in their history. In no other continent exist such guarantees or no other international entity takes the health of languages as seriously.

We might thus ask: how can we put all finno-ugric languages under European Union protection to ensure their preservation and development?

In what I have said I have already drawn a line between those finno-ugric peoples who are in the EU and the rest, who aren’t. This distinction raises an important question. Do we draw any distinctions among finno-ugric peoples? Belonging to the EU as countries can be used merely as a formal distinction without implying judgement.

But there are also dangerous emotional, evaluative differences that may not be conducive to cooperation.

Should we and can we even classify our peoples as developed and undeveloped? As bigger and smaller brothers? As native and non-native? As those peoples with a written culture and those without one?

These are vague measures whose use won’t really lead anywhere, though it may boost some egos and sink others. They would seem to imply that some are given more rights and duties while others are freed of responsibility.

Consider indigenousness. Both Estonians and Finns consider themselves quite indigenous to their homes; Estonians have been tilling their fields on the shores of the Baltic for about 5000 years.

Yet we are not indigenous peoples in international parlance. Whenever business suit and cologne-wearing gentlemen in far off palaces and halls of government start talking about the worries of “indigenous peoples”, I always get the feeling that this talk is not fully sincere, but a myopic attempt to secure for the evening entertainment festooned in ethnic costume.

And “valuing indigenous cultures” is nothing but political cover to ensure market success for this branch of the entertainment industry. Or perhaps a belated apology and simulated activity to make good upon previous mistakes and maybe even crimes.

At the same time, if a still stateless people declares its indigenousness to be its sole remarkable characteristic, it thereby conveys a message that, in today’s world, calls upon others to bear responsibility for it. Presumably because of some historic injustice, as such a declaration always has a price tag attached.

If, however, we draw no distinctions, and do not create artificial or emotional divides among ourselves, cooperation will come to rest upon a strong foundation, upon common values. Hungarians, Finns and Estonians have chosen so-called European values, which today manifest themselves in the use of liberal democracy to order society.

Ask yourselves: does this choice necessarily presume an independent state? No it doesn’t. Back when these societies chose to be European, they had no states of their own and Europe, too, was very different from what it is today.

But freedom and democracy also make for good rules of the game in non-state structures. Freedom and democracy were our choice 150 years ago, when not even the poets dreamt of an Estonian state.

Many finno-ugric peoples have yet to make this choice. As a small aside it bears mentioning, particularly in light of the example of Estonia, that once you have tasted freedom, you will realize how much of it is sacrificied in the name of surviving or just ‘getting by’.

The European Union’s critics claim that Estonia, along with Finland and Hungary, have given away part of their sovereignty, their right to make free and independent choices. But, as detailed above, linguistic-cultural guarantees give back to us every day many times what we have given up.

Precisely through the European Union have the finno-ugric languages for the first time in their history developed a truly global reach. Our language rings in the meeting rooms of Brussels and Strasbourg, as I have myself repeatedly witnessed in my previous position as a member of European Parliament.

Here, in Khanty-Mansiysk, which borders Europe’s eastern geographic boundary, it may seem a bit odd to speak of Europe, the European Union, and European values. But still – freedom and democracy are universal values that acknowledge neither national nor geographic borders.

Europe’s understanding of diversity as a value applies to, and must apply to, everyone. Every individual, people, and culture is part of a global balance, an ecological balance, if you will. If one part, however small, is taken out of the system, lost, or extinguished, nobody can predict what kind of catastrophe this might bring about somewhere else.

It is said that the flapping wings of a butterfly can cause a hurricane. The finno-ugric people may indeed be small butterflies among all of humanity, but it is a concern for all of humanity to ensure that these butterflies not flap their wings in the wrong place the wrong time, in a way that might be fatal to those much larger than the butterflies.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, writing in French, has an essay with a German title, Die Weltliteratur, („Global literature“ in English) in which he writes:

Small peoples differ from large nations not only on quantitative criteria, but also in something deeper. For small peoples existence is not self-evident, an indisputable fact, but a permanent question, a wager, a risk; they are always in a defensive position face to face with History, a force greater than they, which does not take them into account, which does not even notice them.

Kundera goes on to ask what would be the case if the icelandic Sagas had been written not in icelandic, a nation of 300 thousand, but in English.

Quote: „The names of the heroes in the Sagas would be as familiar to us as Tristan or don Quijote. Their esthetic particulars, their chronology and their imaginative intermediaries would have provoked all kinds of theories, people would have argued whether or not to consider them the first European novels.“

Most importantly, argues Kundera, they would have influenced living literature through the ages. But they did not, because there are too few icelanders. But does this mean that they are worth less? That in the pantheon of great creations of the human imagination, that they are of any lesser stature than the creations of large nations. To the contrary, even the smallest peoples can create the greatest literature.

This is why the ecology of cultures and peoples is an issue for all mankind. This is why the European Union cares.

The utility of global balance is well understood in the European Union. If the finno-ugric question has taken on a powerfully international dimension anywhere, it is there. The finno-ugric question has become an inexorable issue on the agenda of partnership talks between the European Union and Russia. Recently, the European Union appropriated 2.5 million Euros for the support of native peoples in Russia.

The European Union and its members are the motor that has driven the harmonization of protections for minority rights in Europe. And, we might now ask, would finno-ugric concerns be on the European agenda if Hungary, Finland, and Estonia were not members of the Union? Hardly. And herein lies the answer to why European values are also useful east of the Urals.

Much is happening on the field of Finno-ugria, of which account has been given and will be given during this Congress.

This is an opportunity primarily for governments, but also for civic organizations and every citizen.

I do not wish to deprive anyone of the joy of telling us what praiseworthy work he has done and intends to do henceforth. Nevertheless, let me emphasize that the more multifaceted the underlying basis of our cooperation, the more securely it rests on common basic values, the more assuredly the finno-ugric wagon will roll in the right direction.

As a start, freedom and democracy, and by extension Europe, are not at all bad basic values. And, to be honest, there’s really no alternative.

Edinburgh Error

The Bookseller reports that the Edinburgh International Book Festival has chosen to commemorate Israel’s 60th anniversary by presenting a high-profile feature discussing the forced exodus of Palestinians in 1948.

The organisers are politically illiterate,” said Colin Shindler, reader in Israeli and Modern Jewish Studies at London University. “The unsaid agenda is not to recall the Palestinian Nakba – a legitimate subject for discussion – but to underline the fact that the Jews really do not have a right to national self-determination in Israel. The festival’s ‘outrage’ is selective and they do a disservice to intellectual debate in this country”.

Second Wind

At Prague Watchdog, Sergei Gligvashvili takes a look at what appears to be a revival of the Chechen underground resistance. For those who read Russian, the comments to this article on the current situation in Ingushetia mayalso be of interest (an English version of the article in my translation can be read here, though without the Russian and Chechen comments).

Wider Europe

Pavel Felgenhauer, in Eurasia Daily Monitor:

At present Moscow is using threats that Ukrainians will suffer if their nation joins NATO or if the Russian fleet is ousted from Sevastopol. At the same time, Russia has been supporting pro-Russian separatist feelings in Crimea and making territorial claims on Sevastopol. Moscow needs a pro-Moscow allied government in Kyiv or, if that is impossible, a separation of Crimea and Eastern and Southern Ukraine (with Mykolaiv), where millions of Russian speakers may either want to join Russia or form an allied protectorate.

The situation is different in Georgia, where a vast majority voted to join NATO in a referendum on January 5. There is no hope in Moscow that any anti-NATO pro-Russian forces may come to power in Tbilisi, and military action in support of separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is being seriously contemplated (see EDM, June 12). The Russian Foreign Ministry has officially announced that Moscow refuses to discuss with Tbilisi the legality of the deployment of additional troops and armaments in Abkhazia, because the troops “prevented a Georgian blitzkrieg” (, June 17). When substantial talks are essentially stopped while additional troops are deployed, it’s more than just a threat of the use of force.

Heather Maher, at RFE/RL:

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried told members of Congress on June 18 that the wave of democracy that swept from Central to Eastern Europe in 1989 has yielded astonishing and successful results in terms of democracy, human rights, and free-market systems. The question now, he said, is whether that wave will extend to the easternmost borders of what he called “wider Europe.”

By that, Fried was referring to the Caucasus: specifically, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia — three very different states that share similar problems. All are struggling to quell internal separatist conflicts, to establish independent judicial institutions and modern financial systems, and, in general, to build new identities as sovereign, successful nation-states.

Fried offered his comments to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, which heard that U.S. foreign policy toward all three countries is to support them as they journey along the same path toward full democracy and market-based economies that their neighbors to the West have already traveled. Fried said no outside power — he mentioned Russia specifically — should be able to extend its sphere of influence over the three.

“We do not believe that any outside power should be able to threaten or block the sovereign choice of these nations to join the institutions of Europe and the trans-Atlantic family, if they so choose, and if we so choose,” Fried said.

Ratifiers and Rejecters

RFE/RL’s Ahto Lobjakas considers the implications of the Irish “No”, and concludes:

The problem that now faces the EU is not so much that some more enthusiastic member states might break away to launch a “multispeed” union. In some ways this is already uncontroversially the case as attested by the Schengen area, the euro zone, and the so-called “G6” police-cooperation scheme. Also, a selective political union with a president and a foreign minister would be very difficult to establish — given that it would need to include Britain (or lack global clout) and would probably be unacceptable to Germany in view of Berlin’s overwhelming interest in stability at its eastern borders.

More likely is an attempt to isolate Ireland, moving ahead with the rest of the 26 member states. Ireland would then have to hammer out its own individual arrangements with the rest of the EU. This would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the skeptics, openly undermining their powers within the EU combined with the threat of possible exclusion. The Lisbon Treaty could yet be rejected by the Czech Republic, where it has been submitted to the Constitutional Court for approval. Many other countries in Eastern Europe are also intensely skeptical of further political integration.

Russia, which increasingly vies for influence at the EU’s eastern borders, will no doubt be following events with keen interest.

Finland threatens elderly dissident with deportation

The Finnish government is threatening to deport Maria Kirbasova, a semi-paralysed 67-year-old Russian woman who led an organisation of mothers of Russian conscripts, and also a protest against the war in Chechnya. From YLE (Finnish State Radio and TV):

Kirbasova’s daughter, Kermen Soitu, told YLE Sunday that she and her mother have been contacted by many Finns offering their encouragement. In addition several church parishes have offered support, but none had extended sanctuary to Kirbasova. Soitu did not say if sanctuary would be sought from the church if no other means is found to keep her mother in the country.

Soitu did say that her mother will not return voluntarily to Russia.

“If the police come to the door with guns and forcibly take her away, then she will have to go. This is a familiar situation for my mother. During the Second World War she was exiled to Siberia. History repeats itself.” said Kermin Soitu.

The Finnish Immigration Service rejected a residence permit application by Kirbasova because a mother-daughter relationship is not considered sufficient grounds for residence.
On Friday, the Helsinki Administrative Court rejected an appeal and upheld the order for her deportation.

Kirbasova arrived in Finland to stay with her daughter last October following her husband’s funeral. The elderly and ailing Kirbasova wants to stay in Finland because of the quality of health care and rehabilitation services. She has no relatives in Russia to provide her with care. Her daughter has been supporting her and paying her medical bills in Finland.

One difficulty connected to Kirbasova returning to reside in Russia is her involvement in founding an organization opposed to the conflict in Chechnya.

“She has not been popular with the establishment in Russia for a long time. And, as a dissident, she will not get even the least amount of help,” her daughter says.

Vera has more on the Kirbasova case here.

Update (June 10): Maria Kirbasova has been granted a one-week period of grace.

Obama’s Schumer Problem

The New York Sun has taken Democratic senator Charles Schumer to task for suggesting in the WSJ that the U.S. could obtain more leverage on Iran by adopting a more concilatory approach to Russia in matters of foreign policy, and especially in the matter of the missile defence shield:

First, we must treat Russia as an equal partner when it comes to policy in the Caspian Sea region, recognizing Russia’s traditional role in the region. Second, we must offer to make Russia whole if it joins in our Iranian boycott and forgoes trade revenues with Iran. That will cost the U.S. roughly $2 billion to $3 billion a year, about what we spend in Iraq each week. Third, we should tell Mr. Putin we will cease building the ineffective antinuclear missile defense sites in Eastern Europe in return for him joining the boycott.

The Sun responds:

Mr. Schumer claims that the missile defense sites are “to thwart the threat of a nuclear missile attack by Iran,” a threat that Mr. Schumer describes as “hypothetical and remote.” Well, if the governments in Poland, and Czech Republic, and Romania thought the threat was so remote, they would not have invited the missile defense sites to be there.

Our enemies have already launched large-scale attacks against European targets — 191 killed in the Madrid train bombing of 2004, 52 dead in the London bus and subway bombing of 2005, eight killed on Monday at the bombing of the Danish embassy at Islamabad. To the relatives and friends of those victims the threat seems neither hypothetical nor remote. Nor to the Israelis who were attacked by Iraqi scud missiles in the Gulf War or by Hezbollah terrorists with Zelzal and Fajr missiles during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Memories Denied

While in Russia itself the process of de-sovietization (the public discussion of what happened during the Soviet era) has never really begun, and probably never will, in the Union’s neighbouring former republics the process is already advanced. One of the most striking recent manifestations of this was the publication in 2006 of a full-length book by the Estonian film maker and journalist Imbi Paju, entitled Memories Denied (Finnish translation (2006) – Torjutut muistot, Swedish translation (2007) – Förträngda minnen). The book examines in minute detail the stages of the cultural genocide that was waged by Moscow against the small independent West European Estonian state. Yet the description is not that of an anonymous history text – as in Paju’s documentary film of the same title, it is transmitted through the mouths of living survivors, who include Imbi Paju’s mother and aunt. While the narrative is extremely moving on a personal level, it also throws unique light on aspects of 20th century European political reality, especially the close relation between the ideologies of Nazism and Soviet Communism, which throughout the 1930s worked in a collaborative symbiosis, the results of which only became truly perceptible towards the end of the decade. A short extract from the chapter on the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 gives some idea of the period’s terrible surrealism, which had consequences that were all too real and apparent:

While compiling the documentary Memories Denied, I viewed some film clips of the pact signing ceremony. As the Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany, Ribbentrop, emerged from his airplane in Moscow, swastika flags were flying in the capital of the Soviet Union. My mother and her twin sister were then 9 years old. I found myself thinking – in a mere moment, it was a single gesture of one statesman’s hand, his signature, that determined the fate of a small person, a child.

On September 27, 1939, Ribbentrop returned to Moscow to discuss the infamous additional protocols, which were secret. Even thirty years later, Molotov would deny their existence. British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, in his work Stalin. The Court of the Red Tsar has vividly described how Ribbentrop held his talks with Molotov at the green baize table in the Kremlin.

It was evening. Stalin wanted not only Estonia and Latvia, but Lithuania as well. Ribbentrop telegraphed Hitler asking his approval for the transfer of Lithuania. Since Hitler’s reply did not come right away, the talks were postponed until the next day. But no reply came on that day either. Still, Ribbentrop wanted to negotiate some cartographic details with Stalin. That night, while Stalin held a gala dinner for the Germans, the Russians met with Karl Selter, the unhappy Estonian Foreign Minister, to force him to agree to Russian military bases on Estonian soil, the first step toward occupation. While this was going on, the German guests were being welcomed at the door of the Great Kremlin Palace through the dull Congress Hall into the brightly lit scarlet and gold reception room. Stalin’s manner was simple and unpretentious, beaming with paternal benevolence that turned into icy coldness as he rapped out orders. The behavior of the Russians was so vulgar that Ribbentrop said he felt as at ease as he did among old Nazi comrades. As dinner ended, Stalin and Molotov excused themselves to attend to business. The Germans were sent off to the Bolshoi to watch Swan Lake. As he left, Stalin whispered to Kaganovich, “We must win time.” Then they walked upstairs where the Estonian Foreign Minister Karl Selter waited fearfully to find out what Stalin was planning to do with his tiny country. Molotov demanded the deployment of a Soviet garrison of 35,000 troops in Estonia – more than the entire Estonian army. “Come on, Molotov, you’re too harsh on our friends,” said Stalin, suggesting instead that 25,000 Russian soldiers be deployed to Estonia. Having swallowed the small country of Estonia during the first act of Swan Lake, Stalin returned to the Germans at midnight for a final session during which Hitler telephoned his agreement to the Lithuanian concession.

No sooner was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed than Russia began devouring Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The Kremlin had little sympathy for those who had shattered the 200-year continuity of the tsarist empire. The prime ministers of the three Baltic states were summoned to sign a “defense and mutual assistance pact” that would let the Soviet Union establish military bases on their territory, which would of course ensure the continued independence of these three countries. Since the only other alternative was war, all three Baltic States reluctantly agreed, hoping to find some escape from the situation at a later time.


(Torjutut muistot / Tõrjutud mälestused) Like Publishing Ltd., 2006
English translation from the Estonian original by Tiina Ets

The publishing rights of Memories Denied are with
Hanna Kjellberg
Foreign Rights Manager

Meanwhile, RFE/RL reports that a group of deputies at the European Parliament have launched a drive to have the EU declare August 23 a European Day of Commemoration of the Victims of Stalinism and Nazism.