TALLINN - With the threat of Finno-Ugric linguistic extinction as their main concern, and what should be done to prevent entire ethnic groups from disappearing, the World Congress of Finno-Ugric People opened on Aug. 16 in Tallinn.
In his opening speech at the congress, President Arnold Ruutel called for linguistic environments to be established in order to ensure that the smaller Finno-Ugric peoples survive.
Many ethnic groups have already disappeared or are verging on extinction, the president stressed. And the linguistic branch's dwindling numbers are of particular concern in Russia.
"Scientists are entering endangered species in a Red Book to take measures to save them from extinction. Estonian researchers have compiled a Red Book of peoples in Russia," Ruutel said.
Even then, groups with the endangered status may be beyond saving, the president said, saying that small nations needed help much sooner.
Other congress participants took an even graver tone, with one even using the word "Russification" in relation to the Finno-Ugric peoples in the Ural mountains and Siberia.
Janos Pusztay, a Hungarian professor, said in his report to the congress that the some 3.1 million Finno-Ugric people who lived in Russia as of the 1989 census would shrink to 1.6 million by 2093. By 2002 their number had already fallen by 400,000, the professor was quoted as saying by the Baltic News Service.
Pusztay said some ethnic groups might wholly disappear, in particular the Khanty and Mansi that live in the oil-rich region of western Siberia that is home to most of Russia's crude reserves.
To prove his point, Pusztay cited a planned administrative reform in Russia, according to which only 28 of the existing 89 federal regions would remain in Russia. Permyakia, for instance, a region inhabited by 125,000 Finno-Ugric Komi, would be merged with Perm Oblast, where Russians dominate.
The speech drew fire from Russian Ambassador to Estonia Konstantin Provalov, the Finnish news agency STT reported.
On the sidelines, Prime Minister Juhan Parts and his Hungarian counterpart, Ferenc Madl, discussed ways of supporting Finno-Ugric groups in Russia during their meeting in Tallinn.
"It is the task of Estonia, Hungary and Finland to seek ways to bring the complicated situation of our kindred peoples in Russia to the attention of the European Union," a spokeswoman for the government quoted Parts as saying. "This way we can most efficiently help our kindred peoples."
Parts said cultural and educational cooperation with the other Finno-Ugric peoples should be the priority, while Madl added that economic cooperation was equally important.
President Ruutel, however, stressed the importance on the linguistic environment in childhood so that language and culture would be passed on from generation to generation.
National languages must be secured conditions for them to have a high status and application in everyday life, culture, education, science, mass media and information technology, the president said, emphasizing that both traditions and innovativeness are vital preconditions for the sustainability of culture.
Speaking in St. Petersburg on the eve of the fourth world congress, Anatoly Grigoryev, the leader of the Karelian delegation, said he would propose that the next world congress take place in the Karelian capital of Petrozavodsk. This, in his opinion, would be the best way to draw attention to the difficult situation of Karelians and Vepsians who live in northern Russia.
At the end of May Grigoryev sent a letter to Finnish President Tarja Halonen, stating Russia's ethnic policy violated not only international norms but the Russian constitution as well. As an example, he referred to a requirement for all official languages used in Russian territory to shift to the Russian alphabet.
Grigoryev predicted that the Tallinn congress would not be able to stop the policy of Russification of non-Russians.