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Feathers fly at fourth Finno-Ugric 'family reunion'

  • 2004-08-26
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - Finno-Ugric languages are spoken by 23 different ethnic groups. Hungarians, Finns and Estonians, however, are the only Finno-Ugric peoples who have their own states. The rest are spread throughout Norway, Sweden, Latvia and the Russian Federation.

The World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples is, like the Olympic Games, held every four years; and, like the Olympics, is extremely diverse and, at times, aggressively competitive. This summer's conference, the fourth in the organization's history, was held in Tallinn.
It was, inevitably, a congress of contradictions and controversies. One of the more obvious peculariaties of a conference devoted to a group of minority languages was that its lingua franca turned out to be a mix of Russian and English. And the generally elderly delegates seemed slightly out of place at an event whose slogan exclaimed "Youth is our future!"
Yes, it was a pretty confused affair. At one point, a member of Russia's 351-strong Tsud minority interrupted a press conference to make an impassioned plea that the congress recognize his people as the world's 24th Finno-Ugric community. And when Greenpeace activists scaled the walls of the conference venue to protest against Russian deforestation, the Russians claimed the demonstration had been staged with the connivance of the Estonian authorities.
Later, one delegate complained of being "reprimanded" by the Russian Embassy after he had criticized a speech given by an adviser to Russia's Constitutional Court. The Russian ambassador himself condemned the keynote address presented by Janos Pusztay, from the University of Szombathely in Hungary, who referred to the Russian Federation's "linguistic-ethnic homogenization of the country [and] the elimination of national minorities."
"I expected the ambassador's reaction," says Pusztay. "But I didn't think it could be so politically incorrect." A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy, however, told The Baltic Times that the ambassador was merely expressing his "personal opinion."

Academic freedom
Pusztay proposes a radical way to prevent foreign words corrupting the purity of Finno-Ugric languages - a conservative version of Orwell's Newspeak.
"You have to gather experts and linguists so that they can create a modern terminology and disseminate this vocabulary. This vocabulary has to be introduced in schools, in textbooks, and by the mass media. We should have unified systems. We should have only one term for one thing. If you have two or more terms for one thing, it leads to chaos."
Chaos? There'd be anarchy... bedlam... pandemonium.
Pusztay predicts that the numbers of Finno-Ugric speakers in the Russian Federation will be halved by the end of the century. He admits, however, that his evidence is questionable.
"I compared the results of censuses, and then I made estimates for the future," Pusztay says. "I extrapolated automatically without any statistical methodology. I took the risk of using this method - not a scientific one. I intentionally tried to show unfavorable tendencies to shock the public."
But the nature of his methods doesn't stop him using his findings to condemn Russia. "The enforcement of Russian on minorities can be considered as linguistic imperialism," he says.
Valeri Markov, chairman of the congress and a member of the Russian Parliament, disagrees. "The situation is not so simple as that presented by Pusztay," Markov says. "Maybe he got some wrong information. Let's not talk about a Russia where there's discrimination and only that."
Pusztay isn't alone, however, in using the Finno-Ugric congress as an opportunity to criticize the Russian Federation. Although the Finnish and Hungarian presidents elected not to lambaste Russia in their speeches to the congress, Estonia's leaders were not so diplomatic.
"Scientists are entering endangered species in a red book," Estonian President Arnold Ruutel said. "Estonian researchers have compiled a red book of peoples in Russia."
Prime Minister Juhan Parts also chose the occasion to stress "the violation of people's rights by the Russian Parliament." Without any apparent hint of irony, he announced Estonia's moral obligation "to share our experience on how to deal with minorities."

The same old story
The conference thus provided some timely propaganda in the war of words currently raging between Moscow and Tallinn over the treatment of Estonia's ethnic Russians - who, in order to claim Estonian citizenship, are required to learn the language. According to the Russian Embassy, there are currently 168,000 stateless persons resident in Estonia.
But not everyone agrees with these statistics. "We do not have any people without citizenship," says Valeri Kalabugin, press secretary to the Finno-Ugric congress. He happens to be of Russian descent, but holds an Estonian passport.
Congress member Henri Laupmaa offers a more moderate perspective. "There are some mistakes that have been made with the Russian minority here," says the Estonian Laupmaa. "We have alienated people instead of building bridges."
"The Estonian language has to be a test for citizenship because it shows the attitude of the Russian people," says Andres Heinapuu, secretary-general of the congress. "We want to be sure this Russian person is not hostile. We have to be sure he will not kill our children. We have historical experience: do they want to live in Estonia, or do they want to turn Estonia into Russia?"
Professor Skutnabb-Kangas presented a paper during the opening session of the congress. "Mass media and educational systems participate in linguistic and cultural genocide," she said. "When I talk about genocide, some people ask, 'Is the term not too strong?' I do not think so."
She cited the United Nations definition of genocide, which includes the forcible transfer of children from one ethnic group to another, and argued that the right to a general education taught in the medium of one's mother tongue is a fundamental human right.
During his presentation to the conference, Estonia's Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher proposed that "the basis of national identity is always the language."
"To me this was a nationalist statement," says Skutnabb-Kangas. "The basis of national identity can be a language, but there are a lot of exceptions."
Yet many Estonians argue that members of indigenous minorities should enjoy greater fundamental human rights than members of immigrant minorities.
"The rights of indigenous peoples are stronger than the rights of immigrants," says Mart Meri, an Estonian delegate to the congress. "Indigenous peoples have had their home here a very, very long time - a couple of hundred years, I can't say exactly."
Hungarian delegate Joszef von Komlossy, however, believes that it's time for Estonia to extend to its Russian community the very rights it demands Russia give its Finno-Ugric minorities. "The Estonian government should sign the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. You cannot have so many rights for one and so many rights for another. Human rights are indivisible."
"I understand the feelings of Estonian people who were oppressed during Soviet times," says Russian parliamentarian Valeri Markov. "Many people in Russia were also oppressed. My relatives were oppressed. In ethnic relations, there are no villains or victims. If there is strong hostility, both sides will lose."