TALLINN - Education Minister Mailis Reps made the painful admittance that she was duped by Kremlin propaganda after stating that the situation in the Russian Republic of Mari El was better than what the Estonian press has been describing.
While participating in the 10th International Congress for Finno-Ugric Studies last week in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Mari El, Reps was quoted as saying that what she saw in Mari El was not as bad as the picture painted by Estonian media.
"This is the first day of my being here [Aug. 16.] All that I saw was beautiful. The things that I saw and the facts that I read at home are not very similar," she told the Vesti news program in Russia.
"One may say that [in Estonia] the situation is perceived slightly worse," she added. "We saw schools opening, and people arranging cultural contacts. The language is in practice, as well as opportunities - if there only were an interest. Earlier, we did not have enough precise information. It is good that I've come."
Reps' statements caused an immediate scandal among government leaders and opposition parties. After she returned to Estonia, several politicians accused her of violating the state's foreign policy. Several asked if she would resign.
To complicate the matter, the Education Ministry reported that Reps did not, in fact, make any official statements when in Mari El.
In her own defense, Reps said that she did not praise the Mari's living conditions but was trying to point out specific conditions that were provided by a privately funded school. She also added that her Russian was poor.
But former PM Mart Laar was shocked by Reps' interview with Vesti. A minister with such opinions, Laar reportedly told the Eesti Paevaleht daily, should resign.
Leonid Markelov, president of Mari El, a republic located on the Volga River and that contains the Mari, a Finno-Ugric people, was quoted by Interfax agency as saying that Estonia was applying double standards. He said that the Baltic country's disapproval of federal policy was a response to Moscow's criticism over Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics.
"Authorities in Estonia ignore positive changes in Russia," he said. "They are trying to discredit Mari El, where we are doing everything to preserve and promote the Mari language and culture."
Katrin Saks, a Social Democrat and rapporteur for Russia's Finno-Ugric peoples in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said that Russia refuses to acknowledge this minority's struggles. "These are the problems of small people living in a very centralized country," Saks told the Baltic News Service. "The biggest problem is that neither Russian authorities, nor local leaders want to recognize the existence of such problems."
This attitude was apparent at the meeting she attended with Reps, Markelov and Finnish and Hungarian diplomats, the MP said. "The president asserted that no nationality problem existed in the republic, and that it was an inflated issue."
Saks mentioned that although legally there are two official languages in the republic, the Mari do not actually have equal status. She also pointed out that many issues, such as education, could not be solved locally and depended on central authorities.
Saks said she would draw up an official report by the end of this year.
The Education Ministry has defended Reps, claiming that during all interviews given while in Russia, never once did she make a statement of foreign policy or criticize Estonia's press.
The ministry confirmed that while visiting a local school Reps did say that what she saw was better than what had been depicted of Mari El in the Estonian press.
Prior to Reps' arrival, Prime Minister Andrus Ansip said that Reps' statements had been used for propaganda purposes directed against the Mari people, adding that he would not comment further on the issue until speaking with the minister.
After discussing the matter with the government leader, Reps insisted that the scandal had not harmed their mutual trust.
In addition to attending the 10th World Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies, Reps met with Galina Shevtsova, education minister of Mari El, and visited several education institutions. The two signed a memorandum on educational cooperation between Estonia and the Republic of Mari El.