Mari people face more oppression in Russia
Activists consider seeking asylum in West
By Mika Parkkonen in Joshkar-Ola
Members of the Finno-Ugric Mari people in Russia have had to endure increasing amounts of harassment and intimidation from officials in their home republic.
During the past week Helsingin Sanomat paid a three-day visit to the Mari. During this time, there were three incidents in which an interview was either interrupted, was prevented from taking place, or was simply unsuccessful because of action taken by local officials.
The first incident took place when court officials arrived at the office of Vladimir Kozlov, leader of the Mer Kanash movement. He attained notoriety in the West in February, when unknown assailants beat him with iron pipes, and he had to be hospitalised.
Kozlov has a small two-room office in the press building in Joshkar-Ola, the capital of the Mari Republic. The second of the two rooms contains a small museum named after the Mari national poet Velentin Kolumb, where Kozlov saves rare original works and notes of Kolumb and other famous Mari writers.
A court official arrived on Tuesday in the middle of the interview to serve Kozlov with an eviction notice. The basis of the action was that he owed a few hundred euros in back rent. "The court did not agree to my proposal to reduce our debt by instalments", a dejected Kozlov said.
Just a moment later we got an invitation to a literary museum run by another Mari cultural figure. The museum was named after the author Aleksandr Juzykai.
The apartment serving as the museum was in complete turmoil. Three court officials and two policemen were evicting the museum from its premises. The noise was so loud that it was not possible to interview the head of the museum, Vyacheslav Juzykai, the son of the late author.
The following day another interview is interrupted - one with Nina Maksimova, leader of the Mari Ushem movement. The interruption comes in the form of a call from the public prosecutor's office, according to which the Liberal Democratic Party (LPDR) is pressing charges against Maksimova, and that the prosecutor must start an investigation. The cause of the action does not come out in the call.
The LPDR is the party of the President of the Mari Republic, Leonid Markelov. The problems of the ethnic Mari opposition have begun during his time in office, and have continued for four years.
The leader of Mari Ushem tries to put a brave face on the situation, even though the tough measures taken by officials are difficult to bear. The complaint against her is at least the fourth. An even worse blow was the loss of the movement's offices a couple of weeks earlier.
The official excuse for the eviction was the failure to pay service fees for five years - a matter that Maksimova knows nothing about. The real reason is that her group took part in organising an anti-government demonstration in Joshkar-Ola a month ago. This led to a new wave of harassment of the Mari opposition.
Only 200 - 300 activists took part in the demonstration. Worse from the officials' point of view was the presence of a camera crew of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), which broadcast the message of the Mari movement to the world.
The demonstrators were calling on police to protect the Mari Republic from looting by the republic's officials.
President Markelov was outraged by the demonstration, because it took part during the International Congress of Finno-Ugric Studies, which had brought hundreds of researchers from around the world to the republic.
"The security service photographed all participants in the demonstration. Since then, we have been constantly harassed", Maksimova says.
She adds that the pressure has grown to such an extent that many representatives of the Mari opposition are considering seeking political asylum in Europe
Maksimova adds together the setbacks suffered by the Mari since the spring. In May neo-Nazis beat about ten members of the Mari intelligentsia after a concert in Joshkar-Ola. In August, the chairman of the Finno-Ugric Congress, Professor Yuri Abdygabiv, was killed in a car accident. In late August Vasili Petrov, leader of the Youth Organisation of Finno-Ugric Peoples, was beaten up.
A couple of days after the beating suffered by Petrov, Dmitri Tanakov, the son of Mari religious leader Vitali Tanakov, was arrested for allegedly organising and participating in a gang rape.
Seven Mari young people have been arrested in the investigation into the alleged crime. The Mari opposition says that confessions were violently coerced.
The latest setback was a car accident a few days ago, in which Aleksandr Abdulov, editor-in-chief of the Mari-El newspaper, was seriously injured.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 1.10.2005
More on this subject:
Suspicions of "Finno-Ugric conspiracy" in Russia
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finno-Ugric youth leader beaten in Russia’s Mari Republic (30.8.2005)
Russian security forces keep tight rein on Finno-Ugric congress in Mari Republic (26.8.2005)
Russia denies allegations of oppression of Finno-Ugric Mari people (30.5.2005)
European Parliament raps Russia for treatment of Mari people (13.5.2005)
Election result brings wave of political reprisals against indigenous intelligentsia of Mari Republic (8.3.2005)
Mari people complain of continued persecution by Russian officials (1.3.2005)
Mari Republic President irate at HS articles; threatens legal action (31.1.2002)
Finno-Ugric Mari people of Central Russia complain of ethnic persecution (27.12.2001)
MIKA PARKKONEN / Helsingin Sanomat