AK: Finno-Ugric congress politicization bars attendees entering from Russia

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In-person participants at the VIII World Congress of Finno-Ugric peoples on its opening day at the ERM in Tartu, including President Kersti Kaljulaid, and Minister of Culture Anneli Ott. Source: VIII World Congress of Finno-Ugric peoples

Political issues have barred representatives of Finno-Ugric ethnic groups living in Russia from attending a high-level congress taking place in Tartu this week, ETV news show 'Aktuaalne kaamera' (AK) reported, with reports of people being turned away at the border with Estonia.

The event, the VIII World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples, commenced Wednesday, at the National Museum (ERM) in Tartu, with President Kersti Kaljulaid, together with her Finnish, Hungarian and Latvian counterparts, giving welcoming addresses.

Due to the pandemic, which was at its peak while the event was being organized, most of the nearly 400 participants "attended" remotely via internet link.

However, entry into Estonia proved impossible for some of those who attempted to attend in person after traveling from inside Russia, prompting congress organizer Jaak Prozes to say that this was a political development.

Prozes told AK that: "For example, two representatives of the Ingrian Finn community were detained today at the Ivangorod border crossing, questioned and sent back home. This is clearly not a coincidence. So the Russian state is actually restricting people's freedom of movement, making it a serious disruption."

Ivangorod, formerly the Estonian town of Jaanilinn – the name is a direct translation from one language into the other – lies directly across the Narva River from the easternmost Estonian city, Narva.

While President Vladimir Putin was originally invited to the congress, postponed one year due to the pandemic, no reports of any RSVP one way or another have emerged. In the intervening time, the political situation regarding Russia deteriorated, particularly after the arrest last year of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and Russia's position on Belarus and Ukraine.

As widely reported in the international media, Putin traveled to Switzerland for his first in-person meeting with Joe Biden in about 10 years; the last meeting taking place when the latter was Vice-President.

The Russian Federation was, however, represented by that country's culture minister,  Olga Lyubimova.

Nonetheless, those representatives of Finno-Ugric national groups coming from Russia who did make it to Tartu found themselves umable to use the opportunity to make their voices heard. Oleksandr Bolkin, a member of the Erza ethnic group – a sub-group of the relatively numerous Mordvin nation – spoke up outside the main day's events, given organizers were anxious to keep this apolitical.

"They're not talking because they can't solve problems, so there's no point in discussing them," Bolkin, who traveled from Ukraine to Tartu, told AK.

"They're talking about things like climate change. This is a little odd, since nations are dying out, yet we're talking about climate here," Bolkin went on.

President Kersti Kaljulaid in her opening address had reiterated one of the congress' primary goals, however – namely to promote and defend all Finno-Ugric groups and their languages and culture, including those found in Russia who have little to no national self-determination, far from being sovereign nations like Estonia, Finland and Hungary have been for several decades or more.

Jaak Prozes also acknowledged that the event had come to be more politicized down the years since the inaugural conference, in the Komi Republic of the Russian Federation, nearly 30 years ago, though added that consensus was the order of the day.

Prozes told AK that: "As the situation currently is, these more pressing socio-political issues have been relegated to the background, as the documents which are adopted at world congresses are adopted via consensus."

"Everyone has to give in to something, otherwise this documentation will not be born. For this reasons, these political aspects are not especially focused on at the conference."

Of those Finno-Ugric nationalities whose representatives were largely absent, even online, AK reported the Mari, Mordvins, Udmurts, Komi and Khanty did not participate in the congress virtually. 

Moreover, virtually all the in-person representation of nationalities to be found inside Russia came via people who are resident in, or citizens of, Estonia, in any case, AK stated.

Elena Kirt, of the Udmurt delegation, told AK she had lived in Estonia for over 20 years and liked to keep up connections with her community of origin - the Udmurt's traditional homeland lies within the Volga Federal District, in South-Central Russia.

"So it was very sad that this year it is taking place in very limited conditions, and I know that some [congress] observers were even caught at the border, and they were simply not allowed over," Kirt told AK.

A resolution is to be adopted by the congress on its final day, Friday.

A sufficient number of Finno-Ugric nations were represented (i.e. over 50 percent) for a quorum to be declared and the event and its resolutions to go ahead.

Day one of the congress saw plenty of traditional musical interludes, the presentation of a commemorative coin and a commemorative stamp and first-day cover, and further discussion and presentation (see gallery below).

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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