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Ministry of Culture closes down Estonian Finns national cultural autonomy

Estonian and Finnish flags.
Estonian and Finnish flags. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The Ministry of Culture closed Estonian Finns cultural autonomy as its council election failed. The community is still active and discussing how to change representative body election procedures.

The Estonian national minorities cultural autonomy act governs cultural autonomy bodies that elect, among other things, representative bodies.

Estonia first adopted the law on the establishment of national cultural autonomy – for the special organization of a national minority group – during the interwar period in 1925. The German and Jewish minorities were granted considerable rights due to the legislation.

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, two national minority groups, the Ingrian Finns and the Swedes, applied for the status of cultural autonomy. However, according to current legislation, the status of cultural autonomy is merely symbolic or declarative, with no political power.

Sakari Neuvonen, the chairman of the Estonian Finns' Cultural Autonomy Council, wrote last October, before the body's last election cycle, that not enough Estonian Finns vote because of the younger generation's weaker ties to their roots and outdated legislation.

Under the current law, at least half of registered voters must vote in the election; however, on October 11, fewer than that took part in the election.

Taisto Uuslail, a founding member of the Estonian Finns cultural autonomy, Eestisoomlaste Kultuuriomavalitsus or ESKO, told ERR that despite the legal dissolution of the body, the community continues to operate.

ESKO can no longer count on support from the ministry, which so far has covered their administrative costs.

"We are moving away from people in culture; unfortunately, the way it works is heavily dependent on money, and the current project-based economy gives the illusion that if you don't have money, you can't do culture, which is absurd," Uuslail said.

"The important thing is that we are dealing with national heritage and it is obvious that the project money will go to projects. Admittedly, administrative costs will be more difficult to finance through the Estonian Cultural Foundation or the Integration Foundation, but as the saying goes, 'He who asks, gets.'"

The bigger issue is the cultural succession or the awareness of young people of the need to preserve their national culture. Uuslail said that Estonia's national culture is largely stuck in the cultural layer of a century ago, while today's youth culture and interests are much more diverse.

"The electoral process is obviously an old-fashioned activity, and perhaps a good example for us is the people of Setomaa, who elect the representative body [the representative of the mythical King Peko] on their annual festival day," he said.

The format of the Seto festive election day is more traditional: singing of the Seto anthem, preparation of Seto food and crafts, election of the new leader, and then Seto singing and dancing.

"We've been thinking about a similar custom, which would bring us closer to real life," Uuslail said.

Local Finnish and Swedish minority leaders clearly attach great importance even to the symbolic autonomy and concerted efforts have been made to lobby for further development of the national cultural autonomy law.

Ministry of Culture said that there are currently no plans to amend the law, which is partly explained by reluctance to give greater cultural autonomy to a sizable Russian community.

In 1918, when Estonia first gained its independence, approximately 8.2 percent of the ethnic population was Russian. Following Estonia's restoration of independence in 1991, the proportion of the Russian population in Estonia increased to 30.3 percent. Russian population has dropped to 24 percent since then.

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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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