Window on Eurasia: Putin Remark Points to Expanded Campaign Against the Maris
Tallinn, November 28 — President Vladimir Putin said last week that any groups in the Russian Federation receiving assistance from abroad and engaging in political activities should be viewed as “an instrument of the foreign policy of other countries” and thus subject to the strictest scrutiny by Russian security agencies.
And his remark — which came as the Duma was passing legislation banning foreign-funded NGOs in that country – is already being exploited by Russian nationalist officials in the Middle Volga to justify a further crack down on democratic organizations in Finno-Ugric republics of the Middle Volga.
An article posted Friday on the News12.ru <http://news12.ru/> website — which often serves as a mouthpiece for Russian officials in that region — said that after Putin’s declaration, “the competent organs will get involved in tracking the financial sources supporting the activity of ‘Mari ushem’ and ‘Mer Kangash,'” two Mari human rights organizations.
Moreover, the article continued, Putin’s remarks about them permissibility of foreign funding for such groups will have the effect of forcing “the official representative of the government of Estonia to take back his words about distributing means for the realization of the ‘Mariproject.'”
Ethnic Russian officials in Mari El and the other Finno-Ugric republics of the Middle Volga have long been furious at the attention and support pro-democracy groups there have received from the three independent Finno-Ugric countries — Estonia, Finland and Hungary — the European Unions a whole, and the West more generally.
Over the last year and more, officials around Mari El President Leonid Markelov have attacked demonstrators, dismissed members of these groups from their jobs, reduced the use of Mari in schools and the media, and lashed out at individuals and organizations abroad that have sought to help this small group far away defend its rights.
Now, in the wake of President Putin’s words, that Russian nationalist campaign appears set to shift into high gear, there by transforming the already grim situation of the Maris and their fellow Finno-Ugric nations into a genuine tragedy and creating some new problems for Estonians and others in the West who have tried to help these groups.
Some of the moves against the members of pro-democracy and human rights groups in Mari El have already been adumbrated by developments in the last few days. As News12.ru <http://news12.ru/> reported proudly on Friday, a second Komi human rights leader has come to his senses and now has entered “the struggle for the rights of the Russian people.”
A day earlier, the site noted that a Mari businessman with ties to those who opposed President Markelov’s reelection last year and who has supported the Mari “nationalist” opposition has been involved in “the laundering of criminal money” as part of that effort.
And the same day, in a move redolent of some of the worse features of the Soviet past, a journalist for the site asked a psychiatrist in Mari El to evaluate the personalities of two leaders of the Mari Ushem and Mer Kangash organizations on the basis of their photographs alone.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Dmitriy Grigoryev found that Vladimir Kozlov had “an inclination” to maliciousness, aggressiveness, and anger “sometimes with elements of cruelty,” something that could lead him to lose control “in response to the most insignificant event.”
And the psychiatrist added that Nina Maksimova, another Mari leader was anti-social, had “difficulties in establishing emotional contacts” with others, and was entirely “formal” in all her interpersonal relations.
One need not look too far down that road to imagine that Grigoryev and others like him will soon be willing to make “diagnoses” like those for which Moscow’s Serbsky Institute was notorious in the late Soviet period.
But the opponents of democracy and human rights in Mari El and these other Finno-Ugric republics are also stepping up their attacks on all those abroad who have attempted to help the people in the Middle Volga achieve their rights.
Last Wednesday, the News12.ru <http://news12.ru/> agency featured a long story entitled “The ‘Mari Card’ in the Great Game Against Russia,” an article that recapitulated earlier Russian complaints on this score. Among those singled out for particularly venomous attacks were Estonian leaders Mart Laar, Tunne Kelam, and Lennart Meri.
And as hyperbolic as these attacks were – the article suggested that the Estonians were only interested in overthrowing the Markelov regime- they were mild in comparison to an earlier offering of this site: On November 12, News12.ru <http://news12.ru/> suggested that “Estonian nationalists [were] the organizers of the French pogroms.”
One can only hope that such outrageous suggestions will collapse on their own weight, but as Estonians and many others know well, there remain in the world all too many people who will respond to such ravings not by demanding that they must be repudiated but rather by suggesting that the Estonians should not be doing anything that so disturbs Russian leaders.
That is clearly what those behind the News12.ru <http://news12.ru/> site hope for, and it is therefore up to all people of good will who care about human rights and democracy in Mari El and everywhere else to take whatever steps are required not only to prove them wrong but to ensure that the Maris and others will enjoy the rights they are entitled to.