In an unprecedented development, a European head of state has publicly and outspokenly refuted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s accusations that Estonia and Latvia oppress their Russian residents. Most European officials are aware that those accusations are unfounded, but would not contradict the Kremlin publicly.
Visiting Finland on August 2, Putin used the joint news conference with the country’s President Tarja Halonen to launch a routine attack on Riga and Tallinn. Putin urged Finland — a member of the European Union’s troika this year, and scheduled to become the EU’s presiding country in 2006 — to work with Russia and within the EU in order to “resolve the problems” of Russians in Estonia and Latvia. Zeroing in on the issue of citizenship, Putin alleged that the legal category of “non-citizen” [to which many of the Soviet era-legacy residents there belong] is unique to Estonia and Latvia. Terming this situation “absolutely impermissible,” Putin accused Estonia and Latvia of withholding citizenship and otherwise restricting the rights of those people “on ethnic grounds.” “Ethnic discrimination is unacceptable,” he warned. On this occasion again, Putin tried to portray the Baltic states as breaching European criteria for democracy and rule of law, and he asked the EU to help Russia correct this situation.
In her response, Halonen — a Socialist who maintains traditionally good rapport with Moscow — made three basic points. First, Estonia’s and Latvia’s legislation and practice “correspond with the criteria for EU membership,” as well as “meeting the requirements of the Council of Europe and the OSCE,” on citizenship and related issues. Moreover, “It is normal for any state to set certain requirements and conditions for granting citizenship.” Second, minority-related issues “exist everywhere in the EU, and are resolved within the EU, as well as in cooperation with the UN and OSCE” — a remark apparently intended to preclude intrusion into EU political processes by non-member Russia. Thirdly, the policies of Estonia and Latvia are “doing their best … actively encouraging the non-citizens to take up citizenship.”
Halonen went on to urge Putin to encourage the signing and ratification by Russia of the border treaties with Estonia and Latvia. Indicating that this is not just a problem for the two Baltic states, but also an EU problem, she told Putin that the conclusion of the border treaties would mean “one less problem for us” (Interfax, August 2). Russia had refused to sign the treaty with Latvia in May and revoked its signature on the treaty with Estonia in June this year. Although fully satisfied with the content of both treaties, Moscow objected to legal statements attached by Estonia and Latvia reaffirming their standing as continuation states since 1918, whereas Moscow implies that the Baltic states were only created in 1991.
Putin handled defensively the issue of linguistic and political discrimination of Finno-Ugric-speaking people in Russia’s Mari-El Republic (western Siberia), where the native language is closely related to Estonian and Finnish. Without addressing that issue directly, Putin paraphrased Soviet historiographical confabulations about “Slavic and Finno-Ugric tribes that did not just live there, but were building a kind of a community. Objective research shows that their coexistence was very harmonious.” He spoke of a common Slavic and Finno-Ugric culture as “our culture: How can I not like it, when part of it, a significant part, is mine.”
In recent months, cultural and political figures from Estonia, Finland, and Hungary have issued a series of appeals for measures to protect the identity of the Mari people from forced assimilation and to defend political representatives of that people from repression. The European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have recently adopted resolutions on this issue. Last month, that republic’s authorities expelled students from Estonia’s Arts Academy who were on a field trip to Mari-El. A major conference of Finno-Ugric studies is scheduled to be held there later this month.
(BNS, Interfax, Russian Television Channel One, August 2)