Ukrainian Parliament Intensifies Support for Indigenous Minorities in Russian Federation

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 97

Free Idel-Ural co-founders' press conference, Kyiv, March 2018

On May 30, the Verkhovna Rada (national parliament) of Ukraine appealed to the United Nations, international parliamentary assemblies and foreign national legislatures to condemn ongoing violations of the rights of indigenous non-Russian peoples in the Russian Federation (, May 30). The resolution was supported by 234 out of 338 members of parliament (MP) registered in the debating chamber. The authors of the document consisted of representatives of all Rada political factions and parliamentary groups, except for the pro-Russia Opposition Bloc party.

The text of the appeal contains many specific examples of Moscow violating the rights of indigenous minorities, including prohibiting the activities of sub-national parties, pressuring ethnic-minority organizations and associations, restricting the right to education in one’s native language, intervening in the activities of religious associations, etc.

Several Russian politicians responded sharply to the Ukrainian lawmakers’ resolution, calling it interference in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation (RiaFan, May 30). Whereas, Russian government-sponsored media outlets characterized the appeal as an attempt by Kyiv to respond to Moscow’s criticism of the new law “On ensuring the functioning of Ukrainian as the state language” (Sputnik News, May 30). But in fact, the Verkhovna Rada resolution was the latest ratcheting up of a long-developing Ukrainian policy pursued by the country’s parliamentarians—and not a spontaneous emotional reaction. The work on the document had actually been preceded by numerous efforts to build up contacts between representatives of indigenous minority peoples of Russia and Ukrainian politicians.

On March 21, 2018, a press conference was held in Kyiv, at which representatives of the Erzya diaspora and political emigrant from Tatarstan Rafis Kashapov proclaimed the formation of the popular movement “Free Idel-Ural.” The organization declared as its aim restoring the “real sovereignty” of Idel-Ural (Volga region) republics (, March 22, 2018). The following April, activists of the organization picketed the diplomatic missions of the Russian Federation in various European countries, protesting against the forced russification of the school systems in the republics of Mordovia, Chuvashia, Marii El, Tatarstan, Udmurtia and Bashkortostan. Ihor Lutsenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, attended one of the Free Idel-Ural demonstrations in front of the Russian embassy in Kyiv. He expressed his support to the activists and said that “Ukrainians should consider the peoples of Russia as allies” (, April 29, 2018). Lutsenko’s speech was the first public contact between an organization of indigenous peoples of the Volga region and Ukrainian lawmakers.

In September 2018, representatives of Free Idel-Ural presented a specially printed political map of Idel-Ural at the largest book forum in Ukraine. The event gathered not only the diasporas of multiple Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples of the Russian Federation, but also Ukrainian politicians and scholars (Azatliq, September 24, 2018). The main speaker at this event was Free Idel-Ural co-founder Syres Boliaien, a retired colonel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and a veteran of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war in Donbas. By origin, Boliaien is ethnic Erzya, from the Republic of Mordovia. He is also known as one of the most eminent representatives of the Erzyan national movement (, 26, 2018).

At the end of 2018, Hanna Hopko, the head of the Rada Committee on Foreign Affairs, held the first ever official roundtable discussion on indigenous peoples in Russia. The event was attended by MPs from various parliamentary factions, as well as Syres Boliaien and his associates. The deputy chairperson of the Mejlis (executive-representative body) of the Crimean Tatar people, Refat Chubarov, called on his colleagues to form a parliamentary faction that would deal with the problems of indigenous minorities of the Russian Federation. Political emigrants who participated in the event, asked Ukrainian parliamentarians to terminate the extradition agreement between Ukraine and Russia. At a special briefing for media representatives, commenting on violations of the rights of Russia’s indigenous peoples, Hopko stated, “The future of the Russian Federation and the whole region of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia depends to a large extent on the solution of this problem” (Ukrinform, Golos Ukrainy, December 11, 2018).

In January 2019, the Prometheus Center for the Study of the Security Environment, together with a group of 19 Ukrainian MPs, began work on draft resolution 10125 “On the Appeal of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine to the United Nations Organization, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and the national parliaments of the countries of the world on conviction of the violation of the rights of indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation.” And in April, the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine hosted a conference titled “Peoples of the Russian Federation: Between Assimilation and Self-Determination.” The event, organized by the Prometheus Center, gathered together Ukrainian politicians, scholars, public activists, religious figures and media representatives. Political emigrants and indigenous diaspora representatives from Tatarstan, Mordovia, Bashkortostan, Karelia and the Kuban also attended the conference. Syres Boliaien, while presenting his report on the current situation of the Erzya people in the Russian Federation, urged deputies of the Verkhovna Rada to support draft resolution 10125 (Day, April 16).

Despite the continuing political crisis that arose between the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Rada, draft resolution 10125 was presented to the legislature and supported by the majority of MPs. Right after the adoption of the document, Hopko several times and at various international platforms raised the question of the Russian government’s violation of the rights of indigenous peoples—in particular, when she delivered a speech before the Seimas (parliament) of the Republic of Lithuania (, June 3).

Ukraine is scheduled to hold early parliamentary elections on July 21, and it is difficult to predict how the new make-up of the next Rada may affect Ukraine’s crystalizing policy of supporting the indigenous non-Russian peoples of the Russian Federation. However, it can already be concluded that Kyiv is not simply seeking to tease Moscow with the “nationalities question”; rather, it is trying to assume the role of a “lawyer” of sorts on behalf of Russia’s minorities. The Kremlin has taken note of these developments and likely cannot fail to grasp that a political union of Ukraine with assorted organizations of indigenous peoples is not only possible but almost certain to intensify in the face of further pressure by Moscow on its national republics.