Feb 10, 2006

Mari: International Helsinki Federation Report Highlights Plight

A new report by the IHF for Human Rights describes the alarming situation of the Mari minority and emphasizes important role played by NGOs

A new report by the Internatinal Helsinki Federation for Human Rights on the increasingly desperate situation of the Mari minority in the Middle Volga republic of Mari El underlines just how important such monitoring groups are and why some in the Putin regime are doing everything they can to shut these organizations down.

The 57-page report, entitled „Russian Federation: The Human Rights Situation of the Mari Minority of the Republic of Mari El; A Study of the Titular Nationality of One of Russia’s Ethnic Regions,” was released last week.

Over the past several years, the difficult situation in which members of the Mari nationality now find themselves has been the subject of article in the international media and discussions at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. But the IHF report marks the first time that an NGO at the national or international has addressed this issue.

Both the way in which the report is organized and the way in which information for it was compiled show why such NGOs can play a unique, even indispensable role in helping to protect the rights of minorities.

The report itself consists of five parts: an executive summary, background information about the Mari, a discussion of various international standards on the protection of minorities, an analysis of the current situation of the Mari in the Republic of Mari El, and recommendations to the Russian authorities and the international community.

For many, the IHF’s description of the Mari nationality and its complicated history is likely to be their first introduction to a 700,000-strong Finno-Ugric group about whom they know relatively little or may even be learning about for the first time.
But the key sections are the last three. The report’s survey of the evolution of international standards on the protection of minorities is critically important not only as a template against which the Mari’s situation should be evaluated but also as a refutation of the Russian claims that officials are not violating these accords to which Moscow is a signatory.

The analysis of the current situation makes up half of the report and is based, as such NGO research normally is, on both a survey of publicly available information and on interviews with those most directly affected, both the Mari and those who currently rule over them.

From October 28 to November 2, IHF experts visited Mari El and Moscow where they met with a wide variety of people involved with the Mari. As the report notes, “for safety reasons, the names of those with whom meetings took place, with the exception of people inpublic positions, are withheld.”

What the IHF found should disturb anyone concerned about human, civil and minority rights in the Russian Federation and more generally. Again and again, the report documents the fact that Russian officials in the region are not acting in conformity with either the Russian constitution or Russian laws, not to speak of international standards.

The Mari language is increasingly being squeezed out of public and political life, and opponents of the current regime there, which is headed by a governor from Moscow with close ties to Vladimir Zhirinovskiy’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, are subject to discrimination, dismissal from their jobs, or even attacks that have left several dead.

Some analysts have suggested that the Mari can use the Internet to break through this information blockade, but the IHF study found that „an Estonian site that provides articles about the situation in Mari El in the Estonian, Mari, Russian and English languages [http://www.mari.ee] has reportedly not been accessible [there] since mid-2005.”

In contrast to the situation in the 1990s, the current government in Mari El has refused to work with the leaders of various Mari national organizations. Instead, the regime of Governor Leonid Markelov has created a „’pocket’ opposition,” a group of „people loyal to the authorities” whom the latter point to as evidence that democracy is flourishing and all human rights are protected in that republic.

And the report ends as such NGO reports normally do with specific recommendations both to the authorities of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Mari El and to the international community. The former are urged to reverse course, to end violations of human and minority rights, and to defend the rights they have committed themselves to by signing various international accords.

The latter are urged to make use of their contacts with the Russian government to reaffirm that „independent media, active political opposition and a vibrant civil society constitute key components of any democratic state” and to hold the Russian government „accountable to its international obligations in terms of freedom of expression, assembly and association” by insisting that „adequate investigations be undertaken into any allegations of intimidation, harassment and violence” directed at those seeking to act on thse rights.

In addition, the IHF report concludes, foreign governments and organizations should in the course of their contacts with the Russian government, „should highlight the importance of preserving living minority cultures and languages” and call on Moscow „to make sure” that is policies „do not curtail the democratic rights of citizens, impair the protection of minority rights or – in any way – contribute to furthering intolerance.”

Given the current trends in Moscow’s policies toward minorities under President Vladimir Putin and even more the harsh anti-Mari policies of Governor Markelov in Mari El, it is easy to understand why both of them would be happier if there were no possibility for NGOs to prepare such reports and make such recommendations.

On the one hand, the existence of such independently prepared reports complicates the efforts of these officials to suggest that things are getting better and better in the Russian Federation. And on the other, both men and their advisors are aware of the role that the Helsinki process played in bringing down an earlier authoritarian government in that country.


Source: Union of Council for Jews in the Former Soviet Union