Mar 02, 2006

Mari: Freedom of Expression and The Rights of Peoples Are Violated

There is practically no freedom of expression in the Republic of Mari El. The principal source of information is the State-owned media that is completely controlled by the administration of President Mari El Leonid Markelov

In national autonomous regions of Russia, of the right of the individual to free expression of opinion and to receiving information, and the rights of indigenous peoples of these regions are grossly violated.

Against the background of general deterioration in the area of democracy in the Russian Federation, more and more concern has been recently caused by the situation of the fourth estate, the mass media. The Russian authority systematically imposes its control on the information resources and actively interferes in the mechanisms of opinion-shaping in the civil society.

The assignment of Modest Kolerov, formerly chief editor of the information agency “Regnum”, as head of the Department of Foreign Interregional and Cultural Contacts at the Office of President of the Russian Federation means strengthening the propaganda front to keep up the old Soviet practice of creating the image of an external enemy in the public opinion all over the country. Paradoxically, the stuff produced by that agency has been focused on accusing other post-Soviet states in precisely the breach of freedom of expression – as, for example, the Baltic countries concerning the “ethnic issue”.

In its external information policy Kremlin has to count with equally strong rivals, which compels it to respect at least the limits of internationally recognised legal arguments and the etiquette of international policy. In their internal policy, using the shield of sovereignty, the Russia’s authorities are much less scrupulous in the choice of levers to apply pressure on the society. This arsenal includes various mechanisms from the once again applied practice of armed “cleansing” to the good old Soviet practice of “telephone law”.

In the course of time more coarse methods have been used. While in the times of perestroika any public initiative that needed the State’s support might be rejected for the reason of the economic crisis and the shortage of resources, the present economic situation in Russia is more favorable, partly because of rising oil prices. However, if the situation does not still permit to close an opposition newspaper by an administrative decision, it can be strangled by bureaucratic and economic methods.

Restrictive methods are practiced by both federal and regional authorities. Oppression in the regions is tacitly approved and, moreover, encouraged by central institutions. The situation at the level of units of the Federation has its peculiarities. The democratic opposition has so far evaded the pressure of local authorities by printing its publications outside their administrative areas. Now, however, authorities of neighbouring regions have established a sort of mutual co-operation: they forbid printing opposition publications of their neighbours. The announced scheme of integration of administrative units would kill the last chance to express dissenting opinion.

These mechanisms of pressure can be demonstrated by considering the cases of regions that commonly pass the attention of general public. Of late, the situation in the Mari and Udmurt republics has nevertheless gained international publicity because of the restrictions on the freedom of expression and other rights and freedoms. It is particularly interesting to analyse the situation in these regions, since these are ethnic republics. In either case, the titular nationality that gives the republic its name is now an ethnic minority. Also, as noted by Valery Tishkov, Director of the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Acad. Sci. of Russia, representatives of the titular nationality are by no means in power. They are underrepresented politically, including in the government institutions.

For example, there are only six Udmurts among the hundred deputies of the local National Assembly of Udmurtia, whereas the share of Udmurts and Bessermens in the population is 30 per cent. In the local government of Mari El, only two Maris have remained, although the Maris make up 43 per cent among the population of the republic. At the tacit approval by federal authorities, above all by Sergey Kiriyenko as Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of the Russian Federation in the Volga Federal District, the policy of oppression of the local nationality is continued by President of the Republic of Mari El Leonid Markelov, including large-scale removal of the Maris from leading positions. Undesirable persons are purged not only from the government but from regional and local administrations as well.

Thus by harassing the opposition mass media the authorities violate the rights of ethnic minorities, since the last alternative representation channel available for indigenous peoples is blocked.

The Republic of Mari El

There is practically no freedom of expression in the Republic of Mari El. The principal source of information is the State-owned media that is completely controlled by the administration of President Mari El Leonid Markelov who, as a token of his achievements, was recently awarded with an order by President of Russia. At a meeting with representatives of Mari media on 22 February 2002, Markelov said: “How can I allow the public-owned publishing houses to issue anti-presidential newspapers?”.

Officials at the Administration of President and the Office of Public Prosecutor of the Republic of Mari El use the so-called “telephone law” to see that critical publications are removed, and threaten the mass media with closing down or stripping of subsidies on which practically all mass media in the republic more or less depend.

During the last five years, non-governmental publications were exorcised from public-owned printing houses by various means. For example, the publishing house Periodika Mari El quadrupled its tariffs for private mass media against those for public-owned media. Furthermore, these publications became indebted to the printing house because of not being timely informed about the increase in prices. It is noteworthy that publishing houses often censored non-governmental publications. According to Mr. Aleksandr Solovyev, former director of the printing house of Mari Polygraphic Publishing Enterprise who was recently dismissed, ready newspaper pages were removed after telephone calls from the administration of the President Mari El.

Most of non-governmental publications in Mari El cannot be printed in the republic; although the printing houses formally respond by saying they have no capacities, the actual reason is the unwritten veto imposed by the authorities.

In the past, opposition newspapers were printed in neighbouring regions, mainly in the city of Yaransk (the Kirov district). However, after the appointment of Mr. Valery Komissarov as head of the Committee on Information Policy of the State Duma, printing houses in neighbouring regions have begun refraining from rendering service to independent newspapers of Mari El. A representative of the Republic of Mari El in the State Duma, Komissarov was elected at the personal support of Markelov with the strong use of local administrative resources.

For example, this year the opposition newspaper Dobrye Sosedi (“Good Neighbours”) has managed to print three issues only. The last number was dated 22 April. It is worth to note that this time the editor refrained from indicating the printing house in the publisher’s imprint, afraid of losing his last opportunity to publish the newspaper.

Censorship of the mass media reduces the circulation of local newspapers of Mari El. The circulation of Mari El, the largest newspaper in Mari language, has plummeted from 11 thousand in 2000 has dropped to 6,5 thousand in 2005. Even the news report about the assault and battery of Chairman of the All-Mari Council Vladimir Kozlov in the beginning of February 2005 was not published by this newspaper at a telephone command from the authorities. The report was perfectly neutral, without any hint at the probable connection of the attack to Kozlov’s professional activities. Incidentally, the Chairman of All-Mari Council is elected by the Mari People’s Congress and the Mari El introduces itself as “the newspaper of the Mari people”.


By Estonian Institute for Human Rights, Tallinn, Estonia, May 2005


Excerpt: World Security Network