Sunday, September 15, 2019

Karelian Republic Far Less Free than Komi Because Moscow Fears Influence of Finland, Shtepa Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 11 – Paradoxically, Karelia which shares a common border of more than 750 kilometers with Finland has far less freedom of speech and far fewer opportunities for civic activism than does its fellow Finno-Ugric republic Komi which has no such border, Vadim Shtepa says.

            But this paradox is more apparent than real, the editor of Tallinn’s Region.Expert portal says, because it reflects Moscow’s view that Karelia’s location on the border “is not a stimulus for cooperation and development but rather a risk and a threat” and thus the center allows things in Komi that it immediately suppresses in Karelia (

            What makes this divergence so striking, Shtepa says, is that during perestroika, Karelia was one of the most progressive regions of the country. It had its own Peoples Front, it adopted its own declaration on state sovereignty, and it sought to promote the creation of real federalism within the Russian Republic.

            And taking advantage of cooperation with Finnish firms, Karelia’s capital Petrozavodsk saw its apartments wired for the Internet already in 1997, “even earlier than was the case in Moscow,” the regional specialist says. During all this time, the Komi Republic was mostly a quiescent backwater.

            “But today the situation has radically changed. Komi activists are in the lead in protesting Moscow’s plans for a trash dump at Shiyes, and Oleg Mikhailov, a member of Komi’s State Council, has very publicly decried “Moscow’s ‘colonial policy,’” something no Karelian politician could do without suffering serious reprisals. 

            Moreover, in the Komi Republic there has emerged an active youth movement “which combines the struggle for civil society with the promotion of the cultural uniqueness of their republic. They have even thought up a new version of the republic flag, one of ‘Scandinavian type’” which Shiyes protesters are now carrying.

            What is striking is that they aren’t being persecuted or prosecuted for doing so, Shtepa continues. In Karelia, the situation is entirely different and entirely different from what it was 30 years ago during perestroika.  Yes, some activists have sought to revive the Otava flag but generally they’ve kept it and themselves out of politics.

            Displaying this flag or talking about the Ukhta Republic is dangerous, Shtepa says.  And Karelians haven’t been able to achieve even the modest de-sovietization others have: “Practically all the central streets of Petrozavodsk up to now bear the names of communist ideologues and Soviet leaders right up to Andropov.”

            “Moreover,” Shtepa notes, “Karelia is the only Russian republic in which the titular language does not have official status.” The regime says it can’t make it the state language because it uses the Latin script and Russian law requires that all “state languages in Russia” use Cyrillic.

            When Aleksand Khudailaynen became republic head in 2012, many Karelians hoped for a positive change largely because of his Finnish name. but they were quickly disappointed. He closed the only Baltic-Finnic philology department at a Russian university and began broadscale repressions against opposition figures in the republic.

Galina Shirshina, the elected opposition mayor of Petrozavodsk was forced out and direct elections for the mayor were cancelled. Local Yabloko leader Vasily Popov was forced to ask for political asylum in Finland. And Shtepa himself ultimately left, for Estonia, when officials signaled that he was in trouble. 

The situation in Karelia has become even worse since Artur Parfenchikov replaced Khudilaynen in 2017. Most notoriously, he has overseen the persecution of historian Yury Dmitriyev who unearthed and then documented the mass graves of Stalin’s victims at Sandarmokh. 

That created a problem for Moscow which had decided to “rewrite the history of Sandarmokh” just as the Soviets did about Katyn and suggest that the bodies buried there were “not GULAG inmates but Soviet POWs shot by the Finns in 1941-1944.” In addition, Parfenchikv has brought in numerous security types to serve in his regime.

As a result, as Karelian journalist Andrey Tuomi has pointed out, Karelia is now returning not to the days of perestroika but to those of the 1930s when Soviet security officials ran Karelia because there were so many GULAG camps there.

Is Kyrgyzstan about to Become the Last Turkic Republic to Move from the Cyrillic to Latin Script?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 11 – When the Soviet Union disintegrated, scholars and officials in all five Turkic republics called for changing the alphabet their national languages used from Cyrillic (Russian) to the Latin script. As of now, four of the five have taken serious steps in that direction, although none has been able to do it without difficulty.

            Now, after many years of discussions in which opponents argued that the shift would cost too much money for the impoverished republic and make it more difficult for Kyrgyz to use Russian, something important because of the large number of migrant workers from there in Russian cities, Latinization is again taking center stage in Kyrgyzstan.

            In recent days, there have been a series of articles, academic conferences and discussions in the parliament in which ever more people have come out in favor of making the switch in order to bring that republic into line with its Turkic counterparts and make the learning of English easier ( and

            The arguments for and against such a shift in Kyrgyzstan repeat the arguments that have taken place in the other Turkic republics (cf. and  

            But there is one additional twist: Kyrgyzstan has long been closer to Russia than the others and is clearly worried about taking a step that would be highly offensive to Moscow. Consequently, Kyrgyz opponents of the move are saying that Tatarstan and Bashkortostan do just fine with Cyrillic alphabets so that Kyrgyzstan can as well.

            That argument may be persuasive to some, but it is a double-edged sword: If Kyrgyzstan in the end does make the change bringing all five Turkic republics into line with Turkey and most of the West, there will undoubtedly be even more pressure in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan for a similar change, despite Putin’s law against it.  

Tuvins Don’t Want Russians to Form More than Five Percent of People of Their State, New Poll Shows

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 11 – On September 7, 40 Tuvin horsemen attacked a bus carrying Russian election observers. No one was killed, but what happened next is what matters: the Tuvin government insisted that the Russians as interlopers were to blame and had offended Tuvins who were simply going about their business gathering mushrooms.

            Tuva, rarely discussed except by philatelists for its remarkable triangle-shaped stamps in the 1920s and 1930s or by admirers of the late US physicist Richard Feynman who hoped to go there, has been developing in its own way too what ethnographer Boris Myshlyaytsev says is something like “apartheid” was in South Africa (

            On the basis of his study of this federal subject on the border with Mongolia which includes the poll result cited above, the ethnographer says that to understand what the situation in Tuva is like now, it is important to recognize that for the Tuvans, the Russians are conquerors whose imperial center collapsed.

As a result, those Russians who remain in Tuva are thus viewed in much the same way Russians would have viewed any Germans who might have stayed in Kaluga after Hitler’s forces were driven from the USSR. No one in Tuva wants to drive the Russians out – they’re leaving on their own – but “the current government has at its goal total de-russification.”

“Without this,” Myshlyaytsev says, “you won’t built North Korea.”  What the Tuvin regime has done up to now is create an apartheid state, one in which the Tuvins and Russians each understand that there are some places the members of the one nation go and others that only members of the other do.

Tuvins are an ancient people, but in 1921, the ethnographer recounts, they “created their own state. “Russians [there] were citizens of the USSR; Tuvin, were citizens of Tuva (without Soviet social guarantees. (A situation very similar to a Bantustan legally but its meaning was somewhat different.)”

“But in general,” although political correctness kept anyone from saying this, at that time was “set up apartheid of the Soviet type: ‘soviet people and Tuvins.’” The Russians wiped out most but not all of the Tuvin aristocracy – one of the descendants of which is the current Russian defense minister – and in 1944 annexed Tuva.

After that happened, the ethnographer says, “the Russians and Tuvins became equal, but apartheid was preserved for a long time” – indeed right up to the present.  “Everyone knows this café is for Russians, this one is mixed, and this is for Tuvins … But no one mentions it because that isn’t politically correct.”

For much of the time, this separateness worked, but when either group began to feel it wasn’t being adequately respected, it attacked the other.  For many, the choice was to leave; for others, it was to try to force the others to decide to leave on their own volition.  But as a result, each group formed an image of the other that was profoundly negative.

For details on the depth of this divide, see “Russians and Tuvins: The Image of the Other” at; and for discussions of how some on each side of the line adapted to the other and even became something different than they had been, see

Tuva was the site of the first large race riots at the end of Soviet times, and many ethnic Russians fled. Now, the pressure is less direct, although the actions of the horseman raise the possibility that things could turn violent again. Instead, the hostility each feels toward the other and the regime’s support for one is creating the conditions for a Tuvin future -- without Russians