Thursday, June 25, 2015

Helsiniki Projects ‘Soft Power’ on Finno-Ugric Question But within Tighter Limits Set by Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 25 – The Russian government has always understood the interest of the three Finno-Ugric countries – Finland, Hungary and Estonia – in the Finno-Ugric peoples within the borders of the Russian Federation as “a pretext for putting pressure on Russia when the situation requires,” according to Alina Sergeyeva, a St. Petersburg commentator.

             Estonia has been the most outspoken, she suggests, but Finland has been the most effective because it understands that “sanctions come and go but neighbors remain” and therefore seeks to work in issues that will not antagonize Moscow as it continues to promote its own “soft power” in this area (

            Sergeyeva says that as a result, there is not going to be any “hue and cry” from Finland about Finno-Ugric matters inside Russia. But the very fact that this article appeared and its obvious messages to Tallinn and Budapest shows how sensitive the Finno-Ugric issue now is for Moscow and how concerned the Russian government is to set limits to outside influence on it.

             To a greater degree than the two other Finno-Ugric countries, she says, Finland traditionally has focused on issues in this area, including economic growth, border cooperation and ecology and provided substantial sums of money to the numerically small Finno-Ugric peoples of the Russian Federation that are less likely to anger Moscow.

            “Today,” Sergeyeva continues, Finland has developed “systemic and quality work not only for the support of Finno-Ugric peoples living in Russia but also by its official presence on territories needed for the preservation of the state security of the country” with a consulate general in St. Petersburg, a consulate in Petrozavodsk, and a consular office in Murmansk.”

            Finland’s involvement in Finno-Ugric matters in Russia while impressive in its extent, the St. Petersburg writer says, have passed “practically unnoticed in the public space” because “unlike Estonia,” Finland goes about its business of promoting its “soft power” without loud public declarations.

            In the 1990s, she says, Russia did not give “priority” to “the problem of the preservation of the ethno-cultural uniqueness of the Finno-Ugric peoples,” and consequently, Finland stepped in, first with a 1992 inter-government agreement and then beginning in 1994 and lasting through 2012 a 353,000 euro (350,000 US dollar) program each year.

            Those funds were spent on the publication of educational materials in the Finno-Ugric languages, translations, dissemination of information to those communities, research efforts and cooperative work with museums as well as seminars, conferences, and educational opportunities for Finno-Ugric peoples.

            But as Sergeyeva delicately puts it, “in recent years, in Russia has begun a tightening of control over foreign financing of public projects. Domestic NGOs which receive money from abroad are now not in fashion,” something she explains by pointing to “the change in the foreign political situation in the world.”

             She says that Russia has developed its own “system” for supporting NGOs and that “Finno-Ugric organizations can avail themselves of the opportunity to carry out their projects from funds out of the budget of the country and socially responsible business” now that they aren’t getting as much money from abroad.

            In the new environment, Helsinki has created a new mechanism for supporting its co-ethnics in the Russian Federation. This institution is called Finno-Ugric Cultural Cooperation with Russia, and despite all the problems in the world, it continues to finance many projects in Russia and will be a host of a conference in Petrozavodsk in September.

            But not everything is rosy in this sphere, Sergeyeva suggests. Formally, a group called the International Consultative Committee of the Finno-Ugric Peoples has oversight on these issues, but its leader, although from the Komi Republic, has its headquarters in Helsinki, the capital of Finland.

            That apparently is no longer acceptable to Moscow, and Sergeyeva says that his group is being challenged by a new Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples.  That may have been Moscow’s choice at one time, but the new group may now be beyond its control: its leaders regularly complains of Russian discrimination against the Finno-Ugric peoples.


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