Sunday, March 22, 2020

Karels Repeat Demand that Their Language Become Official One in Their Republic

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 17 – The 86 delegates to the Ninth Congress of Karels of the Republic of Karelia at a meeting last weekend in Olonets called for their language as the titular nation to be declared a state or official language. Theirs is the only titular nationality in a non-Russian republic which does not have such a status.

            This has long been a neuralgic issue for the Karels, who account for only ten percent of the republic’s population and whose close ties with Karels in Finland and Finland itself have kept Moscow from agreeing to give them that status. (For background on this question, see

            One of the reasons why the Congress of Karels of the Republic of Karelia is so important as far as this question is concerned is that since the authorities banned the Karelian Congress is that it is the only independent but unregistered organization that purports to speak for all Karelians and especially Karelian speakers.

            The meeting was addressed by republic head Artur Parfenchikov, something that clearly gave participants hope they might be listened to, and was broadcast live both in Karel, the language most delegates used and in simultaneous translation into Russian, because many Karels do not speak the language and Karels want to be heard by Russian speakers in the republic (

            A telling detail that says much about where the Karels and the Karelian government are at present was the declaration of the republic’s nationality policy minster, Sergey Kiselyev, that Karels from abroad were not welcome at this meeting (

            Something of the feelings of the delegates was suggested in the course of an interview Valery Potashov of Stolitsa na Onego conducted with one of them, Natalya Antonova, a longtime Karel language activist (,

            She said that “our congress is the representative organ of the Karels of the Republic of Karelia which takes decisions in the name of the native and titular people in our region.” It isn’t registered but this is “not required: Our activity is within the legal field because according to federal law, social work can be undertaken both with registration and without.”

            The decisions are passed on to both the republic authorities and Moscow. The responses of those at the republic level are monitored and assessed at each succeeding congress, she continued. But to date, there is no indication that Moscow pays any attention to the group’s meetings or its decisions.

            Antonova said she regretted both that few Karelians are interested in working for the government or getting involved in politics – too many are simply leaving the republic to seek a better life elsewhere -- and that “our local ministries” are insufficiently “demanding” in the course of their interaction with Moscow.

            She added that she considers “Karelian language and culture … a resource for Karelia and not a threat” and is certain that if the language was given official status, it would lead more people to recognize that and learn the language. If Karelia doesn’t have a distinct language, “then we would not be anything more than a simple oblast.”

            The status of a language is part of its image,” Antonova continued. “In those republics where it is [an official or state language] far from all the population knows it but the status ensures for example that it is more widely introduced in schools. Young people must understand that Karelian is recognized, and its status here is thus important.”

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