February 12, 2016 will go down in the history of Udmurt people, and of the international movement of kindred Finno-Ugric peoples, as a sad and disappointing day. This was the day when Udmurts voluntarily gave up one of the most precious things that any people, can have: their right to decide for themselves who represent them as a people.
The facts of this case are quite straightforward. According to the rules governing Finno-Ugric World Congresses, Udmurts are entitled to 20 delegates. However, the 13th Congress of Udmurts – supposedly the highest representative body of Udmurt people - held on February 11-12 in Izhevsk, decided to reduce the number of delegates for the upcoming 7th Finno-Ugric World Congress to be held in Lahti (Finland) from 20 to 5 while somehow linking these delegates to their membership of AFUN RF (Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples of the Russian Federation). This is a separate umbrella organization with no democratic mandate from these peoples, including Udmurts, to represent them. As alleged reasons for this decision, two arguments were consistently mentioned: 1) geopolitics – Russia is surrounded by hostile enemy states (implying that some or all of the Finno-Ugric states outside Russia might belong this category), and 2) ongoing economic, or some other kind of crisis.
This decision by the Udmurt congress is problematic from many perspectives. Let me enumerate just some of the more important ones:
1) This was not really an Udmurt decision. While on the surface it may appear that this was an independent, majority-backed decision by a representative body, of course this was not so. The evidence for this may be circumstаntiаl, but it is nonetheless compelling for anybody with at least high school education. First of all, why would any representative body of a people voluntarily, on its own initiative, give up, or severely reduce, its rights to be represented as a people, domestically or internationally? It is highly unlikely that Udmurts who are not really involved in global geopolitics, would themselves come up with that as a reason. Udmurts are not known for making anti-Western, anti-Estonian, anti-Finnish or anti-Hungarian statements in the past. How come this came up now? Secondly, if the economic crisis is making it more difficult for Udmurt delegates to travel to Finland, then surely there was an opportunity to allow delegates to self-finance their participation. However, a proposal to that effect by one of the delegates was not even allowed to be voted on. Smell a fish? I certainly do. And thirdly, what is the relevance of tying Udmurt delegates to their membership of AFUN RF? There is no logic here. The only reason is that this organization, AFUN RF is itself operating under orders to ensure full control of the composition of World Congress delegates, and as a result pressurizing individual Finno-Ugric peoples to align with this. Where these orders are coming from is not hard to imagine – clearly this is the newly formed Federal Agency of Ethnic Affairs. If we add some historical background from 2015 in the way how AFUN RF has been pressurizing the Consultative Committee of Finno-Ugric Peoples (KKFUN) to take control of Congress preparations from Russia’s side (including, by discouraging individual Finno-Ugric peoples to participate in the planning process), the situation becomes crystal clear. For those who did not understand it yet, let me state this plainly: Udmurt people were usurped of their right to freely and independently determine their representation at the 7th World Congress of Finno-Ugric peoples by AFUN RF and whoever gave such instructions to AFUN RF. The truly sad element here is that majority of the delegates of the Udmurt Congress either did not realize this, or simply surrendered to pressures from above, this way at least partially legitimizing the decision.
2) These were not the true reasons. The alleged reasons of geopolitics and economic crisis have in fact little to do with true reasons behind this politico-technological special operation. Yes, it does have to do with geopolitics but not the kind that was presented to Udmurt delegates and people. It has nothing to with Western hostility towards Russia. It has everything to do with official Moscow’s wish to sabotage the upcoming World Congress by delegitimizing its authority and representative nature (which has not been particularly high in the past either), as well as fully controlling any statements given, and documents adopted by the Congress. With this decision by the Udmurt congress, Moscow is well on the way towards accomplishing this objective.
3) It undermines the Finno-Ugric movement. In the short term, events like this (likely similar decisions will be taken by other if not all Russia’s Finno-Ugric peoples) will weaken the international Finno-Ugric movement, partly due to the expected failure of the upcoming World Congress, as well as due to sowing seeds of mutual suspicion among Finno-Ugric activists from all countries. However, the Finno-Ugric movement may still emerge stronger from this in the longer term, but certainly this would require a new generation of activists to be in leadership positions.
The main outcome of all of this is a significant erosion of the national dignity of Udmurt people. A people that is not only unable, but unwilling to stand up for its right to appoint its own representatives, does not command full respect. I find it hard to articulate this thought as I have always admired Udmurt people and culture, and continue to do so. What allows me to do so is the knowledge that those people making this decision do not really represent the Udmurt people, certainly not the best of it. These are people who put their personal careers and economic stability before the future and good name of their people, and for that reason they do not deserve to be called neither leaders nor representatives of the people, but something else. Further-reaching conclusions from this are to be made only by Udmurt people themselves.
Oliver Loode, Member, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII)