SARANSK, Russia (AP) – President Vladimir Putin reached out to Russia’s multitude of ethnic groups as he hosted the leaders of Finland and Hungary on Thursday at an elaborate festival to celebrate Finno-Ugric culture.
But in an apparent snub over the relocation of a World War II memorial to Russian war dead, the leaders of Estonia _ the only other nation that uses a Finno-Ugric language _ were not invited.
«Every people, even the smallest ethnic group, mrust feel comfortable in Russia, they must feel that this is their home and that they have no other home and will have no other home,» Putin said after an opening ceremony that featured hundreds of swirling dancers in bright red, yellow and blue ethnic tunics. Putin was flanked at the ceremony by Finnish President Tarja Halonen and Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. «In Russia we always have and always will give the most serious attention to the development of national cultures,» he said.
Russia has seen a marked rise in xenophobia and racism in recent years, with frequent attacks on people from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as members of ethnic minorities within Russia, and Jews.
Saransk, 630 kilometers (nearly 400 miles) east of Moscow, is the capital of the Russian region of Mordovia, which is home to two Finnic tribes _ the Moksha and Erzya. There are 13 Finno-Ugric speaking ethnic groups in Russia, encompassing some 2.7 million people.
In the first event of its kind to see such high-level attendance, Putin held talks before the opening with Halonen and was slated to hold a three-way meeting with Gyurcsany later in the day.
«I suspect they didn’t just forget that Estonia is one of the three Finno-Ugric countries outside Russia. It seems that this is politically motivated and another step in the cooling of Russian-Estonian relations,» Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian parliament’s EU committee, told the Associated Press.
While he welcomed Putin’s attendance at the festival, Mihkelson said he was wary of the Kremlin’s motives for the meeting, and said that by excluding Estonia Russia appeared to be trying to complicate relations between the EU members.
«On many different occasions we see the approach of Russia to break the unity in the EU to find different issues that make it hard for EU countries to agree,» he said.
A spokesman for the Kremlin was not immediately available for comment.
Already tense relations between Russia and Estonia plummeted to a new low after the Estonian government removed a war grave and an adjacent Soviet monument from downtown Tallinn in April.
Moscow condemned the move, and members of the Baltic country’s Russian-speaking minority staged protests that degenerated into street riots that left one dead and more than 100 injured.
For Russians, the so-called Bronze Soldier monument and the war grave signified the enormous human sacrifice the Soviet Union made in defeating Nazi Germany. Ethnic Estonians, however, regard the monument as a symbol of five decades of Soviet occupation and totalitarian rule that ended with Estonian independence in 1991.
Russia has drawn fire in the past over its treatment of Finno-Ugric speaking minorities.
In May 2005 European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution proposed by Baltic, Hungarian and Finnish lawmakers that criticized the treatment of the Mari who live in the central Russian autonomous republic of Mari El.
The resolution deplored what it described as a lack of equal rights for Mari language and culture in the small territory west of the Ural Mountains, where Russians are the largest ethnic group.
The Russian Foreign Ministry retorted angrily, saying that the resolution was aimed at distracting attention from discrimination against the large ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia.