Finno-Ugric World Congresses: why they are useless and what to do about them?

Compared to many of you, I am relatively new to Finno-Ugric circles. My first contact with the “Finno-Ugric world” was in 2009 at the Finno-Ugric Socio-Economic Forum in Kudymkar (Perm Region). Since then, I have represented Estonia in the Youth Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples (MAFUN) (2011-13), initiated and coordinated the Finno-Ugric Capitals of Culture programme (2013-2015), and served as Board member of Estonia’s Fenno-Ugria NGO (2013-2015). As a direct result of my Finno-Ugric civic activism I was nominated by Estonia and elected by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as Member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) for the current term of 2014-2016. Overall, these 6 years of Finno-Ugric activism have been a truly eye-opening, positive and even life-changing experience.

However, all along there has been one constant source of disappointment – namely, the system of Finno-Ugric World Congresses by which I mean the actual Congresses in combination with the Consultative Committee of Finno-Ugric Peoples – a co-ordinating body for securing the implementation of decisions by the Congress. My general conclusion is that, at best, this system is useless for Finno-Ugric peoples. It may even be that on balance, the system of World Congresses is counterproductive for Finno-Ugric collaboration and civic movement. I will attempt to explain why this is the case and what can be done about it.

To analyse the impact of Finno-Ugric World Congresses, I will ask the following three questions:

1.                 How well is the system meeting its own stated objectives?

2.                 What additional benefits are associated with it?

3.                 What, if any, harm do World Congresses cause for Finno-Ugric peoples?

To the extent that World Congresses meet their own objectives, have notable side benefits and do not cause harm for Finno-Ugric peoples, they are entitled to exist. If, however, the opposite is true, the Finno-Ugric world may be better off without them or should, at a minimum, thoroughly reform this system.

Does the World Congress system meet its own objectives?  

Thankfully, the objectives and key principles of the World Congress are clearly stated in the document called: Regulations of the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples, updated on 5.9.2014.   (

“1. General provisions:  1.1.The World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples (hereinafter: the Congress) is a forum for the representatives of the Finno-Ugric and the Samoyed peoples,which does not depend on governments and political parties and which in its activities relies on the Declaration of the basic co-operation principles, goals and tasks of the Finno-Ugric Peoples of the world. (Syktyvkar, 1992). “

“Not depending on governments” is a false statement. The only way how World Congresses – as we know them – can be held, and activities of the Consultative Committee financed, is with the financial support from governments. Host governments provide principal financing for World Congresses while governments of Estonia, Finland and Hungary have been funding the work of the Consultative Committee (KKFUN). While this in itself does not mean that the discussions of World Congresses are somehow biased in favour of these states, it does mean that theexistence of World Congresses very much depends on governments.

More importantly, in particular in Russia authorities of all levels are influencing the composition of Russia’s Finno-Ugric peoples’ delegations, and this year particularly so, making the composition of delegates, and thereby also the content of the discussions dependent on governments.  More about that later.  Let’s now look at the formal aims of World Congresses.

“2. Aims of the Congress:

2.1. Furthering of co-operation between Finno-Ugric peoples, as well as between Finno-Ugric and other peoples in the field of culture, science, education, information, law, ecology, social and political matters and economy;

2.2. Assistance in the development of languages and cultures, as well as the ethnic identity of Finno-Ugric peoples;

2.3. Assistance in the implementation of international norms in the field of human rights, the rights of peoples to self-determination and the rights of indigenous peoples.”

On Aim 2.1: There is a good amount of collaboration in many of these fields, especially culture and science (including Finno-Ugric studies, ethnology, etc.), however almost all of it is unrelated to the World Congresses. To the extent such cooperation between Finno-Ugric peoples is happening, is despite, not due to World Congresses. In these past 6 years I have not heard of a single initiative of the World Congress or Consultative Committee that is “furthering co-operation between Finno-Ugric peoples” in these fields. However, I have seen examples when they fail to further such co-operation.  And I have seen first-hand how new initiatives take off, evolve and become sustainable without any connection to, and support from the World Congresses – whether this is Finno-Ugric Film Festival, Finno-Ugric Wikipedia seminars or Finno-Ugric Capitals of Culture.

Let me start with an example of the Finno-Ugric Capitals of Culture programme. At the last World Congress in Siofok I spoke on behalf of MAFUN about this programme, which was still in development phase,  during the Culture section, and managed to get this as a recommendation into the outcome document of Culture Section. MAFUN Board thought that this would be a basis for collaboration between MAFUN and KKFUN, in order to broaden support base for this programme. However at first KKFUN Coordinators did not find time in their busy schedule to discuss this. Later, after multiple efforts by MAFUN leaders, KKFUN formally endorsed the programme at their meeting and agreed on setting up a joint working group. But this is when it all broke down. After MAFUN sent to KKFUN a letter with concrete suggestions on how to work together, there was no response. Nor was there a response to the second and third repeat letters. So, eventually MAFUN gave up on coordinating its activities with KKFUN and did everything alone. Today, this is a sustainable Finno-Ugric intercultural programme that even the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Ms. Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has referred to as a good example of promoting cultural rights of world’s indigenous peoples. On the other hand, the time that myself and MAFUN spent on engaging KKFUN was simply wasted time. Nor has the fact that one of Congress section documents mentioned this initiative made any difference.

On Aims 2.2. and 2.3.: This is where I am at my most critical towards the World Congress system. In principle, both of them are important objectives. Any kind of moral, political and practical assistance by the international Finno-Ugric movement to specific Finno-Ugric peoples facing specific issues should be at the top of the Finno-Ugric movement’s agenda. This is what Finno-Ugric solidarity should be all about. However, this is the area where the World Congress system is failing most miserably.

It is obvious that “assistance” in this context cannot mean just activities conducted during the World Congresses, or Congress resolutions as formal outputs of World Congresses. Speeches, discussions and resolutions by themselves do not / cannot assist anybody. So the only assistance that the World Congress system in theory could provide is by actual advice, and consultations of KKFUN to individual Finno-Ugric peoples, their organizations and activists, in between World Congresses, however consistent with the decisions of World Congress resolutions. But even this is not happening. During these past years I have heard over and over about cases when those activists or organizations that are naïve enough to think that KKFUN can actually provide some support, have received no assistance.  They have either been left without answers to their letters (most typical scenario), or have been informally told that KKFUN cannot in reality influence anything, and that peoples must themselves resolve their issues. The fact that KKFUN operates based on a consensus is not helping it to perform this advisory/consultative role either.

Let me offer a few concrete examples how KKFUN has failed to assist Finno-Ugric peoples:

·                    Closing of Mari school in Vaskino. This was a school with an ethno-cultural component in the Vaskino village of Perm region which has an ethnic Mari population. After authorities decided to close down the school, residents of the village began an activism campaign: in media, with authorities, etc. They approached KKFUN several times with requests for a response, consultation, however KKFUN kept silent.

·                    Another example from Perm Region. One of the best-organized and most effective Finno-Ugric initiatives of past years were Finno-Ugric Socio-Economic Forums in Perm Region. While organizers were inviting members of KKFUN to participate as experts or just send official greetings, KKFUN never even replied. When local authorities effectively cancelled the 3rd Forum in 2011 by turning off heating from the only hotel in Kudymkar, organizers turned to KKFUN for support, but received no response.

·                    And a third example from Izhorians. In 2014, Izhorian and Votic communities began a campaign to protest against the planned construction of carbamide plant around the Ust Luga port and on their traditional lands. One of their first letters was addressed to KKFUN on January 20, 2014, on behalf of Izhorian organization “Shoikula” and Votic Cultural Society. They specifically requested co-operation and assistance. However, they never received an official reply to their letter, let alone assistance. One of the members of the Consultative Committee, Mr. Petr Tultaev, even managed to ridicule Izhorians and Votes by saying that he really does not understand their concerns, and that Mordovians, on the other hand, would be happy if such carbamide plant would be built on their lands. Anywhere else in the world this kind of attitude would be seen as outrageous if stated by a supposed advocate of indigenous peoples’ rights. In the “Finno-Ugric world” nobody even notices, let alone protests.

These are just a few examples but they are part of a general pattern of behaviour of KKFUN – which is to not provide assistance, not to provide support to those who request it. The cognitive dissonance between the stated aims of World Congresses and the reality is mind-boggling.

Also, I find it especially strange to read about World Congress’s commitment to the right of self-determination of peoples, in the light of the next topic, formation of delegations.

“3. Delegates, participants of the Congress

3.1. The delegates of the Congress are freely selected by the peoples, the mechanism for forming of a delegation is not regulated.

3.2. – /…/ The procedures for forming delegations must be transparent and take into consideration the legislation in force of the said country concerning NGOs /…/

On “freely selected by the peoples”.  What does “freely” mean here? To me, this means, free from interference by authorities (national, regional, local). But whoever has followed the events with past, and in particular this World Congress knows that this is simply not true, at least when it comes to Russia.

While in the past this interference has focused on shaping the composition of delegations, this year an additional dimension is their size. There has been a coordinated effort to reduce sizes of delegations to absolute minimum. Overall this strategy has worked:

·                    Udmurts: from allowed 20 to 5

·                    Maris: from allowed 20 to 7

·                    Mordovians: from allowed 20 to 6

·                    Karelians: from allowed 20 to 13

·                    Komi-Permyak: from allowed 20 to 1

Why am I so certain that this has been a coordinated governmental interference rather than free and voluntary decision of peoples (their representative bodies)? Key to understanding this is the self-adopted “new” role of the Association of Finno-Ugric Peoples of the Russian Federation (AFUN RF) in the planning of the current World Congress. Despite its recently obtained ECOSOC NGO status, AFUN RF does not represent the civil society, but is an instrument of the Russian government, in particular the Federal Agency of Ethnic Affairs.  Membership of AFUN RF has no democratic mandate of the people. Most importantly, AFUN RF has no formal role in the World Congress / Consultative Committee processes according to their documentation.  However, seemingly out of nowhere AFUN RF emerged in 2015 with requests to Russia’s Finno-Ugric peoples’ organizations to avoid direct contact with the Consultative Committee concerning World Congress preparations, and to work only through AFUN RF. At the same time, AFUN RF began making its own requests to the Consultative Committee to shape the agenda of the World Congress by adding topics like “fighting the growing threat of Fascism in some Finno-Ugric countries”. There is written evidence of all of this.

Does anybody really think that ideas like this come from Finno-Ugric peoples themselves, at their own initiative? Nothing but instructions from authorities can explain this kind of behaviour of sidelining individual Finno-Ugric peoples from a process that they are entitled to participate in. Another example of AFUN RF’s aggressive behaviour and meddling in the process is the fact that, for instance, Udmurtian delegation somehow had to be formed from among representatives of AFUN RF, a very strange requirement indeed.  As a result, AFUN RF has effectively usurped the planning of this year’s congress in several if not most of Russia’s Finno-Ugric regions and by doing so, ensured significant government control over the composition of delegations. The result of this is a Congress with neutralized delegations of several Russia’s Finno-Ugric peoples that are composed of delegates who will not publicly express a single critical thought, and maybe no thought at all, at this Congress.

Precise extent of this interference is difficult to measure but personally am convinced that, at the very least delegations of Udmurts, Mordovian peoples, Karelians, Maris and Komi-Permyaks – both in terms of the size and composition – were carefully orchestrated by authorities. These are some of the largest Russia’s Finno Ugric peoples.  The only possible exception to this pattern is Komi delegation which at least was not significantly reduced in size.

Therefore, the notion of delegations being “freely selected by peoples” is absurd, almost an antithesis of the reality. Yet all these delegations are warmly welcomed here in Lahti at Sibelius-Talo, being treated as legitimate representatives of their peoples. They eat, drink and enjoy great cultural programme designed by hosts at the expense of the State of Finland. At the same time many of the best and most effective Finno-Ugric activists, some of whom I have the privilege to know, never had a chance to become members of their peoples’ delegations. My Finno-Ugric solidarity is with them and this is why I am not attending this 7th World Congress.

Based on this one has to ask to what extent the World Congress and Consultative Committee really respects the principle of self-determination of peoples, as stated in Goals 2.3, as there is nothing self-determined in the formation of these delegations.

On 3.2. Nor is the formation of delegations transparent, and this is not just a Russian problem. This has also been an issue in Hungary where some of the most effective Finno-Ugric activists did not receive clear answers why they could not join their people’s delegations and as a result stayed at home.

To conclude on this question, World Congress system is failing in both its general provisions, aims (all 3 of them) as well as in the formation of delegations. It is not meeting its own objectives.

Side benefits of the World Congress?

The next question is whether there are some additional benefits to the World Congress system that make it worthwhile to maintain.

Socializing / Networking  – This is probably the main practical benefit of World Congresses. But can an event be justified by this alone? Not convinced, as there are also many other venues for networking, even though perhaps not so many financed by the state.

Symbolism – The argument goes that symbolically, World Congress is an important event, a show of solidarity/unity of Finno Ugric peoples and world. This symbolism is strengthened by the participation of heads of state, ministers, MPs.  However, symbols are valuable if they adequately represent an underlying “true” state.  In our case, World Congresses are more like misrepresenting the reality. They create an illusion of unity/solidarity when in fact delegates are deeply divided in terms of values and ideologies. For example, I am not certain that delegates would agree even on the fundamental notion of self-determination of Finno-Ugric peoples (as stated in objectives 2.3 of the Regulations document), equality of Finno-Ugric peoples between each other and to all peoples of the world, and that peoples should not take orders from governments. However, without such shared value system there is little that can be achieved with such congresses. A symbol of an illusion is not worth giving.

Tradition –   there is an argument that this is an important tradition, going back even before World War 2 (Finno Ugric cultural congresses) but is this a tradition worth preserving and is it worthwhile taxpayer money spent on it? Because let s not forget that as a purely civic, self-funded initiative this would not be viable.

Are World Congresses harmful for Finno-Ugric peoples?

Final test: EVEN if the World Congress does not really meet its objectives, and EVEN if there is little value added / spillover effects, is there anything harmful/negative/problematic about World Congresses (for Finno-Ugric peoples)? Because if not, then why not keep it going on an auto-pilot, after all they not THAT expensive to maintain?

On the surface the answer would be “no”. It appears as a rather harmless system. No lives lost, no physical suffering caused. But if one digs deeper, several negative “undercurrents” can be identified.

·                    SENSE OF INJUSTICE. Interference of authorities creates a sense of injustice among legitimate activists who deserve to, would like to but are unable to represent their people. Lots of discontent out there, however often hidden, because affected people are afraid to speak out publicly.

·                    UNDEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE. Democracy is not only rule of the majority. This also includes certain practices that are accepted as democratic, one such being term limits. However, Chair of KKFUN Mr. Valery Markov is currently completing his 6thterm. This could qualify as democracy in Zimbabwe but not in the Finno-Ugric world.

·                    EROSION OF DIGNITY. Government control of the formation of peoples’ delegations is a violation of the fundamental right to self-determination of these peoples, to the extent that they indeed identify as distinct peoples. World Congresses are a reminder that they are not subjects with collective rights, but instead objects and instruments of government policies.

Based on above, I conclude that the system of World Congresses is seriously broken. This leads to the next question: can it still be repaired or is it beyond rescue? An objective answer to this may not be possible, but my personal view today is that the World Congress system is beyond repair. The reason being that some of the most fundamental elements of this system are simply not realistic to attain. This includes:

·                    The claim of representativeness of Finno-Ugric peoples at World Congresses – not feasible because of government interference and additional socio-economic factors.

·                    Consultative Committee as a reactionary, inwardly-oriented body that has not been able to mobilize itself to solve specific problems of specific Finno Ugric peoples

·                    Marginalization of the World Congress from real and positive developments and initiatives of the Finno-Ugric world has gone too far.

As a result, in my view World Congresses as we know them should be stopped or at least suspended for some time. There is no need to hold an 8th World Congress of Finno-Ugric peoples in Tartu, or anywhere else. But what could take their place? What would a constructive alternative?

I see more potential in an open Finno-Ugric forum of concerned individuals – representing themselves and perhaps their organizations. This would allow to get rid of the false claim of representativeness associated with the World Congresses. Such forums would have no lofty goals, no pathos, no presidents or ministers, no quotas for participants. These could be just venues to share, discuss, debate, but also to celebrate the diverse Finno-Ugric cultures and the great humanistic idea of Finno-Ugric identity and solidarity. These forums should aim to become self-financing, however financial support from host states, regions or cities would be welcome.  Such forums would not adopt any formal resolutions that are anyway not followed through / implemented. Instead of every 4 years, they could take place annually, thus creating even stronger bonds between participants, and reacting to current events on both local and global levels.

Thank you!

Statement at the Open Finno-Ugric Congress (16.6.2016, Lahti)

Oliver Loode, Uralic Times