Freedom of expression and the rights of peoples are violated in Russia's national autonomous regions

Posted in Russia | 11-May-05

The flag of the Udmurt Republic.

In national autonomous regions of Russia, of the right of the individual to free expression of opinion and to receiving information, and the rights of indigenous peoples of these regions are grossly violated.

Against the background of general deterioration in the area of democracy in the Russian Federation, more and more concern has been recently caused by the situation of the fourth estate, the mass media. The Russian authority systematically imposes its control on the information resources and actively interferes in the mechanisms of opinion-shaping in the civil society.

The assignment of Modest Kolerov, formerly chief editor of the information agency “Regnum”, as head of the Department of Foreign Interregional and Cultural Contacts at the Office of President of the Russian Federation means strengthening the propaganda front to keep up the old Soviet practice of creating the image of an external enemy in the public opinion all over the country. Paradoxically, the stuff produced by that agency has been focused on accusing other post-Soviet states in precisely the breach of freedom of expression – as, for example, the Baltic countries concerning the “ethnic issue”.

In its external information policy Kremlin has to count with equally strong rivals, which compels it to respect at least the limits of internationally recognised legal arguments and the etiquette of international policy. In their internal policy, using the shield of sovereignty, the Russia’s authorities are much less scrupulous in the choice of levers to apply pressure on the society. This arsenal includes various mechanisms from the once again applied practice of armed “cleansing” to the good old Soviet practice of “telephone law”.

In the course of time more coarse methods have been used. While in the times of perestroika any public initiative that needed the State’s support might be rejected for the reason of the economic crisis and the shortage of resources, the present economic situation in Russia is more favorable, partly because of rising oil prices. However, if the situation does not still permit to close an opposition newspaper by an administrative decision, it can be strangled by bureaucratic and economic methods.

Restrictive methods are practiced by both federal and regional authorities. Oppression in the regions is tacitly approved and, moreover, encouraged by central institutions. The situation at the level of units of the Federation has its peculiarities. The democratic opposition has so far evaded the pressure of local authorities by printing its publications outside their administrative areas. Now, however, authorities of neighbouring regions have established a sort of mutual co-operation: they forbid printing opposition publications of their neighbours. The announced scheme of integration of administrative units would kill the last chance to express dissenting opinion.

These mechanisms of pressure can be demonstrated by considering the cases of regions that commonly pass the attention of general public. Of late, the situation in the Mari and Udmurt republics has nevertheless gained international publicity because of the restrictions on the freedom of expression and other rights and freedoms. It is particularly interesting to analyse the situation in these regions, since these are ethnic republics. In either case, the titular nationality that gives the republic its name is now an ethnic minority. Also, as noted by Valery Tishkov, Director of the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute of the Acad. Sci. of Russia, representatives of the titular nationality are by no means in power. They are underrepresented politically, including in the government institutions.

For example, there are only six Udmurts among the hundred deputies of the local National Assembly of Udmurtia, whereas the share of Udmurts and Bessermens in the population is 30 per cent. In the local government of Mari El, only two Maris have remained, although the Maris make up 43 per cent among the population of the republic. At the tacit approval by federal authorities, above all by Sergey Kiriyenko as Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of the Russian Federation in the Volga Federal District, the policy of oppression of the local nationality is continued by President of the Republic of Mari El Leonid Markelov, including large-scale removal of the Maris from leading positions. Undesirable persons are purged not only from the government but from regional and local administrations as well.

Thus by harassing the opposition mass media the authorities violate the rights of ethnic minorities, since the last alternative representation channel available for indigenous peoples is blocked.

The Republic of Mari El

There is practically no freedom of expression in the Republic of Mari El. The principal source of information is the State-owned media that is completely controlled by the administration of President Mari El Leonid Markelov who, as a token of his achievements, was recently awarded with an order by President of Russia. At a meeting with representatives of Mari media on 22 February 2002, Markelov said: “How can I allow the public-owned publishing houses to issue anti-presidential newspapers?”.

Officials at the Administration of President and the Office of Public Prosecutor of the Republic of Mari El use the so-called “telephone law” to see that critical publications are removed, and threaten the mass media with closing down or stripping of subsidies on which practically all mass media in the republic more or less depend.

During the last five years, non-governmental publications were exorcised from public-owned printing houses by various means. For example, the publishing house Periodika Mari El quadrupled its tariffs for private mass media against those for public-owned media. Furthermore, these publications became indebted to the printing house because of not being timely informed about the increase in prices. It is noteworthy that publishing houses often censored non-governmental publications. According to Mr. Aleksandr Solovyev, former director of the printing house of Mari Polygraphic Publishing Enterprise who was recently dismissed, ready newspaper pages were removed after telephone calls from the administration of the President Mari El.

Most of non-governmental publications in Mari El cannot be printed in the republic; although the printing houses formally respond by saying they have no capacities, the actual reason is the unwritten veto imposed by the authorities.

In the past, opposition newspapers were printed in neighbouring regions, mainly in the city of Yaransk (the Kirov district). However, after the appointment of Mr. Valery Komissarov as head of the Committee on Information Policy of the State Duma, printing houses in neighbouring regions have begun refraining from rendering service to independent newspapers of Mari El. A representative of the Republic of Mari El in the State Duma, Komissarov was elected at the personal support of Markelov with the strong use of local administrative resources.

For example, this year the opposition newspaper Dobrye Sosedi (“Good Neighbours”) has managed to print three issues only. The last number was dated 22 April. It is worth to note that this time the editor refrained from indicating the printing house in the publisher’s imprint, afraid of losing his last opportunity to publish the newspaper.

Censorship of the mass media reduces the circulation of local newspapers of Mari El. The circulation of Mari El, the largest newspaper in Mari language, has plummeted from 11 thousand in 2000 has dropped to 6,5 thousand in 2005. Even the news report about the assault and battery of Chairman of the All-Mari Council Vladimir Kozlov in the beginning of February 2005 was not published by this newspaper at a telephone command from the authorities. The report was perfectly neutral, without any hint at the probable connection of the attack to Kozlov’s professional activities. Incidentally, the Chairman of All-Mari Council is elected by the Mari People’s Congress and the Mari El introduces itself as “the newspaper of the Mari people”.

The Udmurt Republic

The situation with freedom of expression is not better in another Finno-Ugric republic, Udmurtia. One of the few opposition newspapers, Argumenty I Fakty v Udmurtii, was closed down last summer. It was punished for having taken the liberty of publishing, in pursuit of sensation, some materials criticising the authorities.

The next wave of persecution against the only remaining opposition newspaper and information agency Den (“The Day”) has now began in Udmurtia, according to Novaya Gazeta (11 April 2005). All other periodicals are already under the control of the republic’s authorities.

Earlier, the Izhevsk Polygraphic Enterprise refused to print the Day in the Udmurt capital Izhevsk. For that reason, it was printed in neighbouring areas during the previous election campaign: first in Kirov and, for the last three months, in Perm. For a while, the editorial office had even gone underground: formally, an office was rented but the editorial work was carried out in a rented private two-room apartment.

The last attack of the authorities on the Day was caused by its coverage of mass rallies against the “monetization of benefits” similar to rallies that took place in other cities all over Russia. People at the meetings demanded also the retirement of Aleksandr Volkov from the office of President of Udmurtia.

As a result, the company Informpechat, a retail distributor of press, refused to sell the Den through its point-of-sale network (according to the Novaya Gazeta). The same days, windows of the editorial office were twice smashed with bricks by unknown persons, and then the cable was cut off in the house lobby, which prevented the newspaper from covering at its website a five-thousand strong protest rally in Izhevsk.

The harassment continued with Chairman of the Government of Udmurtia Yuri Pitkevich personally calling important advertisers and partners of the newspaper, including those outside the republic, forbidding them to advertise in the Den, according to Novaya Gazeta. He probably did not have an idea of possible consequences of his telephone campaign.

In connection with these calls, Chief Editor of the Day Mr. Sergey Shchukin lodged a complaint to the Office of Public Prosecutor, demanding a criminal investigation in making obstacles to legal professional journalist activities. It is doubtful, however, that this case, as many other similar ones, would ever reach a fair solution in the court.

The most recent infringement on the freedom of expression in Udmurtia was a pogrom in the editorial office of another opposition newspaper, Liberalnaya Udmurtia, committed on 4 May. Practically all technical equipment of the newspaper has been destroyed. As in other similar cases, the criminals remain unknown. The objective, once again, was not the theft of property but its destruction. As a result, the newspaper will probably have to suspend its activity for a long time. The most probable reason of this action was the active coverage by the Liberalnaya Udmurtia of protest rallies against the monetization of benefits.

Breach of the rights of ethnic minorities

International instruments on human rights that the Russian Federation has accessed oblige it to ensure, inter alia, the freedom of expression and the rights of persons belonging to ethnic minorities. How is it possible that, while violations occur systematically, none of the cases has been brought to an international court?

A plaintiff frequently wins the process already in a lower court, but then the authorities apply bureaucratic and economic pressure and newspapers have to close down. As a result, such cases do not reach the international institutions. This was the State machinery has successfully blocked legal proceedings by illegal methods.

As mentioned above, persecution of the press by the authorities results also in the violation of the right of persons belonging to ethnic minorities to use their language in the mass media and to acquire information in their language. These violations, however, are not limited to the information sphere. The same situation is in other spheres of public life as well.

As for broadcasting in the languages of nationalities, the reorganisation of the national public broadcasting company “Gosteleradiokompaniya Rossii” has considerably aggravated the situation. Television and radio broadcasting in the Mari language was sharply diminished this year. The weekly TV transmission in Mari was limited to just three hours, while on the local radio only two hours out of the total 11 have been left weekly for broadcasting in Mari.

As regards school education for nationalities, an irreparable blow was done to the Kuzebay Gerd Udmurt National Gymnasium. Despite picketing and hunger-strikes, the school was essentially closed and its children transferred partly to other schools and partly to a kindergarten. One of those schools, located in the outskirts of town, was formally named the Gymnasium. However, the schoolchildren transferred to it are just a small part of those of the former National Gymnasium. The accumulated experience of the nationality school has thus been hopelessly lost.

In the Republic of Mari El, the only musical college that bears the name of the first Mari professional composer of Ivan Palantai and is a symbol of Mari culture, is now at the stage of liquidation. As a result, the Mari culture may remain without professional composers and musicians, because the central part will be lost in the education chain of professional musicians: musical school – musical college – conservatoire. The college will be incorporated into the local College of Culture whose status and professional level is inferior.

The Mari Public Pedagogical Institute, an educational establishment that trains the staff for national schools, including teachers of the Mari language and literature, and develops the technique of instruction and the approach to ethnopedagogics, will be incorporated now into a standard provincial university of academic kind. This reorganisation betrays the intention of the authorities to keep up the policy of curbing the teaching of Mari language and literature in the schools of Mari El.

The apparent reasons for closing down these educational establishments are to deliver another blow to the system of national education under the pretence of reorganisation, and to punish two overly independent managers of Mari origin, Mrs. Raisa Yashmetova and Mr. Valerian Yegorov, who are heads of respectively the Ivan Palantai Musical College and the Pedagogical Institute. Yegorov has probably displeased the authorities by supporting the opposition candidate Mikhail Dolgov, also a Mari, at the last local presidential elections.

Around regards theatre are of nationalities, in Mari El people still remember how, through a similar “reorganisation” of the Shketan Mari National Theatre and even formal liquidation of all Mari theatres in 2001, the authorities managed to get rid of two other inconvenient Maris: theatre manager Viktor Nikolayev and art director Vasily Pekteyev. In Udmurtia, instead of implementing the promise made during the election campaign to construct a new house for the Udmurt National Theatre huddling for over a year in an annex, the Presidential Palace, a circus and a zoo are being constructed. The local press has commented the situation in the following way: “Here we live without a theatre in the ‘zoo of nations’”.


The information policy of the State as pursued by the federal as well as local administrations of the Russian Federation cannot by considered just an accidental result of imperfection of the system. This is a deliberate complex activity coordinated with policy in other spheres, above all with the nationalities policy. The resulting vector of efforts is directed at restoration of a centralised system controlled from its top. The methods chosen for this purpose are, akin to the Soviet regime, the restriction of democracy and, considering the continual breach of linguistic and cultural rights, the “integration” of a multiethnic country by way of assimilation of its peoples.

By pursuing this policy the Russian authorities are limiting the right of non-Russian peoples of the Russian Federation to free pursuit of their economic, social and cultural development. Such policy is a violation of the Articles 1, 19 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Articles 1 and 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Article 2 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Estonian Institute for Human Rights
Tallinn, Estonia
May 2005