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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Snubs Estonia at a Festival in Saransk

President Vladimir Putin will play host to the leaders of Finland and Hungary at a Finno-Ugric festival in Saransk on Thursday. But the leader of Estonia -- the only other Finno-Ugric country in the world -- has not been invited.

Putin will attend the 3 p.m. opening of the "Shumbrat, Finno-Ugria" festival with Finnish President Tarja Halonen and Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany in the city's sports arena and then walk with them along the Saranka River, diplomats said Tuesday. The foreign guests will leave Saransk, the capital of Mordovia, 630 kilometers east of Moscow, in the evening.

Various Finnic regions have held festivals over the years, but this is the first time that Putin will participate and host foreign leaders.

Putin extended an invitation to Halonen during a Russia-EU summit in Finland last fall, apparently in a gesture of gratitude for hosting the summit. A diplomatic source said Gyurcsany was invited later.

But the Estonian political leadership, which is embroiled in a bitter dispute with Moscow, has been sidelined. The Baltic nation's highest representative in Saransk will be the cultural attache of the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, diplomats said.

Estonian politicians said this was another attempt by the Kremlin to drive a wedge between EU member states. "It seems quite obvious that the people who wrote the invitations did not just forget Estonia but left it out on purpose," Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian parliament's EU committee, said by telephone from Tallinn.

Mihkelson said he welcomed Putin's interest in the Finno-Ugric people, but it was hard to overlook Estonia since Hungary, Finland and Estonia were the only three Finno-Ugric countries other than Russia.

"This is not just about a cultural festival," he said. "This is also about unity and solidarity within the European Union and how to deal with Russia in general."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was dismissive about the absence of Estonia's leader. "Finland and Hungary are the two countries that have showed a great interest in the life of the Finno-Ugric people in Russia and with whom we have an intensive dialogue," he said.

He also said the two countries had great economic potential.

Peskov would not elaborate on why Estonia was not invited.

Mihkelson earlier called on Halonen to decline the invitation.

Estonia angered Russia earlier this year by relocating a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn, and a war of words has followed. (Related story, Page 5.)

The three-day festival will be attended by more than 30 delegates, among them cultural representatives from Estonia, Finland and Hungary and Finnic-speaking regions like Karelia, Marii-El, Udmurtia and Komi, Regnum.ru reported.

No official program was available, and Peskov said merely that the leaders would discuss trade issues and EU relations. Embassy sources said that after the opening ceremony, Putin and his guests would visit specially constructed ethnic huts on the bank of the Saranka River and eat dinner at an authentic Finno-Ugric village.

Mordovia is home to two distinct Finnic tribes, the Moksha and Erzya. Although both speak considerably different dialects, they are often grouped together as Mordvins. Fewer than 300,000 people speak Moksha, and roughly 440,000 speak Erzya, according to the linguistic database Ethnologue.com.

Finnish and Hungarian both belong to the Finno-Ugric language group, which itself is a member of the Uralic language family.