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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Wants Minorities to Feel at Home

APHalonen, left, Putin and Gyurcsany enjoying the show Thursday at the international Finno-Ugric festival in Saransk.
SARANSK, Mordovia -- President Vladimir Putin called for ethnic tolerance as he hosted the leaders of Finland and Hungary at an elaborate festival to celebrate Finno-Ugric culture on Thursday.

"Every people, even the smallest ethnic group, must 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.

It has also drawn fire in the past over its treatment of Finno-Ugric speaking minorities.

In May 2005, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution proposed by Baltic, Hungarian and Finnish lawmakers that criticized an purported lack of equal rights for the language and culture of the Mari people, who live in a small territory west of the Ural Mountains where Russians are the largest ethnic group.

Russian leaders retorted that the resolution was aimed at distracting attention from discrimination against the large ethnic Russian minorities in Latvia and Estonia.

Saransk, 630 kilometers east of Moscow, is the capital 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.

The leaders of Estonia -- the only other nation that uses a Finno-Ugric language -- were not invited to Thursday's festival, in an apparent snub over their relocation of a World War II memorial to Soviet war dead.

"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," said Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian parliament's EU committee.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated comments made earlier this week that Russia had a long history of cooperation with Hungary and Finland on Finno-Ugric matters. "The president of the Russian Federation sent invitations to Finland and Hungary, with whom we have a long-standing dialogue on questions of the Finno-Ugric peoples. ... It all depends on the level of the dialogue."