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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Rich Russia Must Protect All People

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Estonian President Toomas Ilves should have known that his remarks that some Finno-Ugric people have yet to taste freedom would irk Russia, home to 2 million of its members.

"Many Finno-Ugric people have yet to make this choice," Toomas told a Finno-Ugric conference on Saturday. "Once you have tasted freedom, you will realize how much of it is sacrificed in the name of surviving or just getting by."

He also hinted that only the European Union could protect the rights of Russia's ethnic minorities. "The European Union umbrella has given the Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian languages new guarantees they have never before possessed in their history," he said. "We might thus ask: How can we put all Finno-Ugric languages under European Union protection to ensure their preservation and development?"

Russian policymakers quickly denounced the remarks as a veiled call for the secession of the Finno-Ugric population from Russia. Ilves later rejected such an interpretation as a product of a "hyperactive and distorted imagination."

Despite his assurances, the damage seems to have been done. Relations between the two countries -- already smarting from a confrontation over the relocation of a Soviet military monument in Tallinn and the treatment of ethnic Russians in Estonia -- appear likely to become even more strained.

While Ilves' comments are open for interpretation, his clear concern about the preservation of indigenous ethnic groups in northern Russia is well-grounded. One such endangered group lives in the Nenets autonomous district, a top producer of oil and gas. The district has a population of 7,000 indigenous Nenets, whose language is part of the same family as the Finno-Ugric languages. Most Nenets devote themselves to traditional occupations like reindeer herding and fishing, existing at barely subsistence levels as the district's economy booms on the back of sky-high oil prices. So while their right to study their own language and preserve traditions is more or less respected, their survival as an ethnic group could be in question.

If Russia indeed wishes to become a state where the rights of indigenous people are properly protected, it needs to change the way that wealth is distributed so that ethnic groups benefit more from the wealth of their native lands. One positive example that federal authorities could learn from is the Chukotka region, where billionaire Governor Roman Abramovich has invested heavily into sustainable economic projects. The Kremlin would also do well to narrow the expanding gap between the rich and poor. In addition, steps should be taken to fight racially motivated crimes, not only against dark-skinned foreigners but members of the country's own indigenous ethnic groups.

Only then will the Finno-Ugric population and other ethnic groups taste freedom.