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Window on Eurasia: Russian Nationalist Skinheads Attack Mari Cultural Figures

Less than a month after the European Parliament condemned the Mari El authorities for human rights abuses, a group of 30 Russian skinheads shouted racist epithets at and then beat up 15 leading Mari cultural figures Friday night in that Middle Volga republic’s capital city of Yoshkar-Ola (, May 29-30).

Mari opposition groups say that several of the skinheads involved had told them that Mari El officials had asked the notorious Russian National Unity (RNE) organization to carry out the attacks and promised them both immunity and rewards for doing so (Press release from the Information Center of Finno-Ugric Peoples, May 31).

According to the Mari opposition, the skinheads — who number some 2,000 in Yoshkar-Ola alone according to “Izvestiyia Mari El” in its May 20-26 issue, added Margelov’s right-hand man, Andrei Tsaregorodtsev, had promised to give the RNE a plot of land on which the group could organize a base for its future activities.

But republic President Leonid Margelov has denied that he or his government had had anything to do with the attacks and promised a thorough investigation to identify the “persons unknown” who had beaten the Mari figures, some of whom his office said were government employees ( .

Margelov’s denial, however, is not entirely credible. On the one hand, he has repeatedly denied any responsibility for similar attacks in the past but failed to bring their perpetrators to justice, and he has long had close ties to Russian nationalist extremists, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party.

And on the other, Margelov has routinely attacked the Mari opposition in terms that recall those used against dissidents in Soviet times. Less than 72 hours after the latest beatings, Margelov arranged a declaration by local officials against them and their foreign supporters (

That hastily prepared declaration, passed not by the parliament as a whole but signed only by four of the five faction heads within it, went significantly beyond what the Russian Foreign Ministry had said on May 20.  At that time, the Russian MFA simply suggested that the European Parliament’s action was based on misinformation.

Yesterday’s declaration by the Mari El parliament leaders, however, condemned that international action in the broadest possible terms, arguing that it represented  “a crude interference in the economic, social-political and cultural life” of the Republic of Mari El.

It said that such criticism of the Mari El government reflected the joint efforts of a small group of Maris without support at home who are prepared to cooperate with those “international forces” who seek to spark ethnic tensions there to distract attention from “the violation of the rights of Russian speakers in the Baltic countries.” 

And it concluded with a ringing assertion that both the actions of the Mari opposition and those of its international supporters in the European Parliament or elsewhere “are condemned to fail regardless of their source.”

Given the international attention that the European Parliament’s action of May 12 attracted to the situation in Mari El, this latest round of beatings and statements almost certainly raises the stakes for all involved — the Mari opposition, Margelov himself, and the international community as well. 

For the opposition, this latest round of beatings and the parliamentary declaration are clear signals that Margelov has no plans to back off from his approach and that if anything he plans to increase the level of repression that he has visited upo