Opening speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the 7th World Congress of the Finno-Ugric Peoples in Lahti on 15 June 2016

I have the great pleasure and honour to be the patron of the 7th World Congress of the Finno-Ugric Peoples. I welcome warmly my esteemed colleagues from Estonia and Hungary, esteemed ministers from Russia and Estonia, other guests of honour and especially the actual representatives and observers of Finno-Ugric and Samoyed peoples. I am also privileged to take part – already for the second time as Finnish President – in this World Congress, which brings together representatives of our kindred nations from around the world. 

The Lahti Sibelius Hall and the summer at its most beautiful here next to Lake Vesijärvi provide an excellent setting for the Congress, aptly titled “The Finno-Ugric peoples – towards sustainable development”. The Congress offers an excellent opportunity to view the peoples’ current situation not only in terms of language, development of information environment, economy and the natural environment but also from the viewpoint of civic society and migration.

We have here at this Congress not only numerous civic organisations from Finland, Estonia, Hungary and Russia that represent Finno-Ugric and Samoyed peoples but also civic organisations from language groups that are small or threatened in other countries, such as the Livonians and the Kven. It is delightful to meet representatives of our kindred nations from Central and Northern Europe, from the shores of the Baltic Sea and also from Russia all the way from its northernmost regions.

Finno-Ugric people are living in a world in which the big dominant languages control the international media environment, making it difficult for small languages and cultures to survive. There are a total of over 23 million speakers of Finno-Ugric languages, which is quite a large number in fact. Some of the languages in our language group are relatively strong, while many of the smaller ones are threatened or even close to extinction. Therefore the major challenges to cooperation in this Congress are related to how we can preserve and revive small languages and address issues concerning the rights of native peoples and minorities.

Each Finno-Ugric people and the position of its language is special and the result of historical development. Languages change all the time along with the communities that speak them. Interaction and the learning of new things and renewal are signs of a dynamic language. Education is a key way of preserving and developing the culture of native peoples and minorities. However, measures taken by the Government alone are not enough to support the languages of native peoples and minorities – other active parties are also needed. The Karelian language is one that needs such assistance. Spoken actively only by about 5,000 people in Finland, it is nevertheless understood by a much higher number of people. The number of speakers is much higher in the Republic of Karelia and in the Tver Oblast. 

Finland will be celebrating her 100th anniversary next year. But our story as a nation and culture goes well beyond our century of independence. In order to understand our own past, we have always taken a keen interest in our kindred nations. Researchers have played an important role in this. This Congress we are attending today would not be taking place without the numerous linguists, archaeologists, ethnologists, geographers and other researchers who have created a solid foundation for our comprehensive cooperation.

Helsinki University’s first Finnish language Professor M. A. Castrén did some pioneering work in the study of Finno-Ugric and Samoyed, or Uralic languages, and ethnology. He worked together with Elias Lönnrot – father of Finnish written language and compiler of our national Epic Kalevala – by going on a research trip with him in 1842 to Lapland and Northwestern and Northern Russia, studying the language and habits of our tribal relatives. Castrén’s research has been continued by many language and culture researchers in Finland, Russia, Estonia and Hungary. I am please that research in this field is still continuing in the universities and research institutions of our countries.

We engage in Finno-Ugric cooperation aware of the past but working for the future. The world is changing at a fast pace around us. We can feel its effects on the economy and safety both as individuals and as nations. In the light of the recent wave of migration largely created by international crises, maybe it is easier for us to understand that migration occurred in the past, too, gradually taking the Finno-Ugric nations and languages to where they are today. Changes in the global economy, crises and conflicts create a new reality also to language minorities. The objective cannot be to stop change but rather to succeed in changing circumstances.

The young are the future. This is of course also true when building a Finno-Ugric future. In a world that is more and more networked, retaining an identity based on the culture and language of a minority is much more challenging than it used to be. But only through the enthusiasm, fresh ideas and new practices brought about by the young can the current form of cooperation that has been going on among Finno-Ugric peoples for almost a quarter of a century continue to thrive and develop. I would at this point like to stress the nature of the World Congress of the Finno-Ugric Peoples as cooperation between civic organisations supported by the participating countries. The free operation of people and their organisations and opportunity for cooperation are a strong force that can create something new.

The next World Congress will be organised, according to the agreed system of rotation, in Estonia. The consultative committee responsible for arranging these world congresses has been headquartered in Finland, as part of the Finnish-Russian Society. I would like to express my warmest thanks to the consultative committee for organising this Congress and for their persistent and successful work to retain the World Congress process lively and dynamic. I would also like to thank the numerous civic organisations and volunteers who have helped with the arrangements.

Dear Friends and Relatives,

I hereby open this Congress and wish all those present fascinating and fruitful congress days in sunny Lahti and its scenic environs!

Thank you!