President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s greetings to the World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples in Siófok on 5 September 2012

(check against delivery)

I would like to thank the Hungarian hosts of the 6th World Congress for their kind invitation to participate in this World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples. This is a great honour for me and, as President of the Republic of Finland, my first opportunity to participate in a world conference at which all of the Finno-Ugric peoples are represented. My greetings to all of you – both actual representatives of the various peoples and observers of the congress – present here in Siófok, on the shores of Lake Balaton.

On this occasion, the theme chosen for the congress is “The Language and the People”. Such a topic is of major significance to every people. One’s own language and cultural identity are an integral part of oneself. With the help of and through these, we create and see ourselves, including in relation to others. Kindred languages create a special kind of connection and ties to other Finno-Ugric peoples. We need such connections in order to better understand the world and our own place within it.

As citizens of modern Europe we, like any other people in the world, have to work hard to understand the constant change taking place around us. In many cases, adapting to and managing such change present even more of a challenge. Change is not about economics and politics alone; it also concerns and shapes our cultural identity and languages. What will become of the people speaking these and other languages in the midst of change? People are so highly mobile today that, on a daily basis, we come face to face with the question ‘who are we anyway’.

Language has traditionally been the key attribute of a nation, but such a view has always been a simplification. Even Finland, which is linguistically and culturally a relatively homogenous country, is a bilingual nation. Swedish is our second national language. Within the Finno-Ugric linguistic community, there is nothing strange in this. For several peoples, linguistic and social networks have turned from monolingual to bi- or multilingual communities. Questions relating to the coexistence of several languages and cultures are visibly highlighted in the European debate.

As speakers of Finno-Ugric languages, we are more than 23 million in number. Combined, this is a respectably large number of people. However, on a global scale we are small in number, even if many of the languages belonging to our language group are relatively strong. Every language and culture – both large and small – has its own, valuable story to tell. It is important to keep these stories alive, while allowing them to gather new content and meanings as part of future development. At the same time, languages and cultures are more than the private property of their peoples, but form part of humankind’s shared cultural arsenal.

Each state and people bears the main responsibility for its language and culture, as well as the work done to maintain them. Finland therefore has a special duty to cherish and foster the Finnish language and culture, which naturally includes the heritage of Swedish-speaking Finns.

In Finland, such work also concerns the Sámi people, the only indigenous people living within the European Union area. Being part of the Sámi people is not limited by national boundaries. There are Sámi living in Finland, Sweden and Norway, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The Constitution of Finland states that, as an indigenous people, the Sámi have the right to maintain and develop their own language and culture and to use Sámi with the authorities. As well as providing support for the Sámi culture, we have also developed the related preschool and school education. In addition, Finland is in the process of preparing a special revival programme for the Sámi language. However, state measures alone are not enough. Active operators and communities are needed to turn such programmes into reality.

We must take special care of young people. They represent the future – without them there is no future in the first place. The young in particular are perhaps most deeply involved in our rapidly internationalising world. They need the kind of knowledge and competencies that will help them to manage and take advantage of this change and the lowering of frontiers. At the same time, they need building blocks for their own cultural identity. These building blocks lay spiritual foundations and provide the capability for long-term adaptation to the surrounding world. Account should always be taken of the perspective of the young. This is the only way to ensure continuity in our work.

Co-operation between the Finno-Ugric peoples in its present form dates back 20 years. It has reached the age of majority. This co-operation has meant a living connection with other kindred nations and their realities. We have all gained new experiences over the years. Hopefully, we have also grown into taking a broader, more mature view of issues. Co-operation has thus also created opportunities to turn towards the future.

In the future, Finland will remain engaged in the closest possible cultural co-operation with Finno-Ugric peoples, including those living in Estonia, Hungary and Russia. Our aim is to enhance linguistic heritages and cultural dialogue between all nations. This cultural link is an important component among Finland’s international ties. As in other connections, our starting point is respectful co-operation and reciprocal learning from one another. Naturally, when operating beyond Finland’s borders, we abide by the laws and regulations of the country in question.

Finno-Ugric co-operation between states is valuable and important. However, by itself it is not enough. It does not necessarily reach deeply into the everyday lives of Finno-Ugric peoples. It is therefore desirable that each state provide support for the NGOs that form an integral part of this co-operation. Also important is to have an open and democratic operational environment, which will further the work to maintain different languages and cultures.

If so decided by this congress, the next world congress will be held in June 2016 in Finland. We will certainly do our best to ensure that the event is organised in a manner that befits it. The consultative committee responsible for arranging these world congresses has been headquartered in Finland, as part of the Finnish-Russian Society. Finland is still available for this task. Finnish NGOs participating in the arrangement of the world congress also bear special responsibility for launching the preparations on time, and in accordance with the endeavours of all participating states and peoples.

Both the world congress and the consultative committee have done valuable work. In order to keep sight of the ambitious goals of our joint efforts, we can start from the assumption that the work of both could be further intensified. For its own part, the draft resolution of the world conference now beginning has the same objective. This resolution will be introduced for consideration by, and the approval of, all of the participating peoples.

I wish all those present fascinating and fruitful congress days in the beautiful resort town of Siófok and its scenic environs!