- An ethnic republic of the Russian Federation. Incorporated into Russia in the 16th century, the Finnic Mari people often resisted attempts at Russification, maintaining a separate ethnic and religious identity. The Soviets established the Mari Autonomous Oblast in 1920; it became an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936. The republic declared its sovereignty in 1990 and elected a president in December 1991. The republican constitution was adopted in 1995; the Mari word for “land” was added to the name, creating the current Republic of Mari El. A power-sharing agreement with Moscow was agreed in 1998.Located in the Volga region, the Mari El Republic is bordered by Nizhny Novgorod, Kirov, Tatarstan, and Chuvashiya. Mari El is part of the Volga Federal District and the Volga-Vyatka Economic Region. The land area of the republic is 23,200 square kilometers. The regional geography is mostly defined by plains rising to the Vyatka Hills in the northeast, with numerous plunge basins and other types of lakes. The region has a fairly well-developed tourism infrastructure based on trains and share cabs (marshrutki); holy sites of the Mari traditional religion are major destinations for tourists. The capital of Mari El is Yoshkar-Ola (Red City); the city was closed to foreigners during the Soviet era due to its proximity to a rocket factory. Other major towns include Sovetsky, Volzhsk, and Kozmodemyansk.The republic has a population of 728,000. Mari—the titular nationality— account for 43 percent of the population, while ethnic Russians form a plurality (47.5 percent); other minorities include Tatars, Chuvash, and Udmurts. The Hill and Mountain variants of Mari are official languages alongside Russian; furthermore, the laws of the republic require protection of the language, culture, and national identity of the Mari people. Mari El recognizes both Russian Orthodoxy and paganism as major religions in the republic. With virtually no mineral resources, the economy is dependent on forestry, animal husbandry, agriculture, and industry (machine construction, metalworking, food processing).The republic has developed commercial relations with the FinnoUgric states of Finland, Estonia, and Hungary, as well as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and other European states. In a 1991 referendum, a majority of the republic’s residents voted against the introduction of private property; as such, it is not surprising that the Communists dominated the first State Assembly (parliamentary) elections in 1993. The first president of the republic, formally known as head of state, was Vladislav Zotin, a Hill Mari who was supported by the nationalist organization Mari Ushem. His pro-Mari political appointments engendered fear among many ethnic Russian managers and public employees, who feared for their jobs.Zotin was replaced by Vyacheslav Kislitsyn, an ethnic Russian, in the late 1990s, after Kislitsyn overcame Zotin’s presidential decree barring the election and successfully appealed to Moscow to circumvent local regulations that presidential candidates pass a Mari language exam (imposed in 1995 by Zotin to ensure his reelection). During his tenure, he provoked the ire of the Kremlin and was linked to criminal gangs. In 2000, Kislitsyn, a self-described authoritarian ruler who ended popular election of city and district administrators, was defeated by Leonid Markelov, deputy head of the Rosgossstrakh insurance company; Markelov ran on the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia ticket. Markelov’s initial goal upon entering office was to rid the republic of the corruption and nepotism that had flourished under Kislitsyn’s reign.During the first several years of Markelov’s leadership, he presided over a dramatic rise in personal income in the republic, as well as growth in the industrial sector; these are positive developments for the region, which has long been dependent on federal subsidies. Markelov was reelected with 57 percent of the vote in 2004, defeating an ethnic Mari, Mikhail Dolgov; however, the electoral process was criticized by outside observers due to Markelov’s extensive use of administrative resources and intimidation of public employees, as well as postelection retribution against districts that voted for Dolgov. In 2005, Markelov got into a row with Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip over the treatment of ethnic Mari in the republic and the status of the Mari language. Markelov, a Moscow-born ethnic Russian, upbraided Ansip for not visiting Mari El, and defended his republic’s record by stating that, out of 379 schools, 43 primary schools taught all subjects in the Mari language while the tongue is studied in 196 schools. He further suggested that Estonian criticism was a “smokescreen” to cover the country’s poor treatment of its own ethnic Russians. However, Markelov has voiced a desire to have the republic’s status downgraded, which would effectively reduce or eliminate the need to protect the Mari language and culture. In recent years, the republic has gained international infamy as the site of Internet scam artists who prey on prospective grooms from abroad seeking to marry local women.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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