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East: Tongue-Tied Former Soviet States Rejecting Russian (Part 1)

  • Jeremy Bransten

Mass popular rallies with protesters chanting: "Down with communism! Resign! Ole! Ole! Communism exists no more!" which have recently engulfed the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, forced the government to scrap its plans to reintroduce compulsory Russian language instruction in the country's schools.

The confrontation in Chisinau is but one example of conflicts occurring in many of the post-Soviet states, where ethnic Russian populations co-exist alongside representatives of the titular nationalities. Late in 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised concerns that Moscow would try to exploit these tensions to its advantage when he promised that Moscow would push for official recognition of the Russian language, at least in the Commonwealth of Indpendent States (CIS). Is the Russian language to become Moscow's new weapon in its bid to reconstitute part of its former empire? RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten reports in this first of a two-part series.

Prague, 25 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The call-in show on Russian television was billed as a chance for viewers to ask their president, Vladimir Putin, some spontaneous questions.

But one part of the 24 December program seemed to have been scripted in advance. An ethnic Russian listener from Latvia telephoned President Putin to ask whether Moscow was ready to use concrete actions to defend the rights of Russians in the Baltic states, Central Asia, and other regions of the former Soviet Union.

Without skipping a beat, Putin delivered a lengthy, fluent reply in which he pledged to pursue a "much more vigorous course" in protecting the interests of Russian speakers in the former Soviet republics. He further urged ethnic Russians in post-Soviet states to fight for proportional political representation, signaling Moscow's readiness to support them in their quest.

Putin's words raised hackles in the Baltic states and several CIS countries. A decade ago, the campaign for language rights was a hallmark of independence movements across the former Soviet Union, with national cultures re-emerging from decades of Russification. The issue remains highly sensitive and with Russian language use in retreat, the idea that Moscow might now push to reverse the trend sits uneasily with leaders in capitals from Tallinn to Astana.

An estimated 25 million Russian speakers live outside the borders of the Russian Federation, in countries Moscow still refers to as the "near abroad." How have they fared since the breakup of the Soviet Union? What is the status of the Russian language in Moscow's former empire, and is there solid evidence that the Kremlin is using the Russian language as a Trojan horse to undermine the independence of its neighbors?

A closer look at the situation and interviews with area analysts leads to two conclusions. First, the post-Soviet space is as varied as it is vast. In some countries, such as Armenia, ethnic Russians constitute less than 1 percent of the population, while in other countries, such as Kazakhstan, Russian speakers make up almost 40 percent of the total. While in general Russian use can be said to be ebbing, the trend has obviously been far more rapid in Armenia and the rest of the southern Caucasus than in Kazakhstan and the rest of Central Asia, largely because of demography.

Secondly, despite regular rhetoric emanating from Moscow -- as far back as 1996, former President Boris Yeltsin called for a program to promote Russian language use in the CIS -- Russia's government has so far done little to put such ideas into practice.

William Fierman, a specialist on Central Asia, is director of the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center at the University of Indiana. He tells RFE/RL that the rate at which Russian language use increases or decreases in the former Soviet republics depends more on internal factors than policy decisions made by Moscow.

"Moscow can do some rather minor things, which are significant, to encourage these countries to use Russian, such as [making] speeches, either in the Duma or by the president. Moscow does things like supporting educational institutes locally and they can subsidize, to some extent, the broadcast of mass media and lobby with the local governments to make the media more accessible," Fierman says. "They can give free opportunities to students from these countries to study in the higher educational institutions of Russia. But I think that the main dynamics having to do with the use of Russian or the local language have to do with events inside the respective societies."

Central Asia is a case in point. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have both faced problems in their drive to promote their titular languages since independence. Neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, meanwhile, can objectively be said to have been far more successful.

The reasons have to do with demography, economics, and the degree of Russification imposed during Soviet times. Fierman says: "The Kazakh language never attained the role in Kazakhstan that Uzbek did in Uzbekistan. One very easy indicator of that, for example, is that there is not even a good Kazakh-Russian dictionary that you can find. It was never published in the Soviet era. Only now are there so-so dictionaries from Kazakh to Russian that are appearing, whereas there were very good dictionaries from Uzbek into Russian. In Kazakhstan, Russian had a much firmer role, and who needed to translate things from Kazakh?"

The governments of both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, while maintaining Kazakh and Kyrgyz as their countries' sole state languages, have both recently accorded Russian official status. Ever since a visit in 2001 by Russian State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev to Dushanbe, the issue of whether to grant Russian official status in Tajikistan has been repeatedly discussed by that country's politicians. But Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov indicated recently that he does not favor any change for now.

Although the Kazakh and Kyrgyz move was loudly welcomed in Moscow, Fierman says the decision was driven more by pragmatism than by direct pressure from the Kremlin.

Kazakhstan alone has lost some 2 million Russian speakers in out-migration over the past decade. Kyrgzystan has seen the proportion of its ethnic Russian population shrink from 21 percent to 13 percent in the same time frame, due to a combination of declining Russian birthrates and migration. Most of the emigres were skilled professionals, and both Bishkek and Astana are eager to halt any more of the brain drain that could harm their economies.

Education is another sector where economic pragmatism for now assures the continuing widespread use of Russian in both countries. From the government's point of view, switching away from Russian language instruction is too costly to implement across the board. And many parents, even ethnic Kazakh and Kyrgyz parents, continue to see greater benefits in sending their children to Russian language schools.

Again, Fierman: "Economic reality is the greatest factor -- that is, people are more concerned about other things. For example, the great wave of sending children to indigenous language schools -- let's say in Kazakhstan, but I believe it's a pattern one would find everywhere -- was in 91, 92, 93, and since that time, the proportion of parents sending their kids into the first grade in titular language schools has somewhat declined. It's not nearly as far down as it was, let's say, in the 80s. But the reason for this, I think, is that parents have come to realize that the quality of education that could be afforded in, let's say, Kazakh schools is likely to be inferior to that in the Russian schools."

The situation is quite different in the three southern Caucasus countries. In Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, relatively homogenous populations, intermarriage, and deep linguistic roots -- the Armenian and Georgian alphabets are both centuries older than the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russia -- have helped to strengthen the influence of the titular nationalities. Minorities, including ethnic Russians, have tended to learn the titular language when marrying into local families.

Richard Giragosian is a Washington-based regional analyst and publisher of the monthly newsletter "TransCaucasus: A Chronology."

"If we look at the last decade, all three countries have had a much easier time to establish their own linguistic identity. And [all] have had much less of a problem overcoming conflict also because the Russian minority population in each of the three countries has always been much less than in, say, Ukraine or some of the other Slavic former republics, or compared to Kazakhstan, for example," Giragosian says.

There are sectors, says Giragosian, especially the military, where Russian continues to play an important role in the South Caucasus: "If we look at say the Armenian armed forces and to a lesser extent the Georgian armed forces, Russian language skills are highly valued. And in fact, if we look at, say, the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, the armed forces' officer corps is predominantly [composed of] Russian-speaking ethnic Armenians who migrated from parts of the former Soviet Union when that conflict erupted. It is interesting in that the Russian language in the Caucasus is still very much a path of advancement and in some places such as Armenia and Georgia, more than Azerbaijan, [knowing Russian is] seemingly rewarded in terms of career advancement."

But in general, the trend away from Russian in the region is apparent and can be seen most clearly in Armenia -- even though Yerevan continues to maintain good relations with Moscow on a political level. Currently, the country operates only five Russian language schools -- four of them exclusively for children of Russian military personnel stationed in Armenia. Yerevan hosts a Russian-language university for 700 students, but the overwhelming majority of tertiary education takes place in Armenian, and there is a growing emphasis on English language study.

Giragosian says: "If we look at the enrollment patterns and some of the World Bank data, we see that there's been a steep decline in Russian language teaching in the curriculum. This has mainly been due to budget shortfalls, mainly because we see across-the-board declines. However if we do look at the cases of foreign language instruction, we see a sharp increase, interestingly, in the teaching of English, German and to a lesser degree French, in the Caucasus -- which is very interesting."

Surveys show Armenian students cite fluency in English as a necessity for their future careers. Giragosian comments: "And I think that follows a global trend as well and it's also matched, interestingly, when we look at Internet use in the Caucasus. Internet use in all three states -- although they do vary in terms of access and overcoming the digital divide -- is predominantly in English, just as in the world and other developing areas. But it is interesting and that will only combine with other factors to I think promote this trend."

In the Baltic states, a new generation of students with no Russian skills has already grown into adulthood. Russia's "Pravda" newspaper illustrated this in a recent article. The paper recounted how one of its reporters had stopped a 17-year-old girl in Tallinn to ask for directions, only to be met with an uncomprehending stare, followed by a request to repeat the question in English.

Estonia and Latvia, like Ukraine, retain large ethnic Russian populations and the language issue in those countries remains highly sensitive and politicized -- with Moscow regularly weighing in to defend the rights of Russian speakers.

Giragosian notes that recently, Moscow has been getting help from some unexpected quarters: "NATO is now a very unlikely ally in promoting the rights of Russian speakers throughout the CIS," he says.

Giragosian points to a February speech by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson to the Latvian parliament, in which the alliance leader warned that NATO will judge applicants by -- among other things -- how well they treat their ethnic minorities and guarantee them equality under the law. Giragosian says Robertson made similar comments during a previous visit to Estonia, which, like Latvia, is home to a large Russian-speaking minority.

Those words are sure to please Moscow, but soon the Baltic states will likely find themselves in NATO and Russia will have far less leverage to use the language issue as a pressure tool.

Russian, for the foreseeable future, will continue to play a major role across the former Soviet Union. But its once-dominant role has been eroded, and, within a few years, English may prove to be an important challenger. Moscow will have to offer more than threats and denunciations if it wants to ensure the continued international future of the tongue that 19th century writer Ivan Turgenev once called the "great, powerful, truthful, and free Russian language."

(Salimjon Aiubov of the Tajik Service, Narynbek Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service, Naz Nazar of the Turkmen Service, Hrair Tamrazian of the Armenian Service, and RFE/RL's Pavel Boutorine contributed to this report.)