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Azerbaijan: Moscow Seeks Official Status For Russian Language, But Will Baku Agree?

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Moscow is seeking a law that would make Russian the second state language in Azerbaijan, or at least make its status of lingua franca official. Azerbaijani authorities rule out granting Russian official status. Moscow's demand has had little resonance in Azerbaijani media so far, but it is unlikely to go unnoticed in a country where a significant part of the population continues to use Russian on a daily basis.

Prague, 17 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Government officials in Moscow say that, after years of decline due to the large emigration of ethnic Slavs following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian language is making a comeback throughout the CIS.

Russian is a state language in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, while in Kazakhstan it is considered an official language. The distinction is largely symbolic. In most former Soviet republics, however, Russian is considered a foreign language and taught as such in schools and universities.

Citing discrimination, ethnic Russians in CIS countries have long initiated campaigns to put Russian on an equal footing with state languages. After years of covert support, Moscow is now openly backing their efforts.

On 10 June, the State Duma -- the lower chamber of Russia's legislature -- debated a law that would pave the way to making Russian an official language in 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics, provided the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly endorses it.

The Moscow-based "Gazeta" newspaper reported that the proposed bill would allow CIS residents the right to file official documents using either Russian or the national language of their home country.

The Duma hearings followed the appointment of Eleanora Mitrofanova, a former Russian lawmaker from the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, as a first deputy foreign minister in charge of the 30 million or so Russians living abroad.

On 8 August, Russia's daily "Moskovskii Komsomolets" quoted Mitrofanova as saying she would work toward the goal of seeing Russian recognized as an official language in all CIS states.

Nair Aliyev is the first deputy editor in chief of "Ekho," one of Azerbaijan's main Russian-language newspapers. He tells RFE/RL that Moscow has been sounding out Baku on possibly upgrading the status of the Russian language.

"As far as I know, the issue of the Russian language is not on the official agenda [of Azerbaijan]," he said. "To be precise, the Russian side has initiated discussions. Mitrofanova once said discussions were going on with a number of CIS countries, including Azerbaijan. [Our newspaper] reacted to her remarks, and we tried to get more details about [these discussions]. We then learned from diplomatic sources that both sides were in consultation, although, officially, our Foreign Ministry maintains there have been no talks on that issue. Yet, informal contacts have taken place and will continue to take place in the future. Obviously, this is not a problem one can solve in a day, a week, or even a year."

While denying any intentions of discriminating against his country's large Russian-speaking minority, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliyev said on 26 August that granting Russian the status of state language is "out of the question."

Azerbaijan's 1995 constitution cites Azeri as the country's only official language. It also says the state undertakes to guarantee the free use and development of any other language in use among the country's 8 million people.

Elmira Agahuseynova heads the chair of Russian language at Azerbaijan's Technical University. Although Azeri has been the state's official language for many years, she says many ethnic Azerbaijanis still experience difficulties with their mother tongue.

"In general, the older generations speak Russian, [which used to be] the state language all across the Soviet Union," she said. "It's been 10 years since Azeri has become the official language of independent Azerbaijan. Still, many people are experiencing problems with that language, first and foremost because we [recently] changed the alphabet to switch to the Latin script."

In August 2001, Azerbaijan officially re-adopted the Latin script to replace the Cyrillic alphabet, which had been in use since the late 1930s.

The decision was designed to officially sever Azerbaijan's umbilical cord with Russia and to help it move closer to Europe and, most importantly, Turkey, whose predominant language shares common roots with Azeri. But the move sparked public controversy, with many people complaining that elder Azerbaijanis would be unable to adapt to the Latin script.

One Baku university professor, who asked not to be named, tells our correspondent the switch to a new alphabet has also had unpleasant consequences in the high-school system. She says that, in many scientific domains, most available reference books are written in Russian and have yet to be translated into Azeri.

As for Western literature, she adds, most students do not have access to it, partly for want of money, partly for practical reasons. She says some Azeri translations are available but they are of poor quality. In addition, the translation process from foreign languages has been slowed because of problems assimilating the Latin alphabet.

Unless the Azerbaijani government urgently allocates funds to help translate Western textbooks into Azeri, Russian will remain the reference language in higher scientific or technical education courses -- if only because few university professors can read English or any other Western language.

Agahuseynova of Azerbaijan's Technical University adds: "If one day we get access to scientific or medical literature in English, that would create enormous problems -- really enormous -- because we would need to have a perfect command of the language to read these books. All of us understand Russian, use Russian, and hear Russian from television screens. But English, we have to learn it all by ourselves."

In addition to an estimated 142,000 Russians, ethnic minorities in Azerbaijan include tens of thousands of Lezgins, Avars, Kurds, Talyshs, Tats, Belarusians, and Ukrainians for whom Russian is a lingua franca.

There are no official statistics on the use of Russian in Azerbaijan. But experts generally believe that between 50 and 70 percent of citizens are familiar with the language, although not all of them use it on a daily basis.

Many factors contribute to keeping the Russian language alive in Azerbaijan -- free access to Russian schools, retransmission of Russia's main public television channels, broadcasting of Russian-language programs on national media, and a relatively large number of Russian-language newspapers with significant circulations by local standards.

Journalist Aliyev says Azerbaijan's poor economic standards also play a significant role in keeping Russian afloat.

"There is another factor that sustains the [widespread] use of Russian," Aliyev said. "It is the large number of Azerbaijanis who go to Russia to earn money. For these people, it is indispensable to know Russian. The last census conducted in Russia showed that there were some 2.16 million Azerbaijanis there in 2002. That does not necessarily include ethnic Azerbaijanis who are Russian citizens, because all people who were then in Russia had to answer questionnaires. These are the official figures. The actual figures are probably much higher. Therefore, one can reasonably say that between one-quarter and one-third of [Azerbaijanis] actively use Russian, if only because of these people who periodically go abroad to earn their living."

Russian is no longer considered the vehicle for social promotion it used to be under the Czarist and Soviet regimes and is now competing with English and Turkish.

According to Azerbaijani Education Minister Misir Mardanov, 355 students graduated this year from schools operated by Cag Ogretim Islemetleri, a privately owned Turkish network of religious schools that is expanding throughout the Caucasus and Central Asia.

English is rapidly gaining ground among youth, mainly due to the large Western business community that Azerbaijan's second oil boom has lured to Baku since independence.

Yet, experts believe there is still a long way to go before English supplants Russian, if only because few in Azerbaijan can afford to hire private tutors to offset the weaknesses in the state-controlled education system. "Ekho" first deputy editor in chief Aliyev says:

"With the development of oil projects, English, of course, is rapidly spreading, and Russian is being progressively sidelined. But this is a relative phenomenon. For a significant part of the population, Russian will remain important for many years. In the business area, of course, Russian is progressively losing ground to English. I wouldn't even say that it is losing ground. Rather, English is developing [in parallel]. But Russian remains close to the majority of Azerbaijani citizens."

While approving of the Azerbaijani government's refusal to grant Russian official status, Agahuseynova says the language issue should remain depoliticized.

"Russian does have a function in Azerbaijan. It is a language that is being used and spoken by many people, whereas English is being used mostly by Westerners who come here to work," she says, adding: "Whatever changes take place at the state level, a language should remain what it is -- an instrument that gives access to communication and information."