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Russia: Bashkortostan--A Case Study On Building National Identity

By Kate Graney

Kazan, Tatarstan; 26 August 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The process of state building in post-Soviet Russia as a whole, and in its constituent regions, is a complicated one. A key aspect of this process is the attempt to create new "national identities" in Russia's regions. This involves education and language policy, cultural policy and the politics of symbols.

The Republic of Bashkortostan, which describes itself as one of the most multi-cultural of all Russia's republics, is a good example of just how tortuous things can become. An area of great natural beauty near the Urals, Bashkortostan is one of the larger of Russia's constituent republics in area, with a population of almost 4 million people. There are representatives of more than 100 nationalities among its population, but the overwhelming majority of people fall into three main ethnic groups. These are Bashkirs, a turkic speaking, Islamic, formerly nomadic people who make up almost 22 percent of the population. Then there are Tatars, another turkic speaking Islamic people, who make up over 28 percent. And then there are Russians, the biggest group at over 39 percent .

As a result of Soviet border-drawing policy and demographic processes, Bashkirs are thus only a minority in the republic which bears their name. The republic's "drive to sovereignty" began with the declaration of state sovereignty in October 1990 and culminated in the signing of an agreement on division of powers between the central government in Moscow and the authorities in Ufa in August 1994. During this period, the republic has been engaged in a heated debate about exactly what the "national identity" of a sovereign Bashkortostan should be. At the front of this debate is the question of language -- concretely, the question of which languages should have official status in Bashkortostan.

An important part of the "drive to sovereignty" in Russia's other republics (especially neighbouring Tatarstan) has been the declaration of the titular ethnic group's language as an official language, along with Russian, either as an official language or a language of "international communication". In the case of Tatarstan, a special state program has been adopted which defines state strategies for broadening the use of Tatar in political, economic and cultural life in that republic.

In Bashkortostan, however, the issue of which languages should have official status remains unresolved. Nowehere in its declaration of sovereignty, its constitution or other legislative acts is an official language named in any capacity. Bashkortostan is a leader in all other aspects of the quest among the republics for more regional autonomy and self-definition. But on the issue of an official language it has remained uncharacteristically silent.

Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bashkir national activists have put forward eloquent arguments in support of Bashkir and Russian as the official state languages. The thrust of their argument is that only the one people, the Bashkirs -- who gave the republic its name -- are truly indigenous to Bashkortostan.

Tatar activists, however, have been just as vocal about the need to declare both Tatar and Bashkir as official languages, along with Russian. They cite the fact that Tatars are more numerous in the republic than Bashkirs, and argue that without official status for their language, Tatars will slowly lose their linguistic distinctiveness and become assimilated to the Bashkir tongue. Bashkir activists argue the opposite, that if Tatar is declared a state language, Bashkirs would be subject to "Tatarisation" in their "own" republic. The debate became so heated during the larger debate over adoption of Bashkortostan's first constitution in late 1993, that an unofficial moratorium on the language issue was declared: articles about the issue disappeared from the newspapers and the constitution was adopted without reference to language.

The moratorium ended in 1995, when the first All-World Congress of Bashkirs was held in the capital Ufa, sponsored by the government. Since then, the executive committee of the All-World Congress has become a prominent advocate of the Bashkir line. Other organisations have followed suit, and this June saw the holding of the first state-sponsored Congress of Tatars of Bashkortostan, which urged the government to adopt a language law including Tatar as an official language.

In response to this renewed activism, the government has begun to pursue an innovative approach to the question of language. Working through the Ministry of Education, the government has started to promote the concept of something called the "cult of the native language." This "cult" proposes that all the "native languages" of the multi-ethnic population -- Bashkir, Tatar, Chuvash, Mari and so forth -- all deserve equal protection and development under the law.

As Minister of Education Firdawes Khisamoutdinova and President Murtaza Rakhimov put it, "even if as few as two or three children of a given nationality want to study in their native language, we will make it possible". Rakhimov has also taken of late to quoting the statistic that 13 different "native" languages are taught in the schools of Bashkortostan. Furthermore, though the state has its role, the idea of the "cult of the native language" is based on the assumption that the most important work for the revival of all native languages in Bashkortostan should be done in the family, more specifically, by the mother. Thus, Bashkortostan's leaders want to continue to avoid the politically-charged issue by moving the focus of language politics and responsibility for the revival of all languages out of the public into the private sphere.

How long the government will be able to avoid the pressure from both sides to act on the issue of an official state language remains to be seen. With Bashkortostan's presidential election set to take place late next year, it's likely that Rakhimov and his administration will continue to pursue their politically-neutral approach, rather than adopt an official language at any time in the near future.

(Kate Graney is a member of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin in the United States. She is at present in Kazan.)