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Apparently, Russia Needs Just One 'National Component'

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (center) with his Estonian counterpart Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Fifth World Congress of Finno-Ugric People in Khanty-Mansiisk
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev (center) with his Estonian counterpart Toomas Hendrik Ilves at the Fifth World Congress of Finno-Ugric People in Khanty-Mansiisk
"The very historical development of the Russian nation is in no small measure based on the riches associated with our ethnocultural and multiconfessional environment. For many centuries we have inhabited a state composed of more than 160 different peoples."

The quotation comes from Dmitry Medvedev, president of the Russian Federation, who delivered these lines -- and many others embodying similar sentiments -- to the Fifth World Congress of Finno-Ugric Peoples in Khanty-Mansiisk on June 28, 2008.

This is the same President Medvedev whose government the year before introduced federal law No.309, removing the so-called national component from the federal "standard" of education. As of September 1 this year, it is no longer the "subjects of the Russian Federation" -- or the so-called titular nationalities in Russia's dozens of ethnic autonomies -- who will decide whether the language, history, or culture of their nominally dominant non-Russian ethnic entities will be taught at state schools.

Instead, individual schools will decide. Or, in practice, the federal Ministry of Education and Science, whose writ runs in those schools. And the ministry has issued guidelines stipulating that no elements of the "national component" are to be taught on state time, as it were.

What this means for Russia's 21 nominally autonomous republics and other ethnic minorities represented at other levels is difficult to overstate. Their struggle to retain their cultural and ethnic identities in today's Russia is truly a desperate one.

In the Republic of Bashkortostan, a few thousand demonstrators took to the streets this week, while Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev has said the removal of the "ethnic component" from the educational curriculum is "unacceptable."

The reaction has been strongest in Tatarstan and other predominantly Muslim regions in southern Russia. Speaking in August last year, the chief mufti of Perm, Muhhamedgali hazrat Huzin, said he does not want to become an "Ivan without a history." In words that might have been borrowed straight from Medvedev's speech two months earlier, the mufti said that for a civilized country where the rule of law prevails, "ethnic diversity is a grounding value."

Russian Language Under Threat?

The Medvedev of June 2008 could not agree more. "Teaching people about their origins means inculcating respect for the family, the experience of the older generation, work, and patriotic values. It teaches something that is absolutely necessary for the creation of a civilized, tolerant environment and for civic maturity."

What Medvedev thinks now is anyone's guess.

The responsibility for any major decision is the president's alone in Russia, Medvedev told the BBC in an interview in March. "The major decisions in the name of the state are made by the president," he said. "This is an obvious thing."

Clearly this must apply a to legislative change liable to have lasting repercussions for the ethnic makeup of the Russian state.

It is not difficult to conclude that, having lost an empire, Russia is desperate to hang on to what it has got left.

As analyst Paul Goble wrote on his blog "Window On Eurasia" on April 19, the Russian language is increasingly on the defensive in the former Soviet space. Georgia, Ukraine, even Tajikistan and Belarus -- all for their own reasons, of course -- have recently dropped rebroadcasts of Russian state-owned television channels. Anecdotal evidence is mounting that the young especially are turning away from the old colonial lingua franca, from Central Asia to the South Caucasus.

Russia's "titular nations," on the other hand, have nowhere to run. The Republic of Tatarstan and a few others may put their hopes on their political weight. Others, like Russia's 3 million speakers of Finno-Ugric languages, look to kindred nations Estonia, Finland, and Hungary -- who have made it to the subsidized haven of diversity that is the EU -- for help.

But even Finland, with potentially the greatest leverage on Moscow, is keeping a low profile. Meeting Medvedev in Helsinki on April 20, Finnish President Tarja Halonen made no public reference to the plight of her ethnic cousins.

All the EU and its three Finno-Ugric member states can do is offer a few million euros in "cultural aid." This is no more than a token gesture in the face of what looks like a determined campaign of ethnic assimilation on the part of the Russian government. No prisoners, no problem -- to give a tsarist metaphor a Stalinist twist.

Ahto Lobjakas is a regular contributor to RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL