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Russian Government Policies Pose Threat To Tatar Language

Activists in the "I speak Tatar language" petition drive in April.
Activists in the "I speak Tatar language" petition drive in April.
According to the all-Russian census conducted in 2002, the Tatars were the second largest ethnic group in the Russian Federation after the Russians. But Russians accounted for 80 percent of the total population, and Tatars only 4 percent. Tatars do not and could not pose any cultural or other kind of threat to the Russians. The Russian language was, and still is, the leading language for all citizens of Russia.

Even so, 10 years ago Moscow embarked on a policy of eliminating the cultural identity of non-Russians and abolishing the political rights of the national republics. State Duma Deputy Fandas Safiullin predicted in January 2000 -- just days after Boris Yeltsin announced he was stepping down as president, thereby paving the way for then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to be elected his successor -- that after Moscow declared victory over the Chechens, Tatarstan and the Tatars would become the next enemy.

Just a few months earlier, in September 1999, Tatarstan's parliament adopted a law requiring that the Tatar language be again written in a modified Latin alphabet. (Tatars had used a Latin-based alphabet from 1927 until 1939, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forcibly decreed the switch to Cyrillic.) But the Russian parliament responded by enacting a federal law stating that only the Cyrillic alphabet may be used in Russia, and President Putin ratified that law on December 11, 2002.

That de facto ban on using the Latin alphabet also affected the Karelians, who had been using the Latin script for several decades. The head of National Congress of Karelia, Vladimir Bogdanov, denounced the ban on the Latin alphabet as despotism and a violation of the Russian Federation Constitution.

Tatar writer Razil Valiyev, who heads the Tatar State Council's Standing Commission on Sciences, Education, Culture and National Issues, prepared a petition similarly arguing that this decision was unconstitutional. The Tatars appealed to Russia's Supreme Court, but in December 2004 that court annulled the Tatar law that would have established the Latin alphabet as the basis for the written Tatar language. In a tacit admission of defeat, Tatarstan Parliament Chairman Farid Mukhametshin commented at the time that "the matter of reestablishing the [Latin] alphabet will be continued by our descendents."

Sharing Power?

So many other political restrictions have been imposed on Tatarstan that enumerating them is impossible within the framework of a short commentary.

But possibly the most damaging blow Putin dealt to Tatarstan was to force the signing of a new power-sharing agreement to supersede the one signed in 1994 by his predecessor, Yeltsin, and Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev. The Federation Council refused in February 2007 to endorse the original version of the new treaty, but approved a slightly amended version that summer. It effectively stripped Tatarstan of the autonomy it previously enjoyed in structuring relations with the federal center.

Consequently, Kazan lost its previous freedom in matters concerning bilateral relations with the federal center.

Also in 2007, radio broadcasting in Tatar was reduced, and the rebroadcasting of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's daily Tatar-Bashkir program by the local Yanga Gasir/Novy Vek radio station was forbidden. That move effectively deprived Tatars and Bashkirs of access to free information in their native tongues. Today in Tatarstan, there is no round-the-clock radio or television broadcasting in Tatar.

Assault On Education

The most recent restriction on the use of the Tatar language came into effect this year, when Moscow adopted a new law on education. According to that law, many subjects on the school curriculum will be taught in Russian, even in schools where the language of instruction is the national language of the republic. Pupils who attend Tatar-language schools will be required to sit university entrance exams in Russian. This means that parents will not send their children to national schools anymore.

The same tactic was used in the 1960s under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev with the adoption of a "facultative" system. As a result, many Tatar parents and those belonging to other ethnic minorities opted to send their children to Russian-language schools.

Those educational restrictions inevitably led to linguistic Russification. Even today, many Tatars and members of other nationalities tend to use Russian rather than their own mother tongue.

Certainly Russian should be used as the official language and the language of communication among Russia's various nationalities. But forcing minorities to turn their back on their native language and culture should be seen as a violation of human rights.

Such a policy contravenes not just international laws on the rights of ethnic minorities, but also the constitution of the Russian Federation. Article 26/2 of that constitution says that "every citizen has the right to use his native language" and to choose freely which language he chooses to speak and receive his education in.

Ignoring that right will not make the Russian state stronger nor its citizens happier.

Nadir Devlet is a professor of International Relations at Istanbul Commerce University and a former broadcaster with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service in Munich. The views expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL