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Chuvash, Bashkir Writers Warn Putin 'Playing With Fire' On Language Policy


Prominent writers in Russia's Chuvashia and Bashkortostan regions have urged President Vladimir Putin to stop discouraging the mandatory study of indigenous languages in regions with large ethnic-minority populations, warning that a shift away from the practice could sap Russia's strength and sow discord.

In an open letter to Putin on September 18, ethnic Chuvash author Anatoly Kibech said that dropping mandatory Chuvash language classes at schools in the region on the Volga River could lead to the "weakening of friendly relations between young people in Chuvashia," and the "weakening of Russia as a whole."

"None of the local languages in Russia's ethnic regions imposes a threat to Russia's territorial integrity," Kibech wrote, referring to regions with large populations of indigenous ethnic groups.

"On the contrary, representatives of ethnic indigenous people are more patriotic, more pro-Russian than...people who ignore ethnic cultures. The better the ethnic feelings of Russia's peoples are, the stronger their love to their motherland."

Putin caused concern among champions of local culture in regions such as Chuvashia when he said, while visiting the Republic of Mari El in July, that it was "impermissible to force someone to learn a language that is not their mother tongue, as well as to cut the hours of Russian language [instruction] in Russia's ethnic republics."

In August, Putin followed up by ordering the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate whether children in the so-called ethnic republics or regions were being forced to study local languages -- which have official status alongside Russian in many of the regions and in some cases are a required subject at state schools.

In the wake of Putin's statement and the order to prosecutors, some Russian-speaking parents urged the authorities in those regions to abandon mandatory studies of languages other than Russian. Several of them did so.

In Bashkortostan, where Bashkir-language classes had been mandatory, parents were asked ahead of the start of the school year on September 1 whether they wanted their children to study Bashkir.

A well-known writer in Bashkortostan, Flyur Galimov, accused Putin of violating the Russian Constitution with his moves discouraging mandatory indigenous-language classes.

He said the change had already caused rifts in Bashkortostan, where at least 1,000 activists rallied on September 16 to demand reinstatement of mandatory Bashkir-language classes in schools across Bashkortostan.

"If that flame is ignited it will be impossible to extinguish it and red rivers might start flowing," Galimov said in a separate open letter, urging Putin "not to cut off our tongue."

Kibech likewise also warned Putin that diminishing the role of indigenous languages could lead to discord across the country and "make our federation weaker."

On September 14, the Council of Chuvash Elders called Putin's moves "another attack against the indigenous languages of the Russian Federation."

On September 7, the Education Ministry of Tatarstan, across the Volga from Chuvashia, declared that calls to end mandatory studies of the Tatar language in the republic contradicted federal and regional laws guaranteeing that the local languages of ethnic republics are official state languages along with Russian.

Also on September 18, Fail Alsynov, the leader of an unregistered group that promotes Bashkir culture and language in Bashkortostan was fined 750 rubles ($12) for refusing to obey police at the rally on September 16 in the regional capital, Ufa.

Alsynov's group, Bashqort, organized the rally.

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