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Russia Urged To Protect Linguistic Diversity After Self-Immolation

Udmurt scientist Albert Razin protests for the protection of the Udmurt language near Udmurtia's regional assembly on September 10. He self-immolated shortly afterwards.
Udmurt scientist Albert Razin protests for the protection of the Udmurt language near Udmurtia's regional assembly on September 10. He self-immolated shortly afterwards.

Following the self-immolation of an ethnic Udmurt scholar and activist in protest against Russia's language policies, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging the government to address the "deep-rooted problems" facing ethnic and linguistic minorities in the country.

Russia "should reassess its language policies, with a view to eliminating direct or indirect discrimination and reverse policies that are sweeping away linguistic diversity," HRW said in a statement on September 12.

"The Russian government has spared no efforts to express concern about the language rights of Russian speakers in the Baltic countries and Ukraine. At home, the Russian government seems to play by different rules," the New York-based human rights watchdog added.

Two days earlier, Albert Razin died in hospital after he lit himself on fire outside the regional parliament in the capital of the Volga region of Udmurtia, Izhevsk.

Udmurt-Language Scholar Mourned In Russia After Self-Immolation Protest
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He was holding a placard reading: "If my language dies tomorrow, then I'm ready to die today."

Razin, 79, was among a group of local experts who signed an open letter in June 2018 calling on the Udmurt parliament not to support a bill on the teaching of "native languages" in schools that Russia's so-called ethnic regions considered an existential threat to their cultures.

Despite the opposition, Russia last year adopted the law that canceled the mandatory teaching of indigenous languages in regions and republics where non-Russian ethnic groups are well-represented.

Officials insisted that the change was not aimed at destroying linguistic diversity, but allowed people to study their native languages.

However, HRW said the law "adds to a worrying picture of gradually diminishing linguistic diversity in Russia" by creating "disincentives to study minority languages, even in regions where the titular language is supposed to be used on a par with Russian."

"This arrangement is enshrined in these republics' constitutions, and the study of both state languages is mandated by local laws," it added.​

'Catastrophic Situation'

With his death, Razin "called on Russia and the whole world to pay attention to the catastrophic situation of the Udmurt language and to implement measures to save it, to create all conditions to protect and preserve it," a group that promotes Udmurt culture and language wrote on the VKontakte social network.

"Now, we cannot continue to ignore the Udmurt language's problems and remain indifferent to its death," the activists added.

Andrei Babushkin, who sits on President Vladimir Putin's human rights council, said in a report that "human rights activists believed that the situation [in Udmurtia] is better than in other regions," according to Interfax.

But Razin's self-immolation showed that "not everything is actually ok" in the region, Babushkin added.

The Udmurt language is of the Uralic stem that also includes Finno-Ugric languages. The number of people who speak the language has decreased from 463,000 in 2002 to 324,000 in 2010, according to data from Russia’s national census carried out in those two years.

There are some 560,000 ethnic Udmurts living in Russia's Volga region, Kazakhstan, and Estonia.

In 2018, before the controversial language law was introduced, the Council of Europe Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities pointed out that "over the past years a strong emphasis has been put on the Russian language and culture while minority languages and cultures appear to be marginalized."

The committee expressed concerns over a "lack of effective support for minority languages," with their role "diminishing even in the republics, including in those where the titular ethnic group is in the majority."

Russia has signed but refused to ratify the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The 1992 document has been ratified by 25 European countries.

With reporting by Interfax and the Volga Desk of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service
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