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Language Conflict Flares Up In Russia's Tatarstan

Olga Ziyatdinova appears in the Vakhitov district court on November 3. She says she will appeal the ruling.
Olga Ziyatdinova appears in the Vakhitov district court on November 3. She says she will appeal the ruling.

KAZAN, Russia -- A court in the capital of Russia's central Republic of Tatarstan has rejected a lawsuit filed by a local woman seeking 2.75 million rubles ($47,000) in damages because her son was required to study the Tatar language in school.

Judge Yevgeny Zybunov of Kazan's Vakhitov district court on November 7 rejected the complaint filed by Olga Ziyatdinova. After the court session, Ziyatdinova told RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service that she will appeal the court's ruling.

"My son appeared on NTV and gave his personal opinion -- that he has one president, Vladimir Putin, that there is one constitution for him and one state language and that he doesn't intend to study any other," Ziyatdinova told RFE/RL before the November 7 ruling. "And he doesn't attend Tatar classes, out of principle. I cannot influence his opinion."

The high-profile case was just one skirmish in a controversy that came to the fore in July when Putin said during a visit to the Republic of Mari El that it was "impermissible to force someone to learn a language that is not [his or her] mother tongue, as well as to reduce the hours of Russian-language [classes in schools] in Russia's ethnic republics."

In her lawsuit, Ziyatdinova claimed that Russian-language instruction in Tatarstan schools was just 700 hours per academic year, compared to 1,200 hours on average across the country. "This caused enormous material harm to my son," she told RFE/RL.

In August, Putin ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office to check whether students in the so-called ethnic republics -- where indigenous, non-Russian ethnic groups are well represented -- were being forced to study local languages. That order prompted a spate of rallies by non-Tatar parents who demanded an end to mandatory Tatar classes, as well as demonstrations in support of the use of Tatar in Tatarstan.

Of Tatarstan's population of nearly 4 million, about 53 percent are Turkic-speaking ethnic Tatars, followed by 43 percent Russians and about 5 percent Chuvash.

Under the republic's constitution, both Russian and Tatar are considered state languages and education legislation mandates school instruction in both. The Russian Constitution gives all constituent republics the right to have their own state languages.

In October, Farid Muhkametshin, head of the Tatarstan State Council, told journalists that the study of Tatar would remain mandatory in the republic's schools. "We will only discuss the methods and extent of the [language] education," he told journalists in Kazan. "I think we will find a solution. Don't worry.

Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov has also urged calm, asking prosecutors not to "terrorize" school directors. "How can it be that [the official] language can be voluntary?" he said on October 26. "It isn't like that anywhere in the world."

On November 5, prosecutors in Tatarstan declared the region's education plan in violation of national law, saying that "the order for mandatory study of the state language of the republic, at the moment of publication, does not conform to the law or federal education standards."

Under the proposal, students must study two lessons of Tatar language per week, with three additional lessons taught "in the native language."

Tatarstan's Education Ministry on November 7 postponed adoption of the plan in the wake of the prosecutors' finding.

On November 8, the State Council, in a special session with Minnikhanov, is expected to discuss the matter further.

To further complicate relations between the federal center and Tatarstan, the power-sharing treaty between them that was signed in 2007 expired in August. Moscow has so far been unwilling to renew the agreement, despite calls from lawmakers in Tatarstan for it to do so.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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