KAZAN, Russia -- Officials in Tatarstan are pushing back against calls to abandon teaching of the Tatar language in the Russian region's schools following comments by President Vladimir Putin about languages of ethnic minorities in the diverse country.
In a statement on September 7, the regional Education Ministry said that such calls "contradict federal and regional laws and mislead some parents."
The sensitive issue has triggered wide debate since Putin’s visit to the Republic of Mari El in July, when he suggested that ethnic Russians were being forced to learn these languages in regions with sizable minority populations.
The following month, he ordered federal prosecutors to check whether students in so-called ethnic republics were being forced to study minority languages across Russia.
In the oil-rich, Muslim-majority region of Tatarstan, the order sparked a series of rallies by non-Tatar parents who demanded that mandatory Tatar-language lessons in local schools be canceled.
But Tatarstan's regional Education Ministry hit back in its statement. It noted that the Russian Constitution gives all the republics within the Russian Federation the right to have their own state languages, and that Tatarstan's own constitution and law on state languages make the study of Russian and Tatar mandatory for all schools.
Among Tatarstan's population of almost 4 million, around half are Turkic-speaking Tatars, the majority of whom are fluent in Russian as well. The other half is comprised of Russians and other ethnic groups, including Udmurts, Bashkirs, and Chuvashes.
The escalating debate over the language issue in Tatarstan comes amid Kremlin hesitation to prolong a power-sharing treaty between the republic and the federal government in Moscow that expired several weeks ago.
The first power-sharing treaty was signed in 1994 by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Tatarstan’s president at the time, Mintimer Shaimiev.
The treaty provided Tatarstan with broad autonomy, giving it rights to have its own laws, taxes, and even citizenship.
After Putin came to power in 2000, he began actively pursuing the creation of the so-called "power vertical" that many critics viewed as an attack on the principle of federalism itself.
Laws in the regions of the Russian Federation were brought into strict conformity with federal legislation. By 2005, all previous agreements and treaties between the regions and Moscow were annulled, and it was announced that pacts would be negotiated in conformity with strict new federal laws.
Special status was given to only two regions: Tatarstan and Chechnya.
Under a new treaty signed in 2007, Tatarstan was given the right to make decisions jointly with Moscow on the region's economic, cultural, and other policies.
Speaking in Mari El in July, Putin said it is "impermissible to force someone to learn a language that is not [his or her] mother tongue, as well as to cut the hours of Russian language [classes at schools] in Russia's ethnic republics."
His comments drew both criticism and praise online.
In recent years, some ethnic Russian residents of these regions have protested against mandatory classes in languages other than Russian.
In April, residents of Mari El, Tatarstan, and Chuvashia -- neighboring republics on the Volga River -- marked Language Day with a big campaign called I Speak My Mother Tongue!