Thursday, November 8, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Language Conflicts Heating Up in the Post-Soviet States

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 8 – Three events this week – one in the Komi Republic of the Middle Volga, a second in Ukraine, and a third in the capital of the Russian Federation – call attention to the increasing importance of national languages to the peoples and governments in Eurasia and to the likelihood of new conflicts ahead.
The first, the Third All-Russian Finno-Ugric Press Festival in Sytktyvkar on November 7, was devoted to the growing threats newspapers and journals in the languages of this group now face in the interior regions of the Russian Federation ( and
More than 100 journalists and officials from Russia’s 10 Finno-Ugric regions as well as from two of the three Finno-Ugric countries, Estonia and Finland -- Hungary was not represented – discussed the impact of globalization on small languages, the effect of privatization and high postage costs on their media, and the impact of the decline of official support for these outlets.
Vladimir Torlopov, head of the Komi Republic government, told the group that globalization and not government policy was to blame for declines in the Finno-Ugric media. Expanded international contacts are leading to the disappearance of many languages, even though he and other officials are treating all languages equally.
But other speakers suggested that Russian Federation officials bear a great deal of responsibility for what they see as an increasingly dire situation. Aleksandr Abdulov, the editor of “Mari El,” said that the Russian government’s extremely high and in his opinion, indefensible, postal charges were killing Finno-Ugric publications.
Because Finno-Ugric peoples live primarily in rural areas and dispersed across enormous distances, he said, up to 95 percent of the print runs of the 60 Finno-Ugric language newspapers and magazines in Russia are delivered by mail, a far higher percentage than those of media outlets published in Russian.
Consequently, he suggested, treating Finno-Ugric media and Russian-language media equally as Torlopov and other officials insist they are doing means to condemn the former to a lingering death and the latter to eventual triumph over not only the languages but the cultures of these ancient peoples.
Other participants said that privatization was also playing a negative role, forcing media outlets to pursue profit rather than service to their communities. Because non-Russian languages like those in the Finno-Ugric group are spoken by far fewer people already, newspapers and magazines in them are less profitable.
And still a third group of speakers pointed to yet another problem in this media: unhappiness among readers about the translation of generally used Russian words like “politics” and “elections.” Sometimes the Finno-Ugric equivalent is successful, but sometimes, it is not – and that puts off readers to.
As a result of all these factors, the overwhelming majority of the journalists taking part in this meeting said, their media are not in a position to compete successfully against a rising tide of Russian-language materials in print and online.
In an attempt to prevent the situation in the Finno-Ugric media from getting any worse, the journalists resolved to create an International Association of the Finno-Ugric Press and use it to seek the establishment of “a common information space” for all groups who speak these languages.
Such a body would not only lobby regional governments and Moscow for more support for these media, they said, but it would also work to expand cooperation with Estonia, Finland, and Hungary, three Finno-Ugric countries which are actively interested in the fate of those who speak languages closely related to their own.
(Estonia has been particularly active in this regard, and its president Toomas Hendrik Ilves recently told a group of visiting Finno-Ugric writers from the Russian Federation that Estonians understand the difficulties they face and have “a moral obligation” to help them and their media (
The second development this week took place in Ukraine. There, researchers announced the results of the first-ever survey of the language preferences of Ukrainians when they use the Internet, something 5.5 million of them do regularly, almost twice the number of a year ago (
According to the survey, Ukrainians going on line turn to Russian-language sites 83.7 percent of the time and to Ukrainian language ones 16.3 percent, but the researchers who conducted this study said that the percentage using Ukrainian-language sites was rising rapidly and forcing many sites to add Ukrainian-language pages.
One indication of that trend, these experts said, is that in 2005, only two of the top 20 Ukraine-based portals had Ukrainian language pages. Now, seven of the 20 most visited sites have them – and many of those that do not have indicated that they plan to put up such pages in the future.
These findings are especially significant because they fly in the face of predictions that the younger and more educated Ukrainians who go on line will choose Russian-language sites over Ukrainian ones. And that in turn likely means that the Ukrainianization of that country’s future generations is likely to accelerate.
The third development this week involves the response of the Russian government to these and other trends that suggest Russian may be quickly losing the status that it enjoyed in many former Soviet republics and international organizations and that Moscow plans to do something about it.
At a meeting of the Russian World Assembly in Moscow last weekend Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged to reverse this trend, saying that “the strengthening of the position of the Russian language and Russian culture in the world is one of the chief tasks in Russia” today (
After that session, Aleksandr Chepurin, the head of the Russian foreign ministry’s department for work with compatriots abroad, provided details on just what Moscow plans to do about the status of Russian in the former Soviet republics and Baltic states (, Nov. 6; and
According to the diplomat, Moscow has established a six point scale to rank these states in terms of how they treat the Russian language, ranging from them who have declared it a state language at the top (like Belarus) to those who classify it as a foreign language like any other (Latvia).
And he said that the Russian government planned both to bring direct pressure to bear on those countries that treat Russian less favorably and to involve European and other international institutions to force these countries to treat Russian in a way that would correspond to “international norms” as understood in Moscow.
Any Russian move to do so, however well it may play to nationalists at home, will almost certainly generate negative countervailing attitudes not only in these countries but also among non-Russian speakers inside the Russian Federation. And that in turn will mean a possibly explosive intensification of fights over language use in both places.

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