Friday, May 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Post-Soviet States Increasingly Diverge in Use of Russian, Study Shows

Paul Goble

Baku, May 2 – The non-Russian countries on the post-Soviet space are moving in very different directions with regard to the use of Russian by their populations, with some likely to retain that language as an important part of their daily lives and others almost certain to see it decline, being replaced by the titular nationality tongue or another international language.
For most of the period since the collapse of the Soviet Union, politicians and analysts have tended to talk about Russian language use in these countries in terms of legal arrangements rather than practice and to discuss the issue of its retention or loss globally rather than comparatively.
That approach both reflects and has reinforced the politicization of this issue both in the Russian Federation and in the non-Russians countries living around it. But now a major new study on “Russian Language in the Newly Independent States” prepared by the Eurasia Foundation opens the way for a more differentiated and precise understanding.
As summarized in the current Demoscope Weekly, the journal of the Moscow Institute of Demography, the study, which features the largest collection of data ever assembled on this question, suggests these countries fall into three groups in terms of Russian language use now and in the future ( The first group of countries – Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine – are places where Russian remains a major component of public and private life, but at the same time and perhaps because Russian is so widely used, there is little interest in or support for expanding its role via the educational system.
The second group, which includes Azerbaijan, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, is characterized by relatively low use of Russian – half of less of the current generation knows it and even fewer of the younger age cohorts -- and the more or less rapid exclusion of that language from many sectors of public life.
And finally, the third group – Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Tajikistan, are countries where the populations look positively on the use of Russian and would like to see Russian retained or even expanded in the educational system and even public life more generally. (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were not included.)
In designing a program to boost Russian language knowledge abroad, the “Demoscope Weekly” authors say, Moscow needs to take these very different situations into account rather than relying on either the legal arrangements particular countries have made with regard to Russia or the state of bilateral relations between them and Moscow.
This summary statement does little justice to the richness of the data the book collects or even that Demoscope Weekly presents. Among some of the many other interesting findings on offer in this week’s article are the following: First, most residents of these countries continue to watch Russian-language television although they read ever few Russian newspapers.
Second, the majority of the residents of these countries have not visited Russia over the last 10 years, but intriguingly, there is little or no correlation between the percentage of visitors, either tourists or longer term residents in Russia, and attitudes toward Russia and the Russian language.
And third, these countries vary widely not only as to how many fewer young people speak Russian than do their parents – an indication of the future prospects of Russian language there – but also in terms of the mix of public and private use of Russian, the language of the titular nationality, and other international tongues like English.

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