Sunday, June 6, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian Gaining in Federation’s Non-Russian Republics but Losing Ground in Former Soviet Space and Beyond

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 6 – Russian language instruction is increasing in the non-Russian republics of the Russian Federation and especially in the North Caucasus, but the language itself, Moscow experts say, is rapidly losing ground in the former Soviet republics and occupied Baltic states and beyond the former Soviet space.
In the Russian Federation, Marina Obrazkova of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” reports, “in practice, a state republic language functions only in four republics of the Russian Federation” – Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chuvashia and Sakha– none of which are in the North Caucasus (
But even in these four, most of the instruction is now in the Russian language, a development that has sparked protests in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in particular. That is because 70 percent of the educational program is now “federal,” with only 30 percent being regional, where local languages are more commonly used.
According to Article 68 of the Russian Constitution, every people has the right to preserve its native language and to promote the conditions for its study and development, but having this right in the abstract does not mean that all the peoples are interested in exercising it or even able to do so.
Many of the peoples involved are so small that parents often prefer to have their children educated in Russian or learn an international language like English, even when local leaders and national activists say that the elimination of native language training often is the first step toward the destruction of the ethnic community as a whole.
What is most “curious” about the data, Obrazkova says, is that there is “a completely different situation in the Caucasus” than in the Middle Volga and elsewhere. In the latter, many republics seek to maintain or expand the number of hours of native-language instruction, in the former, the most “unsettled” part of the country, the situation is very different.
There, most of the republics give a clear preference to Russian as the language of instruction. And indeed, the “Nezavisimaya gazeta” journalist points out, “a law about state republic languages in republics located on the territory of the North Caucasus has still not been adopted.”
Pressure from Moscow for the use of Russian, however, is clearly intensifying. On the one hand, all school plans must be prepared in Russian, and the government’s unified educational examination is “always” given in Russian, making the study of that language critical for those who want to go on to higher educational institutions.
But if Russian nationalists are pleased about the language situation in the non-Russian portions of their country, they are not at all happy with the status of Russian beyond its borders. According to the Russian Education Ministry, Russian will be less widely spoken abroad than Bengali or Portuguese by 2025.(
At present, Russian ranks as the fourth most widely spoken language after Chinese, English and Spanish. But ministry researchers say that ten years from now “the number of those knowing Russian will decline to 212 million,” putting it below the number of French, Hindi and Arabic speakers as well.
Fifteen years after that, in 2025, the ministry researchers suggest, the number of Russian speakers will fall to 152 million, fewer than the number of those speaking Portuguese and Bengali, the impact of demographic decline in Russia itself and the actions of government sin former Soviet republics.
“The policy of the majority of CIS and Baltic countries regarding Russian,” the ministry says, went through the following stages. “In the first years of independence, it could be consider native, then a second native, and then a language of international communication, and then the language of a national minority and finally” a foreign language.
In Europe and many other parts of the world, the Russian education ministry experts say, there has also been a decline in the number of people choosing to study Russian. That too is sending the total number of Russian speakers down but only by a small percentage of the decline explained by Russian demography and non-Russian country policies.

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