Friday, December 3, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian Language Skills of Immigrant Workers from CIS Countries Falling Every Year, Moscow Experts Say

Paul Goble

Staunton, December 3 – Every year since the end of the Soviet Union, the share of migrant workers coming to the Russian Federation from CIS countries who have a minimal competence in the Russian language has declined, according to surveys conducted by the Moscow Center for Migration Research.
Part of the reason behind this reflects a shift in the source of such migrants – in the 1990s, most gastarbeiters in the Russian Federation came from Ukraine and Belarus while now the overwhelming majority comes from Central Asian states – but another part is the general decline in Russian language competence in these countries.
That in turn has two major consequences for Moscow. On the one hand, it means that Russia is likely to face ever greater difficulties in integrating gastarbeiters because it will have to deal with a situation more like that which the countries of Western Europe now have to deal rather than with the earlier Soviet model.
And on the other, the broader decline in the use of Russian in the former Soviet republics further reduces the sense of commonality among these now independent countries that Moscow has sought to promote and thus means that ever more often, Moscow will have to promote its interests in these countries as it does elsewhere rather than relying on the receding Soviet past.
The Rosbalt news agency reports today that “only 50 percent of the respondents [to a poll] are in a position to fill out official documents” in Russian. “And some 15 to 20 percent do not even speak the state language of the country [Russia] which is giving them the chance to earn money (
Elena Tyuryukanova, the director of the Center of Migration Research and a researcher at the Institute of Social-Economic Problems of the Population at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the news agency that “we regularly conduct monitoring polls” on this subject and that the findings are increasingly a matter of concern.
“Five years ago,” she said, “the group of respondents who did not know Russian formed three percent” of all those coming from CIS countries. Now, that figure has risen to 15 to 20 percent,” not to mention the almost complete lack of Russian language competence among migrants from China, Vietnam and Korea.
This trend, Tyurykanova continued, is “typical both for Russia as a whole and for Moscow in particular to the extent that it attracts a large part of the in-migration flow.” Indeed, she said, “almost half of the respondents” in the current survey were living in the Russian capital rather than in the provinces.”
She suggested that there was only one positive aspect to her findings. “When we conduct local surveys in Moscow, the level of [Russian] language knowledge seems a little higher,” although it is not beyond the range of statistical error, a pattern that suggests that “those who do not speak Russian often remain closer to the border, as for example in Astrakhan.”
With the shift in im-migration flows from Ukraine and Belarusian where Russian language knowledge was and is more widespread to Central Asia where “the reserve of polyglot workers has run out,” because “in the schools of the independent countries they have ceased to teach Russian” and the generation which knew Russian from Soviet times is rapidly aging.
In Moscow, the powers that be have set up special schools and courses to promote Russian language knowledge among immigrant workers, but the success of these institutions has been mixed. Those gastarbeiters who work long hours have little time or interest in them, and given the current economic crisis, they have little incentive to study.
As a result, many of these schools and even more of these special evening and weekend clashes find it hard to fill their classrooms. And funding for these institutions has been cut back over the last two years, reducing the possibilities even for those migrant workers who are interested.
But, as the experts told, “the problems [of the adaptation of migrants to the Russian milieu] will not be solved by schools of Russian.” Those gastarbeiters who come for only a short time in order to earn money before going home have little incentive to learn Russian, and those who plan to stay need to learn more than just the language to fit in.
Since 2002, competence in Russian has been required for those who want to become Russian citizens, but there is no law that requires immigrant workers who don’t to know the state language. And any effort to require Russian, the expert community says, almost certainly would drive such gastarbeiters underground, with all the problems that would entail.
Meanwhile, another indication of the declining status of Russian in the post-Soviet states comes from the behavior of people at the top of the political pyramids there. On Tuesday, Kazakhstan news services reported that the presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan chose to speak their national languages to each other rather than shift to Russian, a language both know.
Kyrgyzstan President Roza Otunbayeva spoke Kyrgyz, and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke Kazakh, two languages that are sufficiently similar that speakers of the two tongues can understand each other most of the time. Media reports about this exchange did not say whether translators were used (
Outside of the Baltic countries whose leaders increasingly have used English as the language of international communication, the heads of the former Soviet republics have tended to use Russian when speaking to each other. Thus, what happened in Astana this week marks a a shift that may worry the Kremlin even more than the changes on the streets of Moscow.

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