Staunton, November 21 – At the end of last week, Eleonora Mitrofanova, Moscow’s ambassador for special assignments, said that “the Russian language must be given legal status in the countries of the former USSR,” an indication many in these states fear the Russian government will use as a lever or hybrid weapon against those countries.
Their fears on this point are being exacerbated by two thing: On the one hand, they have seen how Moscow used the Russian language issue in the run-up to its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. And on the other, they know that many Western governments have counselled their countries not to do anything that inflames Russian attitudes on this issue.
“After the failure of the ideology of ‘the Russian world’ in Ukraine,” Georgian scholar and commentator Oleg Panfilov says, Moscow’s return to the issue of a special status for Russian in the post-Soviet states testifies to the fact that Moscow now does not have any other levers of influence” (ru.krymr.com/a/28126939.html).
The new Russian effort to make use of Russian against the non-Russian countries was signaled by Mitrofanova’s speech in which she said, among other things, that “the development and legal strengthening of the special status of Russian in the constitutions and practice of our neighbors is our first-order task” (tass.ru/politika/3791361).
She noted in her remarks that the younger generation in many of these countries “almost doesn’t speak Russian well.” According to the UN, she continued, in 2015, 35.6 million of the non-Russians of the CIS’ total population of 138 million do not speak Russian anymore and 36.9 million have only a passive knowledge.
As Russian officials have for many years, the ambassador said that Moscow was especially concerned about the status of Russian in Latvia and Estonia. “A significant part of the population of these countries speaks Russian but this is in no way reflected in legislation. Discrimination against Russian, in the first instance in education, is ongoing.”
Mitrofanova continued: “It is necessary to devote particular efforts to promoting the Russian language abroad. It is necessary to raise the issue at a high level regarding giving Russian legal status in the countries of the former USSR. This issue must also be on the foreign policy agenda.”
As Panfilov points out, she is “not the first” in the Russian foreign ministry to speak about this issue. Russian diplomats did so already in the early 1990s when they believed that a knowledge of Russian could help knit together the former Soviet republics into the Commonwealth of Independent States.
“Now,” the Georgian scholar continues, “the Russian-language space consists of a conglomerate of elderly and middle aged people who live with thoughts about the restoration of the USSR and young people who have already adapted and for the most part don’t want to go to Russia.”
But despite their declining numbers, Moscow now hopes that it will be able “to form from them ‘a fifth column’” to influence these countries in a pro-Russian direction. But in fact, Moscow is unlikely to have much success because this obsession with language shows that it “doesn’t have any other arguments” that might be convincing.
Even in the three countries closest to Russia – Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – an increasing number of people are making use of the languages of the titular nationality. Elsewhere that trend is even more pronounced. No one should be surprised: this is an entirely “natural process based on historical memory” of what Russian speakers did to these peoples.
When Moscow tries to convince people that “Russian is the language of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky,” they are being hypocritical, Panfilov says. “Contemporary Russia is the language of the prison camp, the bordello, and beer hall.” Putin himself uses that language and not the language of the great writers of the 19th century.
In promoting the idea that there should be a special legal defense for Russian in the post-Soviet states, Mitrofanova invoked the idea of the Francophone union. She could hardly have chosen a poorer example, Panfilov continues. Not only does France not have a common border with any of these countries, but it is not in military occupation of any of them, unlike Russia.
In reality, the Georgian scholar argues, “there are already no language problems” in the non-Russian portion of the former Soviet space, except those that have been “artificially raised by pro-Russian organizations” and Moscow. But there is one problem that touches on this issue: the role of Russian television in this space and its ideological influence on the population.
As Russian officials so often do, Mitrofanova presents herself as the defender “of those who already do not particularly need her defense … Today, Russia has no moral or material changes to revive the empire. Its only remaining weapon is the Russian language which is without defense in Russia itself where it has become the language of the lumpen.”
Moscow seems determined to try to intimidate the countries that were once part of the USSR by raising this issue, Panfilov says, “but it already doesn’t have the strength” to achieve its goals.