Saturday, October 6, 2018

‘Why Do Russian-Language Schools Still Exist in Our Country?’ Azerbaijanis Ask

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 6 – The lack of places in Azerbaijani schools, Lala Aliyeva says, is leading ever more Azerbaijani parents to ask a question Moscow would much prefer that they didn’t: “Why do Russian-language schools still exist in our country” if we can’t afford to fund enough high-quality Azerbaijani-language ones?

            Perhaps not surprisingly, the difficulties some ethnic Russians and representatives of other Russian-speaking minorities in Azerbaijan have had in getting into Russian-language schools in Azerbaijan have attracted more attention in the Russian-language media; but their problems are hardly the only ones in Azerbaijan’s educational system.

            Their complaints even more than Azerbaijani demands have led some Azerbaijanis to ask why, more than a quarter of a century after the end of the USSR and the recovery of independence by their country, they should continue to spend money on Russian-language education, Aliyeva suggests (

            Kyamilya Aliyeva, a deputy in the national parliament, has proposed requiring those who want education in Russian to pay for it on their own.  Others like educational specialist Nadir Israfilov have gone further: he calls for closing Russian-language schools and teaching it as a foreign language (

            The number of Russian-language schools in Azerbaijan has in fact fallen precipitously since the end of Soviet times right along with the number of ethnic Russians. In 1989, there were 392,000 ethnic Russians in Azerbaijan; by 2009, that figure had fallen to 120,000. And while in 1994, 38 percent of Azerbaijanis said they spoke Russian fluently, now only about 10 percent do.

            According to the Russian government, which keeps careful track of these things, in the 1990-1991 school year, 250,000 pupils in Azerbaijan studied in Russian-language schools. Now that figure is “less than 100,000.” 

            Nevertheless, there are three factors working against the complete disappearance of Russian-language schools in Azerbaijan anytime soon. First, the country’s constitution guarantees instruction in native languages, and in the case of Russian, this is generally enforced, even given shortages in some places.

            Second, many ethnic Azerbaijanis view Russian education as both more prestigious and a better launching pad for a career and want their children to become fluent in Russian even if they themselves are not. Russian-language schools provide them with that opportunity, and they are against giving it up.

            And third, the continued existence of these schools is something Moscow cares a great deal about and thus has made it a measure of the state of relations between the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan.  Any reduction in the number of schools and pupils in the Russian-language sector is seen as an indication Azerbaijan isn’t interested in good ties with Moscow.

            Just how seriously the Russian side takes this issue is shown by Putin’s statement during his recent visit to Baku as to how important such schools are in bilateral relations and a recent Moscow offer to send Russians to serve as instructors in the Russian schools of Azerbaijan (

            Despite this, there are problems in both language sectors in Azerbaijan. According to Berlin sociologist Sergey Rumyantsev, “the quality of instruction in Russian sectors is declining, but to get quality education in Azerbaijani is also impossible. There aren’t enough quality textbooks and knowledge of Azerbaijani alone limits access to information and to the world.”

            Thus, it is no surprise, he continues, that “parents are worried.”

            Aliyeva quotes another educational specialist in Azerbaijan who speaking on conditions of anonymity said that at present “12 percent of the children studying in her Russian-language school do not understand Russian at all and another 20 percent have only a very rudimentary knowledge,” yet another problem of Russian-language schools in that country.

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