Staunton, September 24 – Moscow’s closure of non-Russian language schools and its failure to provide them for many diaspora populations are typically viewed as strictly domestic Russian issues, but in fact, Russia’s language policies are echoing far beyond its borders and in ways that are contributing to Russian flight from former Soviet republics.
Arman Shurayev, head of the Kazakhstan Progress Foundation, says that given Moscow’s failure to provide Kazakh-language schools for Kazakhs living in the Russian Federation, he has “every right to demand from our government that it respond in mirror-like fashion and close all 1500 Russian schools in Kazakhstan” (camonitor.kz/32696-chto-stoit-za-prizyvami-zakryt-russkie-shkoly-v-kazahstane.html).
Commentator Olga Sukharevskaya cites his words to explain why Russians continue to leave the countries of Central Asia, suggesting that Russians’ failure to learn the national languages even more than the nationalism of the titular nations is now behind much of the outflow (ia-centr.ru/experts/olga-sukharevskaya/russkie-v-tsentralnoy-azii-problemy-i-perspektivy/).
Since 1991, the exodus of Russians from the five Central Asian countries has been massive. Their numbers have declined by 43 percent in Kazakhstan, 60 percent in Uzbekistan, 61 percent in Kyrgyzstan, 91 percent in Tajikistan, and, from a much lower base, by six to ten percent from Turkmenistan.
Initially, many left because of the upsurge of nationalism in these countries, a desire to “return” to their own ethnic homeland, or out of security considerations. But today, the commentator says, most of those who remain feel comfortable with remaining except for one thing – they don’t speak the national languages and the governments increasingly expect them to.
Almost a decade ago, then Kazakhstan President Nursultaan Nazarbayev expressed the feelings of many Central Asians about the failure of Russians living in the region by declaring that “after 15 years, even a bear could learn the state language,” words that many Russians there and in Moscow found highly offensive and even threatening.
According to Sukharevskaya,, “the wave of militant nationalism happily has died down,” but “the Russian population still encounters difficulties in adapting to the linguistic situation” as well as to the role of clan ties which often play a key role in the social lifts in the Central Asian states.
“In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Russian is an official language. In Tajikistan, it has the status of the language of inter-ethnic communication, while in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan ist status is not defined in either way. But nevertheless,” she says, “gradual de-Russificaiton can be observed everywhere.”
Many Russians fear that the promotion of English as a language in Kazakhstan and the transition to the Latin script there will undermine the Russian language and thus Russian speakers. And they are even more concerned that requirements in many of these countries that officials know the national language will exclude Russians from positions of power.
Russians have other concerns as well, Sukharevskaya says. They are worried that the nationalization of historical narratives excludes them, they fear calls by non-Russian educators for children to avoid Russian schools will lead to the closure of those schools (matritca.kz/news/45855-ya-iskrenne-sochuvstvuyu-kazahstancam-otdayuschih-detey-v-russkuyu-shkolu-ayatzhan-ahmetzhan.html), and they worry about Islamization.
In all but Kazakhstan, the number of Russians who remain is small and so any outflows will be relatively small as well. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, for example, they form only 1.8 and 0.5 percent of the population respectively. But in Kazakhstan, she continues, they still form nearly one in five of that country’s people, 19.6 percent.
“It would be unjust to say,” Sukharevskaya concludes, “that at the present stage nationalist and anti-Russian tendencies are dominant in central Asia, but ordinary citizens of Russian nationality nonetheless fee themselves alien and doubt that they have a future in the Motherland, because for the majority of them, they do not have one outside Central Asia.”