Monday, December 9, 2013

Window on Eurasia: De-Russianization Accelerating Across Central Asia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 9 – Ever smaller percentages of people in the five Central Asian countries are studying Russian in the schools, using it in their daily lives and getting information from their governments in the Russian language, with ever more learning and using the titular national language under pressure from nationalists or English as a result of globalization.

            To counter that trend, which Aleksandr Shustov documents in a new article, is one of the reasons that Moscow last month created a new Council for the Russian Language, but doing so is going to be extremely difficult in most cases and is already impossible in some others (

            Shustov says that with respect to Russian language knowledge, Central Asia is divided into two zones: Kazakhstan where more than 80 percent of the population speaks Russian, and all the others where 50 to 80 percent of the residents do not know Russian at all and where the percentage knowing it continues to fall.

            The Moscow commentator sees a major contributing factor in this to be the departure of ethnic Russians after the breakup of the Soviet Union: The number of Russians in Kazakhstan is down 40 percent since 1991, but the number of Russians has declined much further in all of the others.

            At the time of the last Soviet census (1989), 62.8 percent of Kazakhs living on the territory of their republic said they spoke Russian, as did 36.9 percent of Kyrgyz on theirs, 30 percent of Tajiks on theirs, 27.5 percent of Turkmens on theirs, and 22.3 percent of Uzbeks on theirs.   

            The same census showed that ethnic Russians living in these republics rarely knew the titular national language. Only 4.5 percent of ethnic Russians in Uzbekistan spoke Uzbek, only 3.5 percent of that nationality spoke Tajik, only 2.5 percent spoke Turkmen, only 1.2 percent Kyrgyz, and only 0.9 percent Kazakh.

             Both these sets of numbers have changed radically over the last two decades, Shustov says, as the result of the departure of many ethnic Russians and the policies of the country governments intended to promote knowledge of their national languages.

            A recent study concluded that 72 percent of the population of Kazakhstan used Russian actively, compared with 36 percent in Kyrgyzstan, 14 percent in Uzbekistan, and 12 percent in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.  Sixteen percent of the residents of Kazakhstan lack any Russian language knowledge as do 50 percent of Kyrgyzstanis, 59 percent of Uzbekistanis, 67 percent of Tajikistanis, and 82 percent of Turkmenistanis.

            According to Shustov, the best way to picture this is to understand that “the further a republic is from Russia, the lower is the percentage speaking Russian.”  A large part of the reason for this is Russian flight: there are now no more than 38,000 ethnic Russians in Tajikistan and only approximately 100,000 of them in Turkmenistan.

            But the decline in Russian language knowledge and use also reflects state policies.  Most of the Central Asian countries have reduced the number of pupils going to Russian-language schools. Kazakhstan cut their number between 1990/19 and 2010/11 by 69 percent, Uzbekistan by 65 percent, Tajikistan by 61 percent, and Turkmenistan by 95 percent.  Only in Kygyzstan was there a rise of 14 percent.

            Moreover, in most cases, the governments are pushing for the use of the state language rather than Russian in official documents, reducing the number of hours of instruction in Russian in the schools and boosting hours of English instruction in its place, leading Shustov to suggest that English is replacing Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication.

            Given the departure of ethnic Russians, part of the decline of Russian-language knowledge there “bears an objective character,” Shustov says. But “in all the countries of the region there are strong nationalist attitudes and to seize the initiative from them, the authorities have been forced to administratively broaden the sphere of use of the titular languages.”

            Unless Moscow intervenes and soon in this sector, Shustov says, it will lose a most valuable resource for spreading its influence because up to now “the Russian language has been one of the key elements of ‘soft power’ of the Russian Federation.”  If ever fewer Central Asians speak it, ever fewer of them will look to Russia and Russians in a positive way.

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