Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Putin Reaches Out to Declining Demographic – Russian Speakers in Former Republics

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 23 – Not only have the number of people in the former non-Russian republics identifying as ethnic Russians fallen dramatically since 1991, but the number who speak Russian or who study it in school has fallen precipitously as well, a trend that means Vladimir Putin is reaching out to an ever-smaller group and one likely to continue to contract.

            This week, the Kremlin leader signed a new law simplifying the procedure for those who speak Russian and are themselves or descendants of those who lived in the Russian Empire or the USSR if they move to Russia. (The law also bans dual citizenship which means that such people must give up the citizenship they had had.) (

            On the one hand, this new measure is clearly designed to help solve Russia’s own demographic problems while putting pressure on other countries.  And on the other, it is the latest reflection of Moscow’s efforts to conflate ethnic Russians, Russian speakers and pro-Russians, three very different groups, in the non-Russian countries around its borders.

            But it is important to recognize that the number of non-Russians who speak Russian in these countries has declined by almost 25 percent over the last two decades, with many people choosing to use the language of the titular nationality or English instead. And that shift may reduce the impact of Putin’s new law.

            At the same time, declines in Russian language competence and use in these countries may help to explain the urgency behind Putin’s actions regarding the non-Russian countries: In another decade or certainly in another generation, the possibility of re-creating a Russian cultural space across what was the Soviet Union will be further minimized or even eliminated altogether.

            An article on this week concerning changing patterns of language use in the south Caucasus in general and Azerbaijan in particular underscores just how much a shift there has been and why it is almost certain to continue regardless of what Putin does (

            According to the article’s author, Aynur Ramazanova, Azerbaijan still has the largest number of Russian speakers among the three countries of the region, a reflection of its larger size, the continuing shadow of the Soviet past, and the number of ethnic Russians in its population. But in percentage terms, the Turkic republic had the lowest percentage of Russian speakers.

            At present, she continues, there are 330 Russian-language schools and “more than 20” higher educational institutions where Russian is the language of instruction in Azerbaijan.  But the numbers of schoolchildren studying Russian has declined markedly since 1990, falling from 250,000 in the last year of Soviet power to 94,700 in the 2010/2011 school year.

            As precipitous as that decline in Azerbaijan has been, the fall-off in the number of school children studying Russian in Armenia and Georgia has been even greater over the same period.  In Armenia, the number of pupils in Russian language schools has fallen from 92,000 to 1500, and in Georgia, the number of such people has declined from 207,000 to 8500.

            Not only do such patterns mean that fewer people will be speaking Russian in these places in the future, but parents in these countries are increasingly pushing for the study of English rather than Russian in the schools.  In Azerbaijan last year, for example, 64 percent favor mandatory English instruction, while only 16 percent favor requiring the study of Russian.

            Many use Russian rather than English. In Azerbaijan, nearly three out of four  Azerbaijanis say they know some Russian, while only a quarter claims some English competence.  Russian is still widely used in Baku and other cities, but in rural areas, where demographic growth is highest, only three percent speak it.

            All this suggests that the future in these countries and indeed across the entire post-Soviet space belongs to the titular languages and to English rather than to Russian, something that must certainly disturb Putin given his “Russian world” concept but equally something that his new citizenship offer will do little or nothing to change.


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