Monday, May 28, 2018

Languages Play Very Different Role in North Caucasus than in Middle Volga, Experts Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 28 – In the debate about Vladimir Putin’s proposed law making the study of non-Russian languages voluntary, officials in the Middle Volga republics have lined up with their populations in opposing the measure, while officials in the North Caucasus have backed the Kremlin measure even though many in their populations object.

            This reflects the very different status and meaning of languages in the two regions, according to two experts, Amil Sarkarov of the Derbent news agency and Ruslan Aysin of the Poistine portal, who were interviewed by OnKavkaz journalist Amina Suleymanova (

            Sarkasov says that the difference between the two regions is “connected with the different functionality of state languages in these republics. In Tatarstan, instruction in Tatar occurs from the first through the 11th class and even in higher educational institutions.” Moreover, the ethnic Russian minority there has been unwilling to learn Tatar.

            In the North Caucasus, on the other hand, he continues, “people do not entirely understand what a state language is.” In Daghestan, there is a multiplicity and  no one wants to make only one or a subset of those a state language – even though the Russian Constitution allows for that possibility.

            “In mono-ethnic Chechnya, the problem of the preservation and functioning of the local language as the state language is not as sharp as in Ingushetia.” And these variations explain why officials and the population respond differently to what Moscow is trying to do.

            At the same time, Sarkasov says, “the federal powers that be do not entirely recognize the consequences of their language policy.” It contradicts the constitution and is exacerbating tensions among ethnic groups.  If that continues, he suggests, many citizens will be infuriated “and trust in the authorities will significantly fall.”

            Moreover, the journalist adds, “the image of  our country in the international arena will also seriously suffer.” Other countries will pay ever more attention to this issue and conclude that Russia “cannot be considered a legal state” because it does not live according to its own constitution or laws.

            Aysin for his part says bluntly that “the Republic of Daghestan lost the last remnants of political subjectivity after the replacement of the old elites with new appointments. Therefore, it does not have its own position on this issue, in contrast to Tatarstan for whom the question of the study of language is a defining one.”

            Inside Tatarstan, the Tatars can hold on even if this new law goes through; but they will likely lose the ability to promote Tatar among the 75 percent of Russia’s Tatars who live outside the republic because they won’t be able to afford the high price (10,000 US dollars) of having textbooks approved for each of the language areas.

            According to Aysin, “Chechnya isn’t threatened by a loss of language.” The republic is “ethnically monolithic and a patriarchal society.” But Tatarstan is an urban area and the Tatars have long counted on the school system to help preserve their national language and hence national identity.

            Moscow has been moving step by step against languages especially in Tatar; and if Tatarstan loses this battle, Aysin says, “the next step will be the liquidation of the republics,” an act that will complete “the demolition of federalism in the country.”

            Moscow is committed to having this law passed and enforced, but non-Russians and especially non-Russian communities are equally committed to blocking it. And they have some allies: one Russian linguist said recently that “over the next five years two languages will disappear in Russia,” something he and many Russians do not welcome.

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