Staunton, Sept. 30 – “Language is a means of ethnic mobilization” regularly used by non-Russian elites three decades ago to destroy the USSR and now to oppose Moscow’s policies, Bogdan Bezpalko says. That danger must be ended by changing the Russian constitution to eliminate “those negative consequences of the positive discrimination” it gives to non-Russians.”
The head of the All-Russian Federation of National Cultural Autonomy of Ukrainians of Russia and someone who has long backed the universalization of Russian as the language of that country says that all Russians know of cases in which Russian speakers outside of Russian areas have been mistreated (apn.ru/index.php?newsid=40400).
They also are aware that the Russian government has not taken all the steps it should to protect Russian speakers, Bezpalko continues, at least in part in his view because not everyone understands the role that language can play in promoting nationalism and even separatism. If they did, Moscow would take tougher actions now.
Vladimir Putin somewhat improved the situation when he declared in 2017 that no one living in a non-Russian republic should be compelled to study its titular language but that everyone in the republic, Russian and non-Russian alike, must as before study Russian as the language of the state.
But while that has improved things, Bezpalko says, it doesn’t go far enough because non-Russian elites continue to work against Moscow’s policies in this area, promoting non-Russian languages to strengthen non-Russian identities and even more to make people living in their republics who are not part of the titular nationality feel unwelcome and decide to leave.
Republic elites point to provisions in the Constitution of Russia and their own republic constitutions and argue that “the very structure of the federation is asymmetric and gives the national subjects (republics) a higher status than the predominantly ethnic Russian oblasts and krays.
At the present time, these documents provide the basis for such arguments; but what is needed is to change these documents rather than to allow this injustice to continue, Bezpalko says. And for three reasons, he continues, the current situation is not only unjust to the Russian speakers but dangerous to the Russian Federation.
First of all, national languages are “markers of ethnicity” and thus an effective way to separate people into “us” and “them.” For national elites, the creation or promotion of “us” is a way of building support for the republic regime and conversely of reducing support for the Russian state as a whole.
Second, Bezpalko says, once an “us” has been established, its members are quite ready to treat the “them” in ways that make them certain that they are not wanted and thus decide to leave. That means that the non-Russian republics become ever more non-Russian, and Moscow loses a major link between them and itself.
And third, the language issue as it has come to be cast in the Russian Federation is “one of the means of opposing the federal center.” Precisely because language is a marker of identity, it becomes the basis of challenging a Russian identity and promoting a proto- or even openly separatist agenda locally.
The time has come to rewrite the Russian Constitution and the constitutions of the non-Russian republics so that this can’t happen. The language issue led to the destruction of the Soviet Union and it can do the same thing to the Russian Federation. Once that is understood, the path forward should be clear: any constitutional language allowing that must be changed.