Thursday, March 26, 2015

Three New Moves on Language Chessboard in Eurasia

Paul Goble


            Staunton, March 26 – The state of languages and policies about them are among the most sensitive indicators of where any society is headed. The last week has provided three of these: a fight over language law in Daghestan, a meeting highlighting the centrality of Russian in Putin’s “Russian world,” and a move in Kyrgyzstan to strip Russian of its official status there.


            The situation in Daghestan is particularly instructive. That republic, the most multi-lingual of Russia’s federal subjects, is the only one that does not have its own language aw as required by the 1991 federal law on the subject. The reason is simple: the situation is too complicated and too explosive (


            Officials can’t even agree on how many languages there are. One enumeration says there are 32, of which 14 are literary languages and 18 non-literary, while another equally official enumeration by Makhachkala says there are 28, a difference officials explain by pointing out that most of the four live outside Daghestan not inside its borders.


            Nor is there any agreement as to the basis of distinguishing languages from dialects or about determining even the number of ethnoses in the republic. It all depends on which Russian scholar or which Russian law one wants to cite, and among Daghestan’s numerous groups, there are partisans for each position.


            Further complicating the situation is the attitudes of parents. Some passionately want their children to be educated in their native languages, but others, fearful that that will limit their opportunities, support their training in a language spoken by a larger number of people, sometimes Russian but sometimes another non-Russian language.


            And there is the problem that Makhachkala has not prepared instructional materials or teachers even for many of the languages it does recognize. Consequently, if the government announces that there must be education in this or that language, it does not have the resources to make that happen.


            Despite all this, there is pressure from Moscow for the sake of consistency and from below on behalf of this or that language group to have a law to which people can refer or invoke to get support for the language they speak.  And apparently people in both places are unhappy with current republic head Raazan Abdulatipov for failing to promulgate one.


            Unlike his predecessors, Abdulatipov has been willing to talk about the need for regulations. But just like them, he has refused to talk about a law and instead simply issued a series of often contradictory decrees.  That combination has sparked sharp debates within the government, among scholars and in the population.


            Thus, Moscow by its drive for consistency and the population as a result of its divisions is pushing regional leaders like Abdulatipov into a corner. Whatever he does, someone is going to be angry, and because Moscow wants everything in legal form, it is going to take political form and have political consequences.


            Another Moscow effort about languages is also causing problems. Vladimir Putin has made Russian language knowledge a key element of his definition of the “Russian world” idea. Indeed, in the minds of many, it may be the most important single one both within the borders of Russia and beyond (


            A recent high-level conference at the North Caucasus Federal University at which both Moscow and regional officials and experts spoke complained about the sad condition “in which the Russian language is today both globally and in the North Caucasus.” And they particularly decried cuts in the number of hours of Russian language instruction in non-Russian schools.


            The participants called for reversing this trend, setting the stage for conflicts in all non-Russian areas, and further “politicizing” the language question in Putin’s Russia.


            And in a third development, scholars in Kyrgyzstan are pressing Bishkek to strip Russian of its official status. According to Egemberdi Ermatov, head of the National Commission on the State Language, they argue and he agrees that until Russian loses its “official” status, there is no chance more officials will use Kyrgyz (


            Instead, he suggested, they will continue to use Russian and Kyrgyz will be marginalized. According to the 2009 census, 48 percent of Kyrgyzstan residents speak Russian.

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