The Russian language is dying in former Soviet Republics
The debates about the status of the Russian language have intensified recently in some of the former Soviet republics. On the eve of his departure to Moscow for a summit of the Eurasian Economic Community Viktor Yanukovich declared that there had been distortions in language policy previously and said that in the near future Rada will pass a law about the two official languages - Ukrainian and Russian. Unlike Ukraine, Kyrgyz parliament is going to reduce considerably the use of Russian language.
As of now, Russian has official status as a state language in only one country outside the Russian Federation, which is Belarus, and two unrecognized states, which are South Ossetia and Abkhazia. All other countries prefer not to use Russian as an official language, including Ukraine, at least for the time being - they have Ukrainian as an official language, and that's it. But the official status of the Russian language is de facto there, in eastern Ukraine, where all life, including schooling and the educational system, is in the Russian language. And that definitely will not change. Ukraine is a very Russian-speaking country, and there are many areas where the Ukrainian language is not used. So people there should have normal rights to use their native language for communication, for education and for official purposes.
Ukrainian leader, Mr. Yanukovych, declared that probably in the near future the Rada will consider a law about two official languages, Ukrainian and Russian - to give Russian speakers their normal right to use Russian. And it has nothing to do with gas prices, as some of Russian and Ukrainian political scientists presume. Ukrainian policies have more to do with Ukrainian elections rather than anything else. Giving official status to the Russian language is an idea that is completely supported in the eastern part of Ukraine, which is the bulk of the Party of Regions' electorate.
Russia is, of course, somewhat worried about the status of the Russian language globally, just as France is worried about French, England and the United States about English and Poland about the Polish language. Actually, the reason why we care is because it's our cultural heritage. It's the language of a great civilization, and it is spoken by more people outside Russia than inside Russia. And of course these people have the right to use their language in education and for official purposes as well.
Unfortunately there has been moderate success in the area of promoting the Russian language in former Soviet republics. The Russian language is dying there. If you look globally, the number of Russian speakers decreased by a minimum of 50 million people during the last 20 years. This has happened so dramatically and so fast. So there is not much Russia can do to stop this trend - except for being prosperous, and being interesting for people, thus providing a stimulus for them to learn Russian.
And of course we can provide some modest help, with Russian centers, with Russian textbooks, with Russian teaching, some Russian websites and with educational programs. But of course, if Russian is not part of the national educational system, there is not much you can do about it. For example, in Turkmenistan, there is only one school where you can study Russian -- or rather, study in Russian - and this language is definitely disappearing, as well as in many other former Soviet republics.
And of course, the situation differs from republic to republic. For example, there are republics where interest in the Russian language is very high. For example, in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Moldova, by the way, and Armenia. And of course there are places where interest is low, like in Georgia, for example, or Turkmenistan.
The future of Russian language will be different in different countries. It will be on the rise, actually, in the Baltic republics, which are oftentimes criticized for discriminating against Russians, Russian-speakers and non-residents. And these criticisms are fair, but the fact is that there are still more people speaking Russian there than the local languages. And the number of people who are studying Russian is actually going up, because this creates additional job opportunities.
Nothing is happening to the Russian language in Belarus - it's there. In Ukraine, it will have to struggle. It will not probably be disappearing, but a certain new type of Russian language will be developing, not exactly the Russian classical, literary language. In Armenia it will exist, in Moldova It will exist as well, though of course with less people knowing it. In Azerbaijan, it will be disappearing softly. In Georgia, it will be disappearing fast. In Kyrgyzstan, Russian is obligatory for every schoolchild, so it will exist in some form, if not in a perfect one. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the problem is that they need help, really, from Russia, to promote the Russian language. They lack text-books, they lack teachers, programs, and so on. It will struggle to survive, but with big difficulty, in Uzbekistan; and it will disappear in Turkmenistan.
Vyacheslav Nikonov is Co-Founder and President of the Polity Foundation (since 1993); Executive Board Director of the Russki Mir Foundation (since 2007),member of the Valdai Discussion Club.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.