August 1, 2018
Putin’s Plan to Russify the Caucasus
How Russia’s New Language Law Could Backfire
Russia is undergoing a fundamental internal transformation. In a development lost amid headlines surrounding the World Cup, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Moscow’s ongoing row with the United Kingdom over the Sergei Skripal affair, on June 19 the Russian Duma adopted a bill that will profoundly affect the status of the country’s hundred-plus ethnic minorities. The bill makes education in 34 of Russia’s 35 official languages—every language except Russian—optional, limiting instruction in ethnic-minority languages to two hours per week. Previously, native-language instruction had been exclusively the purview of regional governments in Russia’s 26 ethnically defined autonomous republics and okrugs, which often offered at least the first years of primary education in their own official minority languages. This is now set to change by federal decree.
The bill is the result of a new policy announced by Putin last July. At a press conference in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of the Mari El Republic (where the ethnic-minority Mari language shares official status with Russian), Putin veered into an unexpected diatribe on languages. He stated that the Russian language was “the spiritual framework” of the country, “our state language,” and that it “cannot be replaced with anything.” Teaching ethnic-minority languages would become optional, to avoid any possibility of “forcing someone to learn a language that is not native to him.”
Although the impetus for these remarks was unclear at the time, they were soon revealed as part of a new effort to Russify the country’s many ethnic minorities. Since he came to power in 1999, one of Putin’s foremost priorities has been to centralize Moscow’s control over Russia’s regions. The one glaring hole in this campaign had been the Republic of Tatarstan, which had signed a special agreement on sovereignty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 that granted it unique power over its natural resources and enshrined the official status of the Tatar language. That deal was renegotiated and renewed in 2007