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Sociolingüística internacional

Language policy in the Russian Federation: language diversity and national identity, by Marc Leprętre


The future articulation of the Russian national identity and State is extremely complex insofar as, until now, it does not seem that they have planned either any coherent plan for development or any precise orientations on economic, social and national policies that would allow for the consolidation process of democracy in the Russian Federation. Faced with the outbreak of national and identity cohesion of post-Soviet Russia, the foundations on which the new identity and the new State should be based contain major contradictions, while the general context hinders the articulation of a civil society traditionally underdeveloped, given the fact that, neither the concept of an ethnic Russia nor that of the imperial Russia can mobilize or unite the Russian citizens under the same national project; that the intensification of the economic and regional particularities threaten to dislocate the territorial structure of the Federation; that the moral and social disorientation is widespread among a population lacking in points of reference and core-values (very especially the youngsters) due to the disappearance of the old pre- and post-Communist values; and that the endemic economic crisis has driven tens of millions of people to subsist below the poverty level. In short, the facts and circumstances made explicit throughout these pages constitute a complex network that Russia will have to solve in order to begin the process of democracy, political, social and economic stability and national reconstruction.

3. The awakening of national groups in Russia

The Russian Federation is made up of 176 national groups and an almost equal number of languages spoken. These minority communities represent approximately 28 million people, 20 % of the total population. (11) This ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity is reflected in the Federal Statutes of the country, with 21 National Republics, to which we have to add the Autonomous Regions and Districts. Minority areas are characterized by a very strong interweaving of peoples. The Russian population represents between 30 and 80 % of the population of the Republics in Siberia, between 30 and 70 % of the central and northern regions, and between 10 and 40 % in the Caucasus. To it we have to add the presence of other national groups which represent between 5 and 40 % of the Republics’ population. Besides, the titular nationality (eponym of the Republic) constitutes the majority only in 8 of the 21 Republics. Taking this multiculturalism into consideration has implied the acknowledgement of a considerable political power in the titular minorities, although this power often has to be relativised due to the absence or scarcity of financial means and that Moscow still keeps an important influence through the subsidies (that may reach 90% of some Republics’ budget) and the granting of credits for the acquisition and provision of energy supplies. In addition, the important sociocultural crisis that provoked the fall of Communism still perpetuates. Letting aside the North Caucasus, the UNESCO Red Book on Endangered Languages reports in Russia on only three minority languages that are not endangered. (12) All the others are considered as being "on the verge of extinction" or "threatened". This contrast between the will of reconstructing national identity and the real situation may imply a feeling of urgency that sometimes force titular nationalities to take radical action in order to protect their language and their identity, while often at the same time political and social tensions feed on ethnical and cultural conflicts.

Within this context, the linguistic issue crystallizes in the demand for the recognition of the identity of the different peoples of Russia, while this constitutes in itself a source of tensions. In the territories of the former Soviet Union, linguistic decrees and laws have very significantly contributed to the worsening of the tensions in Moldova and language issues still mark the agenda of political action in the Baltic States, especially in Estonia and Latvia. In Central Asia, Russian minorities are in a delicate situation because the use of national languages has become an important indicator of the citizens’ political loyalty, although very often they lack the necessary structures from which to learn them. The situation seems less serious in Russia, where Russian still is globally accepted as a lingua franca and where each Republic can add one or more official languages. But quite often the problem is to be found in the criteria for choosing these official languages. All the Republics, excepting four of them, have adopted linguistic laws that give priority to the language of the titular nationality. In Bashkiria, the official status of the national language together with Russian is the object of major controversy given the opposition of the Tatars -the second most important community in demographic weight after the Russians and before the Bashkirians- because of the refusal of the Bashkirians to proclaim the official status of Tatar in the Republic. The situation is especially complex in Dagestan where 80% of the population is Dagestani but more than 30 languages cohabit. Also, some decrees establishing the adoption of the Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic one (for instance, the Decree of July 1999 in Tatarstan) are usually interpreted as an overt challenge which aims to increase the distancing from Moscow.

In addition, the adoption of constitutional clauses that limit and even impede the access to political or administrative responsibilities for citizens that do not know the national language of the titular ethnic group, as in the case of Adygea, Northern Ossetia, Bashkiria and Mari El, also represent a danger for the stability of interethnic relationships. There also exists the temptation on the part of some titular nationalities to use the linguistic issue to provoke demographic changes that would imply a higher representation of their community: what the French call "le vote avec ses pieds" ("the vote with one’s feet") is also a reality in Russia, despite the fact that the exodus of Russians towards Republics with a majority Russian population is mainly due to economic problems. The lack of local structures for mediation to look after the legitimate interests of the Russophone communities and of the other minority groups is even more dangerous if we take into account that Moscow does not always have enough capacity or legitimacy to play this role.

The linguistic and cultural processes that take place in the Russian Federation are determined by a combination of factors reported on in the previous pages: the great cultural, linguistic and religious diversity of the population throughout the entire territory; the demographically predominant presence of the Russians in most of the Autonomous Republics; the influence of the national-territorial criteria established by the Soviet regime in order to manage linguistic and ethnical diversity; and the processes of economic restructuring that are taking place in a disorderly fashion.


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