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Sociolingüística internacional

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


As already stated, in only 8 of the 21 national territorial entities the titular nationality constitutes the majority of the population. In addition, most of these entities reproduce on a microscale the mosaic of nationalities, languages, cultures and religions present throughout the entire Federation. In the same way, Russian constitutes the language of communication between the center and the periphery, while the Russification process which started, with some pushing and pulling movements according to the interests and legitimization strategies of the Soviet regime, in the mid 30’s, still has its effects on minority languages. As we have already seen, the application of a national-territorial criteria allowed for the development of the languages of the titular nationalities by means of the creation of some regional elites, and cultural, social and economic structures that made them turn into almost-States, even before the disappearance of the Soviet State. But from 1992 onwards, and in contrast with what was happening previously, the Federal Law on the National-Cultural Autonomy also allowed the national and linguistic communities that did not have their own politico-administrative structures to also enjoy the right to constitute themselves as autonomous territorial entities and to create the necessary conditions for the preservation and promotion of their own languages.

The economic situation derived from the chaotic transition from a planned economy to a free market economy also constitutes another hindrance for the peripheral ethnic and linguistic communities, given the fact that the majority of them depend on the subsidies granted by the authorities to avoid the total collapse of their economic structures; this leaves little margin for financing policies to promote autochthonous languages, if we consider the urgent priorities as regards social welfare, education, public health care and modernization of the economy.

In spite of everything, the main risk of interethnic tensions is concerned less with the relationships that may be established from now onwards between the federal authorities and the peripheral Republics, than with the capacity of the nationalities to take into consideration the situation, the needs and the interests of the other national communities present in their territory; to conciliate their desire to promote the autochthonous language with the awareness of the complexity and the slowness of the processes of transition and change in deep-rooted linguistic habits; and to establish operational structures that allow titular nationalities and minority groups to have access to the learning of the autochthonous language, very often only recently turned into the official language along with Russian. In short, it is fundamental and urgent that the nationalities can assume and successfully face this challenge in order to avoid a true disaster and an intensification of interethnic tensions:
"It is obvious that the languages of all the peoples in Russia including Russian are in a state of crisis. Many of them are on the verge of extinction. It is without a doubt, a humanitarian catastrophe although the socio-economic calamities of the last years have hidden it. The fact that the languages of indigenous peoples in the republics are decreed as state languages makes no difference. The crisis has gone so far that in many cases it seems irreversible." (13)

4. Conclusion: strategies for a peaceful and balanced management of linguistic diversity in the Russian Federation and the Soviet successor states

The events taking place since 1991 in the Russian Federation and the Soviet successor states prove the absolute necessity of solving and preventing interethnic conflicts in order to guarantee a minimum level of well-being in the local populations and to satisfy their aspirations. In addition, it is also urgent to guarantee a correct management of the ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity so as to prevent violent vindications from spreading and interethnic conflicts both in the core and the periphery of the Russian Federation from multiplying. (14)

Some positive developments have to be stressed, as for example the signature by Russia on May 10th, of the Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which is an important step involving a change of attitude toward the protection of the more than one hundred minority languages spoken in Russia. The great Russian linguistic diversity have been object of different seminars and meetings organized by the Council of Europe, aimed to grow the Russian Government’s awareness about the importance of the protection of the European cultural heritage.

It is also worthnoting that on July 19, Moldova adopted a Law on Ethnic Minorities, as far as the multiethnical and multilingual situation in this country is a quite complex once since there exist six officially recognized minority groups (Russian, Ukrainian, Gagauz, Jews, Bulgarian and Rom) which nearly make up half of the state's total population. The linguistic issue is neither and easy one: Russian was the official language for 45 years until, in 1989, Romanian (Moldovan) was again recognized as the state's official language following the approval of a "law on linguistic transition" (Law on the Functioning of Languages) which, although it was not generally refused by that time, it became increasingly criticized by the diverse groups in Moldova. The Moldovan constitution establishes in its 3rd article that the Moldovan language (with Latin script) in the national language whereas the state respects and undertakes to promote Russian and the other languages spoken within its territory. It also envisages the regulation of this article by means of a law, although it has not been yet developed.

The recent developments in Azerbaidjan are also rather encouraging: the republic has signed the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities on June 26 2001 (15) and the document has come into force on October 1. Furthermore, the Parliament of Azerbaidjan is preparing and discussing a new draft law which should define the legal basics for the protection of national minorities. The text guarantees the equality of rights and freedoms for the individuals that belong to minority groups. The draft law’s third article states that "no one shall be forced to change its ethnic affiliation", apart from stressing the fact that "the state will not permit any action aimed at forced assimilation of national minorities".



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