BACKGROUND: In June, the Russian State Duma proposed to allow parents to choose their children’s “mother tongue” at state schools. This simple and seemingly innocent proposal evoked uproar among ethnic republics in the Russian Federation. Two republics in particular, Tatarstan and North Ossetia, openly criticized the new legislation for its encroachment on minority rights. The chairman of the Russian State Duma’s Committee for Nationalities’ Affairs, Gajimet Safaraliev, proposed changes to existing laws intended to protect human rights and to improve knowledge of the Russian language. Safaraliev did not provide evidence, however, that ethnic non-Russians did worse than ethnic Russians on Russian language exams, while the legislator’s concern for human rights can also be questioned.
Russian republics complain that if parents are allowed to choose their schoolchildren’s mother tongue, they will overwhelmingly choose Russian to lower their children’s burden of schoolwork, knowing that Russian is on the federal school exam, while regional languages are not. Some republics oblige all students, regardless of their ethnic origin, to study regional languages, arguing that this mutual cultural exchange strengthens the federation. Ironically, a poll that Safaraliev put on his website indicated that of the nearly 1,400 people who voted, 25 percent said they did not consider Russian as their mother tongue. Only 5 percent of those who knew other languages of the Russian Federation apart from Russian regarded Russian as their mother tongue.
The defenders of minority languages argue that public space should be created for the usage of minority languages in their respective territories, thus incentivizing minorities to learn and speak their languages. After such an arrangement has been established, everybody should be allowed to freely choose school languages. However, the Russian government intends to ensure “the unity of nation” as stated multiple times by Vladimir Putin himself and by members of his government at the meeting on July 3 that was dedicated to the “role of culture and education in strengthening the unity and harmony, civil and patriotic upbringing of the youth.”
The discrepancies between Moscow and the regions are not limited to language, but extend to broader culture as perspicaciously suggested by the Russian officials. The Russian military unit in Adygea has recently installed a monument of Alexander Suvorov, the famous Russian 18th century military commander, in the city of Maikop. Renowned for his military skills across many wars fought by the Russian Empire, Suvorov was also known for his brutality in the war against the Circassians in the North Caucasus. As one of the Circassian activists, Andzor Kabard, pointed out in an interview for the Caucasus Knot, “Suvorov should have a monument where he was born. He was a great commander, and his countrymen have the right to be proud of him. However, the territory that he flooded with Circassians’ blood should not have his monuments.”
IMPLICATIONS: Increasingly, the Russian government shows less respect for the sensitivities of the Russian Federation’s minorities. While the Russian state’s promotion of cultural uniformity did not encroach on the territories of republics in the North Caucasus a few years ago, the Russian government and public have recently become much more zealous about ethnic minorities’ compliance with the norms of the ethnic Russian majority. This especially concerns ethnic minorities in the North Caucasus that have retained strong cultural identities, bitterly fought Russian armies in the past and still harbor a substantial separatist sentiment.
In September 2013, Chechnya’s ruler Ramzan Kadyrov opened a monument for Chechen women that heroically fought Russian forces in the 19th century. The ceremony generated a wave of condemnation and open xenophobia in Russian media. An attempt to erect a monument for Arkhip Osipov in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia in 2014 evoked a massive negative reaction among the Ossetian population and was abandoned. Osipov was a Russian 19th century soldier that fought against North Caucasians and became a Russian hero.
Russian nationalism has received another impetus against the backdrop of Russian-Ukrainian tensions. However, domestically, it faces the resistance of minorities. Even though ethnic Russians comprise about 80 percent Russia’s population, many ethnic minorities within Russia are spatially concentrated and therefore well prepared to take collective action when their rights are disregarded. Besides, the religious and ethnic identities of minorities in Russia are congruent in a few cases, implying that they reinforce each other and in turn reinforces the risk of conflict between them and the central government.
The Russian government’s slogan to fight “Ukrainian fascists” for the wider “Russian world” naturally finds little appeal among many minorities that live in Russia. Despite multiple reports of Chechen fighters in Ukraine, ordinary Chechens cannot escape the comparison between Russia’s brutal war against quasi-independent Chechnya in the two wars of 1994-1996 and 1999-2000 and the situation in Ukraine. Russia’s thinly disguised involvement in armed conflict in Ukraine and its loud and self-righteous condemnation of human rights abuses by Ukrainian forces do not impress the North Caucasians. For example, last May several prominent Circassian activists from the North Caucasus addressed the new Ukrainian government, asking it to recognize the mass killings and expulsions of Circassians from their homeland by the Russian army in the 19th century as genocide. In their address, the Circassians emphasized the similarities between how the Circassians and the Ukrainians suffered at the hands of the Russian Empire.
Regardless of how the Russian Empire impacted the Ukrainians and the Circassians, the important implication of this address is that Russia’s war propaganda, which has had a tremendous impact on Russian society and bumped Vladimir Putin’s approval rating to the new heights, was much less successful among some ethnic minorities in Russia. Aware of this uncomfortable fact, the Russian government appears to be preparing for another campaign aimed at standardization and unification in order to diminish the country’s diversity and increase its alignment along the official position.
CONCLUSIONS: Partly continuing the overall trend of strengthening the power vertical and partly responding to the lack of support among ethnic minorities for its Ukrainian gamble, Russia’s government is gearing up for another assault on ethnic minorities of the country. Russia has traditionally regarded the country’s ethnic diversity as a threat to its unity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicated that ethnic minorities have again failed to sufficiently support the central government. Using a combination of soft and hard power, Moscow strives to increase the penetration of the Russian language and to promote a “correct” interpretation of history among ethnic minorities from the positions of ethnic Russian nationalism. Even though open protests are unlikely under Russia’s current regime, ethnic minorities are certain to use every opportunity to defend their rights. The new Russian policy is likely to increase the frictions between the central government and the republican governments of regions with majority non-Russian populations.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.
(Image Attribution: Patrick Lauke, Flickr)