[lg policy] Minority Languages undeer siege in Russia

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Aug 3 13:41:35 EDT 2018

Aug 02, 2018 Minority Languages Under Siege in Russia and Crimea

*On 19 June 2018, the Russian government approved a law restricting the* *right
to receive pre-school, primary and basic secondary education in a child’s
native language. This will severely infringe upon the eight Russian federal
districts’ right to self-determination as well as on the culture and
linguistic identity of many of its minorities. The Crimean Tatars, who live
in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally occupies since 2014, fear
that this legal amendment will seriously curtail the possibility to provide
native language classes and thereby contribute to eradicating their
culture. *

In the Russian Federation, Russian is the only official state language,
despite the fact that 111 different languages are spoken within the
country’s present-day territory. 35 of those languages are officially
recognised as national languages of Russia. According to UNESCO’s Red Book
of Endangered Languages, only three of these (Tatar from Tatarstan, Yakut,
Tuvinian) are not endangered. The remaining ones are either considered ‘on
the verge of extinction’ or ‘threatened’. Among these endangered languages
is the Turkic language Crimean Tatar (*Qırımtatar tili*), as Crimea is
currently occupied by Russia and its policies have a severe impact there as
well. Currently the Crimean Tatar language is classified as ‘developing’ on
the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale (EGIDS), meaning
that ‘the language is in vigorous use, with standardisation and literature
being sustained through a widespread system of institutionally supported

Crimean Tatars arrived in Crimea in the 13th century with the Mongol Golden
Horde and settled in a region where previously Crimean Greek was spoken.
Nowadays, according to estimations, there are approximately 480,000
speakers of Crimean Tatar. In terms of linguistic classification one can
think of it in the ‘language tree-model’ as having developed from
Proto-Turkic, then Common Turkic, Kipchak and finally Kipchak-Cuman, also
known as Ponto-Caspian. It is therefore in the same linguistic family as
the Kumyk language and not directly related to Turkish, which has developed
from Oghuz. However, due to geographic proximity, Crimean Tatar has been
influenced substantially by modern Turkish. Also, it is worth mentioning
that it should not be confused with Tatar, which also is a Kipchak language
and therefore closer to Crimean Tatar than to Turkish, but spoken in
Tatarstan, in the Russian Federation.

Historically, the homeland of the Crimean Tatars has been the Crimean
Peninsula. For most of the 20th century it was a Russian Soviet Federative
Socialist Republic, part of the USSR. After the collapse of the Soviet
Union it became part of Ukraine. Following the illegal occupation and
annexation by Russia and a contested referendum in 2014, Moscow declared
Crimea part of the Russian Federation – an act declared illegal and roundly
condemned by the international community. Crimean Tatars make up for more
than 10 percent of the peninsula’s population. Most of them still carry
with them the memory of the Soviet-era victimisation of their family
members and their forced deportations in 1944, mostly to Siberia, which
happened during Stalin’s regime.

Given Crimea’s illegal annexation and de-facto control by Russia, for now,
the future of the Crimean Tatar language primarily hinges on Moscow’s
official linguistic policy. This explains the outcry by the Crimean Tatar
community when, in April 2018, a bill amending the Russian federal law was
submitted to the Duma, which approved it on 19 June. This bill will make
significant changes to children’s right to receive pre-school, primary and
basic secondary education in their  native language. Before its passing,
federations within Russia with a second or third official language had to
allocate a certain number of hours per week to teach these languages at
school. With this change in legislation, policy-makers aim to make minority
language classes optional and significantly limit their provision in the
first place. A number of measures are likely to be introduced to discourage
the attendance of minority language classes. For instance, they can now
only be attended with prior written permission of the respective student’s
parents and the number of hours allocated to mother tongue education has
been reduced from five to six hours per week to only two hours, of which
one hour is dedicated to language and one to literature of the respective
minority language. In addition, the newly-passed bill demands that the
Russian language from now on be equally considered as a native language,
and therefore also be an option to choose from - in addition to the regular
Russian classes that are already being provided.

The main argument behind this bill is that children that live in these
regions should not be ‘forced’ to learn languages that are not their mother
tongues. However, this resolution contradicts Russia’s Language Law (1991)
and Education Law (1992), which recognises the right for education in
people’s native languages and delegates authority on these matters to the
federations. Since then, the eight federal districts established compulsory
teaching of their own regions’ native languages as a school subject for all
students irrespective of their ethnicity, that is, including students whose
first language is Russian. Thus, the federations are legal state entities
that have the right to self-determination within the legal framework of the
Russian Federation. Preserving the native languages on the ground by school
education, was, until recently, part of the federal districts’ competencies.

Not only can the Kremlin’s interference in this policy area be seen as an
intrusion into an area previously delegated to the federal districts, but
also, now that parents have to give a written permission for their children
to take part in mother tongue education classes, they are also targets of
systematic bureaucratic harassment. What makes this new law even more
problematic is that, as mentioned, Russian language  will from now on be
considered as a native language among those to choose from. Given the fact
that Russia’s final high school exam has to be taken in Russian, and
generally speaking, a good command of Russian is a prerequisite for
socio-economic ascension in most career paths, parents are likely to be
expected to opt for Russian native language classes in spite of their
linguistic minority background. Thus, with the new law, learning one’s
native language at school can be done only to the detriment of a better
command of Russian, which, in effect, discourages speakers of minority
languages from learning their native languages at school.

There has been resistance against this new legal amendment among the
Russian population, especially from the linguistic minorities within the
Federation such as the Kabardino-Cherkess in Kabardino-Nalkaria, the
Ossetians in North Ossetia and the Kumyk and Avar in Dagestan, but also
from the Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Already, the number of native speakers
of these linguistic minorities has been decreasing in recent years, even
during the time when native language education was compulsory. An internet
against this new law has been set up and about fifty thousand signatures
have been collected so far.

Education is one of the key tools of linguistic policy-making in order to
either encourage or discourage the acquisition and consequently the
preservation of children’s native languages. This legislative amendment put
forward by the Russian government will certainly cause the latter,
provoking a further decrease in the number of speakers of these languages.
The UNPO hopes that decision-makers in the Duma will remember the
distinction made in the Russian language between pусский (russkij) and
pоссийский (rossijskij), in a further reading of this amendment. The former
term refers to the Russian ethnicity, while the latter designates all
citizens of the Russian Federation. If one were to believe the Russian
government’s discourse, after 2014, Crimean Tatars have become Russian
subjects, or pоссийский, which in turn means that they should not their
right to preserve their Crimean Tatar identity, culture, religion and,
crucially, their language, taken away from them.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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