«The Russian language still has a considerable potential to be used as a soft power tool in Central Asia, but that potential is steadily declining», – independent researcher Nurbek Bekmurzaev notes in his article written specifically for analytical platform CABAR.asia.
The number of those who do not speak Russian is over 50 percent in all but one Central Asian state, Kazakhstan;
Russian language fell victim to the nation building projects in the region;
The lack of educational materials and the poor quality of education in local languages have resulted in high demand for education in the Russian language;
The current state of affairs with regards to the Russian language is mostly a legacy of the Soviet period, and with the passing of time education in Russian faces increasing competition.
By 2025, Kazakhstan plans to become the third Central Asian country to have switched to the Latin script from the Cyrillic. This means that the three out of 5 countries in the region – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – will switch to the Latin script. These three countries are the richest in the region and their populations make up 78.8 percent (56,198,000 million) of the total population in the region. However, it was Kazakhstan’s decision to change its alphabet that stirred the most debate, for it has the largest number of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the region. Moreover, it is the only regional state that shares borders with Russia and positions itself as a strategic partner of Russia. Thus, this decision by the Kazakh government was seen by some as Kazakhstan’s attempt to grow out of Russia’s influence.
The most important questions to come out from the above-mentioned discussions are regarding the current and future status and role of the Russian language in Central Asia. More specifically, they pertain to the diminishing role of the language and its fading capacity as Russia’s soft power tool in the region. Often framed as the local elites’ deliberate policy of attacking and edging out the Russian language by the Russian expert community, this topic is brought up every time the Central Asian states adopt any changes with regards to language in their countries. Hysteric reactions aside, it is fair to state that the Russian language is fading away from the public space, lessening its capacity to exert Russian influence in the region. This is a commonly known trend, noted by experts and practitioners alike. What is more important and less clear to understand is why the Russian language is slowly fading into obscurity and losing its power to influence. Answering these questions will help to chart out the future political and social prospects of the Russian language with regards to being a Russian soft power tool in Central Asia.
Status Quo of the Russian Language in Central Asia
The current situation around the Russian language in the region is very different than it was prior to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. According to the 1989 Soviet population census, 80 percent of people in the Soviet Union spoke Russian. These numbers was a result of the Soviet authorities’ long-term nation building strategy through language that started in 1938 when the study of Russian was made mandatory at all schools. During the Soviet Union Russian was used in all office work, army and law-enforcement structures, books and newspapers were published in Russian, and the language served as an important resource for social mobility.
Fast forward to 2019, and the situation with regards to the Russian language is starkly different. The number of Central Asians who speak Russian has significantly decreased. The number of those who do not speak Russian is over 50 percent in all but one Central Asian state, Kazakhstan. Despite the general trend of the diminishing role of the Russian language, there are significant differences among the five countries in how much of a presence the Russian language has in public space.
The most extreme case of moving away from everything Russian, including the language, is Turkmenistan. The country has done everything to distance itself from Russia’s lingual soft power tool. The first step was the shift to the Latin alphabet in 1991. According to the 2013 study results, 82 percent of the population does not speak Russian. The remaining 18 percent are the older generation that grew up in the Soviet Union. Education in Russian, both elementary and secondary, is almost non-existent.
The only media outlet available in Russian is the official newspaper “Neutral Turkmenistan”. There are no radio and TV shows available in Russian, the same applies to all other print materials. Thus, Turkmenistan now has a new generation of citizens that do not have any knowledge of Russian. Additional barriers for Russian influence have been a visa regime with Russia and the lack of labor migration to Russia.
Uzbekistan comes second in the region with regards to attempts aimed at limiting the Russia’s influence through the language. The government removed any mention of the Russian language from the constitution in the mid 1990s, preparing the legal framework for wider derussification. All the paper work at state structures is now produced strictly in Uzbek, and then duplicated to Russian. In 1993 the country adopted the law “On Introduction of the Uzbek Alphabet based on the Latin Script”. Social, economic, and cultural challenges have been pushing the deadline for completion of this transformation until now, casting a large shadow over the success of the reform. 59 percent of the population does not speak Russian in Uzbekistan. This is the result of limiting the educational opportunities available in Russian.
By 2016, the number of schools providing education in Russian decreased by 1,177 or 436,000 students in total. Russian is taught maximum two hours a week at schools. Faculties that provide higher education fully in Russian remain only at the Ferghana State University. The state has passed laws requiring at least 70 percent of all TV and radio shows to be in Uzbek. In contrast to Turkmenistan though, newspapers in Russian are widely circulated in the country.
Labor migration to Russia is an important factor for the government and people of Uzbekistan to remain committed to studying the Russian language. The country ranks first in terms of supplying workers to the Russian labor market. In 2018 alone, over 1.5 million Uzbek citizens travelled to Russia for working purposes. Uzbek labor migrants contribute to the economic development at home as well; the remittances sent from Russian to Uzbekistan amounted to USD 3.9 billion in 2017.
Tajikistan falls in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to the presence allowed for the Russian language. It still uses the Cyrillic script and, most likely, will continue to do so, given its poor status and the enormous costs of switching to the Latin script. The country’s constitution mentions Russian as “the language of international communication”. This status was denied in 2009 due to the worsened relations between Tajikistan and Russia, but was reinstated in 2011. The government has adopted several measures to edge out Russian from the political and cultural life. Starting from 2011, all the state officials are required to take a Tajik language test. In 2007, the country experienced a wave of last name derussification; it was then that the president removed «–ov» in his last name and became Emomali Rakhmon.
However, Russian continues to be of high value in the educational and media spheres. 91 percent of the population watches TV in Russian, and 80 percent access Russian language websites on the internet. Although only 2.4 percent of the school students receive education in Russian, 20-25 percent of university students choose to study in Russian – thanks to the presence of the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe. Tajikistan’s friendlier approach to Russian is conditioned by Tajikistan’s economic dependence on Russia. At least 12.2 percent of the population is in Russia as labor migrants. Remittances sent back home by the Tajik migrants make up 27 percent of the country’s GDP.
Kyrgyzstan had adopted a much friendlier stance in relation to allowing the Russian language permeate its public space. In 2000, changes adopted in the constitution granted Russian an official status in the country, paving the way for the office work to be in Russian, which remains a de facto language in the government structures. Russia is popular not only in the government. In contrast to other states in the region, the number of schools offering education in Russian has actually risen in Kyrgyzstan. 20 percent of all school students receive education in Russian. Most of university education is offered in Russian as well, with Russian-Kyrgyz Slavonic University leading the way. The university has 11,303 students, which is around 11 percent of all university students receiving education in Russian. 78 percent of the population – at least rarely – watches TV shows in Russian, and the newspapers and magazines printed in Russian have higher circulation numbers than the ones in Kyrgyz.
Not everything is as smooth as it seems though. State officials are required to take Kyrgyz language tests, and the number of people who can speak Russian is steadily declining. Politicians occasionally suggest to strip off Russian of the official status and to close down schools offering education in Russian. Kyrgyzstan is another Central Asia country that economically relies on Russia. At least 10 percent of the population works in Russia, and the remittances make up 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP. Labor migrants from Kyrgyzstan are reported to have better knowledge of Russian in comparison to Tajik and Uzbek labor migrants and have easier time finding jobs in Russia.
Kazakhstan stands out the most in terms of the Russian language being the most prevalent alternative to the Kazakh. Similarly to Kyrgyzstan, Russian has an official status mentioned in the constitution. It is widely used in the paperwork management, although the government has adopted a roadmap program, according to which all the paper work will be done in Kazakh. President Nazarbayev has issued a decree requiring all the discussions in the parliament and government to be in Kazakh, albeit providing translation. Although Kazakhstan is the leader with regards to having the largest amount of students receiving education in Russian (800,000), this number has decreased by 1.4 million in the last 25 years, due to the closure of 5,861 Russian language schools.
Furthermore, the government has adopted a program that promises to introduce high school education in three languages: Kazakh, English and Russian. In February, 2018, Nazarbayev has signed the decree on the shift to the Latin script – with plans to complete it in 2025. Although Russian is still widely used in the political and social life, there are no doubts over what language will be prioritized in future. Nazarbayev has stated: “The youth must know that without the knowledge of the state language [Kazakh] it will impossible to work in the state structures, law-enforcement agencies, service sector and in the judicial system.”Diminishing Factors of the Role of the Russian Language
Despite the fact that Russian enjoys different status in five Central Asian states, the common theme is its diminishing role. Whether its complete and early removal of the language from the public space as in Turkmenistan or gradual and careful edging out as in Kazakhstan, Russia is losing the capacity of its language as tool for influence in the region. The most important element of Russia’s soft power toolkit is experiencing gradual downgrading in the hands of the local elites, and there are three main reasons for it.
First, the Russian language fell victim to the nation building projects in the region. The languages of the titular nations in five states played a key role in reimagining the past and future of the five Central Asian states. They laid foundations for the newly independent countries to shape their new identities. The regional states dug deep into their histories, leapfrogging the Soviet period, to the ancient and glorious past when they spoke their own tongues and practiced political autonomy. Kyrgyzstan used Manas epoch for these purposes, Uzbekistan turned to Amir Timur and his Timurid Empire, and Tajikistan dug out the Samanid Empire to serve as flagship elements in their nation building projects. There was simply no place for the Russian language in these political projects.
The policy of linguistic nationalism has been pushing Russian out of the public space
In the context of promoting everything ethnic and pre-Soviet, the generally accepted rule became that proper Kazakhs should speak Kazakh and proper Uzbeks should speak Uzbek. Thus, the policy of linguistic nationalism has been pushing Russian out of the public space, undermining its potential to be used by Russia to exert influence in the region. Additionally, the growing negative perception of the Soviet past and colonial policies of the Russian Empire in Central Asia presents Russian as the tongue of the oppressors. There are more events being organized in remembrance of the tragic events such as the famine in Kazakhstan in 1932-33 and the 1916 uprising and flee of the Kyrgyz people to China. These events claimed lives of several hundred thousand people and happened under the rule of the Soviet and Tsarist authorities. Thus, promoting the Russian language in this setting has become particularly unpopular. This is not to say that the Central Asian states have totally banished the Russian language, but to highlight how the nation building discourses have made it difficult to adopt policies in support of expanding education and entertainment in Russian.
Second, the fault partially falls on Russia itself for over relying on the Soviet legacy and not prioritizing the cultural and social cooperation with the region. The Russian government does not have a long-term plan to strengthen the social and cultural cooperation with Central Asia in a way that benefits and involves people beyond the capital cities and other areas with populations that are already friendly towards Russia.
Thus far it has been mostly people in the capitals and regions like the northern parts of Kazakhstan that have been benefitted from the educational opportunities provided by the Russian soft power projects, such as schools and universities offering education in Russian. For example, educational institutions sponsored by Russia and aimed at promoting the Russian language and culture in Kyrgyzstan are all located in Bishkek. The same holds true for the Tajik-Russian Slavonic University, which is in Dushanbe.
Russia’s Federal Agency for CIS Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation, established in 2008, is the only relevant state body that is called upon to spread the Russian language and culture in Central Asia. It has established Russian Centers for Science and Culture in Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent – three capitals. The number of Kyrgyz (21), Tajik (364) and Uzbek (695) citizens who studied Russian at these centers barely makes 1000 people mark. The number of books on Russian language and literature provided by this agency also remains low and comes significantly short of the actual needs of Central Asian states.
The legacy of the Soviet Union thus far allows Russia to reign supreme with regards to Russian being the main bridge between the Central Asia states and the world information space. Local languages are not developed enough to replace Russian as a highway to high culture, art, and science. The number of Central Asians who speak English, Chinese, or Turkish is too small for the regional governments to disregard Russian – they need it for proper functioning and development of the states. The two spheres where Russian is still of high value are the educational and media spheres – especially with regards to technical, medical and military education.
The lack of educational materials and the poor quality of education in local languages have resulted in high demand for education in the Russian language.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.
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