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Russia is undergoing a fundamental internal transformation. In a development lost amid headlines surrounding the World Cup, U.S. President Donald Trump’s Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Moscow’s ongoing row with the United Kingdom over the Sergei Skripal affair, on June 19 the Russian Duma adopted a bill that will profoundly affect the status of the country’s hundred-plus ethnic minorities. The bill makes education in 34 of Russia’s 35 official languages—every language except Russian—optional, limiting instruction in ethnic-minority languages to two hours per week. Previously, native-language instruction had been exclusively the purview of regional governments in Russia’s 26 ethnically defined autonomous republics and okrugs, which often offered at least the first years of primary education in their own official minority languages. This is now set to change by federal decree.
The bill is the result of a new policy announced by Putin last July. At a press conference in Yoshkar-Ola, capital of the Mari El Republic (where the ethnic-minority Mari language shares official status with Russian), Putin veered into an unexpected diatribe on languages. He stated that the Russian language was “the spiritual framework” of the country, “our state language,” and that it “cannot be replaced with anything.” Teaching ethnic-minority languages would become optional, to avoid any possibility of “forcing someone to learn a language that is not native to him.”
Although the impetus for these remarks was unclear at the time, they were soon revealed as part of a new effort to Russify the country’s many ethnic minorities. Since he came to power in 1999, one of Putin’s foremost priorities has been to centralize Moscow’s control over Russia’s regions. The one glaring hole in this campaign had been the Republic of Tatarstan, which had signed a special agreement on sovereignty with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 that granted it unique power over its natural resources and enshrined the official status of the Tatar language. That deal was renegotiated and renewed in 2007 before finally expiring in July 2017. Putin’s speech in Mari El was a message to Tatar authorities that he was unwilling to accept a new agreement along the same lines. The recent bill formalized this new policy.
Yet the law is not only, or even primarily, directed at the Tatars. It is also intended to suppress minority identity in another region where Putin has long feared ethnic nationalism: the North Caucasus. The Kremlin’s new language policy represents an unprecedented escalation in its struggle to subjugate that region’s minority populations, which have long resisted the central authority of Moscow. By threatening the foundations of North Caucasian identity, however, Putin may be risking a blowback that even he cannot control.
Putin’s long tenure in power has been defined by the reimposition of stability, reversing the chaos of the 1990s. Nowhere has this been felt more acutely than in the troubled republics of the North Caucasus. Putin’s first act as president was to launch the Second Chechen War, resulting in the destruction of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The war saw a litany of unchecked abuses by the Russian armed forces, from indiscriminate bombardment of urban areas to the mass execution of civilians, demonstrating the callous attitude of the new Russian leadership toward the region’s indigenous population. Moscow’s response to the spiraling insurgency that spread across the rest of the North Caucasus in the following years was similarly brutal.
Since 2014, the security situation in the North Caucasus has largely stabilized. Yet Putin has continued to view the non-Russian populations of the region, with their strong local cultures and identities, as potential threats to Moscow’s authority. National minority languages in the North Caucasus were already under threat—facing budget reductions and federal efforts to reduce the public role of non-Russian languages, the last decade had seen education opportunities in minority languages reduced by as much as 50 percent in some areas—and the recent lull in fighting has opened the door for more ambitious plans to suppress their identities entirely.
When the new language bill was tabled in the Duma, not a single North Caucasian representative voted against it. This was no surprise, as most had been picked for their loyalty to the Kremlin. Yet civil society’s response was a different story. Just prior to the bill’s adoption, a group of representatives from 12 of Russia’s ethnic republics, including five in the North Caucasus, called for the legislation to be blocked. When it was passed without a single dissenting North Caucasian vote, social media users across the region erupted, blasting their representatives as “cowards” without the courage to reflect the will of the population. Teachers in Chechnya called the measure unacceptable and “the beginning of the end” for minority languages in Russia. The International Circassian Organization called for the new law to be rescinded before it came into force. Civil society figures in Ingushetia, a republic in the North Caucasus, referred to the bill as “cynical discrimination” and noted the particular hypocrisy when compared with the situation of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states, where the Kremlin regularly presses for minority rights. North Ossetian leader Vyacheslav Bitarov vowed to keep the study of the Ossetian language compulsory in his republic. Both ethnic Kabardins and Balkars decried the law in their republic’s capital of Nalchik, with one Balkar elder stating that his grandchildren “do not know one word” of their native language even now.
This reaction from North Caucasian activists was unsurprising. Despite a lack of state support, civil society groups in the region have made numerous grass-roots efforts to preserve and develop their languages, viewing them as a crucial part of their culture and identity. One group has translated the interface of the popular social media platform VKontakte into seven North Caucasian languages. In Ingushetia, activists have started a project to dub popular animated films into the Ingush language, releasing a translated version of The Lion King in May. The Circassian Union, based in Nalchik, has started a project to reconcile the language’s western (Adyghe) and eastern (Kabardian) dialects in hopes of making it easier to study. Some activists have even suggested abandoning the Cyrillic alphabet, which is ill suited to the large consonant and vowel inventories of North Caucasian languages.
Russia’s fraught relationship with the minority peoples of the North Caucasus dates back hundreds of years. The Russian empire’s final conquest of the region in 1864 was marked by the near destruction of its largest ethnic group, the Circassians, 90 percent of whom were either killed or forced into exile. A similar exodus occurred on a smaller scale in Chechnya and Dagestan. For the rest of the tsarist period, locals were largely ignored, operating in a sort of apartheid scenario in which they were treated as second-class citizens and forbidden from settling in major cities but allowed to continue their traditional way of life.
The Soviet era was only slightly kinder. Although communist authorities in theory granted autonomy to ethnic-minority regions, the manner in which they did so was often arbitrary. For example, in 1922, Joseph Stalin, then the people’s commissar for nationalities, divided the Circassians into three groups, Adyghe, Cherkess, and Kabardian—a wholly artificial distinction marked only by slight differences in dialect. The largest tragedy came in the closing stages of World War II, when Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Chechen, Ingush, Karachay, and other North Caucasian ethnic groups to the steppes of Kazakhstan in an attempt to destroy their identities entirely.
Even after they were allowed to return home in 1957, North Caucasians found themselves marginalized in their own republics by the growing ethnic Russian population. Chechens and their language were particularly stigmatized, especially in the capital of Chechnya, Grozny, where ethnic Russians formed over half of the population. A Chechen colleague told me a story of growing up in Grozny in the 1980s: he and his friend were speaking Chechen on a public streetcar when they were overheard by a Russian woman, who told them, in Russian, to “speak a human language, not that animal tongue.” Stories like this are unfortunately common, and their anti-Chechen sentiment is a reflection of the Kremlin’s traditional attitude: in contrast to every other autonomous ethnic region, the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was, until 1989, always headed by an ethnic Russian.
Under the Soviets, however, the status of ethnic-minority languages was still relatively assured: alongside Russian, education was available in them through at least primary school. With the new language law, Putin has decided to go a step further than his tsarist and Soviet predecessors by removing native-language education entirely.
Sadly, the language law is just the latest development in a long-running process of estrangement between Moscow and the North Caucasus, with the former increasingly treating the latter as colonies. At the end of the Soviet period, ethnic Russians made up some 75 percent of the urban population in the North Caucasus. Yet nearly 350,000 Russians had left the region by 1999, and their share of the population in Chechnya has since fallen to a mere 1.5 percent.
By threatening the foundations of North Caucasian identity, Putin may be risking a blowback that even he cannot control.
As Russians have departed, the North Caucasus’ relevance to Moscow has fallen accordingly. The starkest example of this new colonial mindset is in Dagestan: last September, the Kremlin appointed Vladimir Vasilyev, an ethnic Russian from outside Moscow, as the republic’s new governor. Vasilyev, the first non-Dagestani to head the republic since 1948, has staffed his administration with other non-Dagestanis, eliminating any semblance of political participation on the part of the local population. Ingushetia is perhaps the one republic to buck the trend—local leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov enjoys some genuine popularity and is seen to have local interests in mind. Yet he, too, has been criticized for a lack of effort to develop and preserve the Ingush language. Last year, he was embroiled in a scandal in which Ingush textbooks, having been printed and sent to the republic, sat inaccessible in a warehouse since the government had not allocated the funds to purchase them.
There already exists an ominous precedent for the treatment of ethnic minorities under Putin. The Mari El Republic, where Putin gave his now infamous language speech last July, was ruled by an ethnic Russian, Leonid Markelov, from 2001 to 2017. Markelov, in the words of one local activist, “simply hated the Maris.” Under his rule, the Mari ethnic group, which speaks a language related to Finnish, experienced nearly two decades of policies targeted against their language and identity. Where Mari villages once had signs in both Russian and Mari, now only the former remain. In some districts, Mari children already receive only one hour of native-language instruction per week, guaranteeing that they will not have a strong command of the language. Now thoroughly Russified, local activists say Mari El is “a national republic in name only,” its cultural heritage systematically destroyed.
Putin is hoping that the new law can achieve similar results in the North Caucasus, but the potential for blowback is dire. Although the Kremlin seeks to throttle any possibility of future ethnic mobilization, its policies are having precisely the opposite effect. Civil society has been resilient in the North Caucasus, growing during Putin’s third term despite the near total destruction of the region’s armed insurgency. The clear danger to ethnic identity posed by the new law has already generated a wave of nationalism and activism, even among groups such as the Circassians that had previously been dormant.
Although there is no direct link between this upsurge of nationalism and the region’s insurgency, many of the factors that induce individuals to participate in the former, such as a sense of political disenfranchisement and anger toward unresponsive authorities, overlap with the reasons they join the latter. With an ominous spike in violence in the region earlier this year, including conflict incidents in long docile republics such as Karachay-Cherkessia, the situation is potentially volatile. In attempting to assimilate the peoples of the North Caucasus, Putin is playing a dangerous game and jeopardizing the security of the entire region.