Central Asians ‘rediscover’ Russian as a social stabiliser and economic catalyst

LONDON (TCA) — Attempts by national governments of Central Asia’s former Soviet republics to make their indigenous languages tools for nationalistic mainstream politics have been halfhearted from the very beginning following the break-up of the USSR. Intrusions of other external movements, mainly though not only “Islamic” ones, have made authorities throughout the region think twice. With a large number of migrants to Russia and business development, all landlocked countries of Central Asia are in search for coexistence between nationalist sentiments and cross-frontier ambitions.

Separating culture from politics

In the Soviet Union, a system to allow indigenous languages and the all-Union Russian language to coexist was introduced at a very early stage, conducted by Stalin, who was then Commissioner of Nationalities under Lenin’s supervision. The reason could have been that Lenin was a Kalmyk, Stalin and Ordzhonikidze Georgians and Mikoyan an Armenian, and non-Russians from the derelict Empire had formidable clout in the new regime.

The “secret of success” regarding language policies pursued in the USSR from day one till the very end largely consisted of a separation between culture (often referred to with the rather disdainful term “folklore”) and hard political content. Citizens of Yakutia, Tyumen, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and other regions and later republics throughout the Union learnt their indigenous languages at home, while Russian was taught to them from the first course of primary school on. It was then that bilinguism came into people’s lives. This unity of ideas against diversity of ethnic cultures and languages kept communities across the immensely vast Soviet territory communicating.

‘Diversified and globalised’

The system has left deep marks on language policies in virtually all former Soviet republics today. But signs of distortion, caused by attempts to add geopolitical values to linguistics, are appearing on the horizon about everywhere. Western tourists visiting Central Asia often discover that their attempts to master some basic Russian makes them communicate much better than trying to manage with English, even when dealing with the youngest generation born after the break-up of the USSR.

During a recent conference on the language education issue at the Slavic University in Bishkek, many questions were asked by a variety of speakers while providing vague and little convincing answers.  Among them was Joseph Yakoub of the Catholic University of Lyon (France), who stated: “Cultural diversity, as an expression of human creativity, is an important and worldwide matter in our diversified and globalised world. It is a visible fact reminding that the world surrounding us is multi-ethnical, multicultural, multireligious and multilingual made up of different senses of belonging.”

With the success of Brexit, it will be unthinkable for Europe to exclude English as the European business language to be replaced by German or French or degrading English to the status of a secondary or even foreign language. If it happens it will create chaos, resulting in socioeconomic stagnation, for at least an entire generation.

As far as Central Asia is concerned, the choice is between nationalism and isolation and globalism and economic development.

Russian as a reconciliation tool

Curiously but not entirely unexpectedly, the solution to the dilemma has come from third parties. Attempts by anti-Soviet movements to jump in and “replace” the old all-Russian linguistic supremacy by a new supranational conductor have mainly come from Turkey, where its controversial retired imam Fethullah Gülen, a longstanding ally of now President Recep Erdogan turned into a rival first and bitter foe at present in their common attempts to capture the minds of the bulk of Turkey’s conservative Islamic voters, poured fortunes into hundreds of schools and other education institutes into the Caucasus and Central Asia with the aim to bring Turkish as an awareness tool for both nationalistic and religious purposes. After Gülen fled to the USA, most of his schools in Central Asia were closed down and traces of renewed “panturkism” treated with suspicion.

This triggered a reconciliation with the familiar Russian language and the culture it represents. “The Russian language plays an important role in the formation of not only highly skilled, but also socially active, fully developed personality, since it has a significant educational and developmental potential,” in the opinion of Pavel Galkin of the Tashkent State University speaking at the Bishkek conference. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of all the republics of the USSR, new independent countries faced different challenges in the educational system, due to the fact that each one tried to create a new concept of national identity mostly with the popularisation of the native titular language.”

In other words: Russian as a reconciliation tool seems to be the best solution to a more educated people and business development for a larger economic success and a valid solution to various failed alternatives introduced in different countries in the last twenty years.