Russians alarmed by Azeri language law

  • 2002-07-25
  • Qamal Ali

A new law promoting the native Azeri language in this ex-Soviet republic has angered the country's Russian minority, which claim it infringes their rights.

The Azeri National Language Act became law in June with the full support of the government and opposition. It has been prompted by fears the native tongue is coming under threat and is designed to limit the use of Russian.

The law requires all official documents to be written in Azeri, which uses the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet, and makes Azeri information and dubbing mandatory for all television broadcasts.

Supporters from the Democratic Congress of Azerbaijan, or DCA, an alliance of right-wing nationalist movements, say the law is aimed at encouraging Russian-speakers to learn Azeri, adding that Russian has gained pre-eminence across the country in recent years and schools teaching it have multiplied.

"Russian schools are funded with taxpayers' money, which means that Azeri citizens are paying to promote a foreign language in their own country," said DCA lawmaker Sabir Rustamhanly said. "If Russians want to have schools in here, let them pay for them."

No restrictions on citizenship were planned, he added.

Between 30,000 and 50,000 of Azerbaijan's 8 million people are ethnic Russians, and many other minorities – including Turks, Jews, Georgians, Lezghinians, Talysh, Armenians, Ukrainians and others – also use Russian widely.

More than 2 million residents, many of them ethnic Azeris, are estimated to speak Russian at home and at work.

The country's Russian community has slammed the new law.

"The national language bill should not have been passed," said Viktor Tatarenko, deputy chairman of the Russian Community of Azerbaijan and editor-in-chief of the Sons of Azerbaijan literary series. "It contradicts recent treaties between Azerbaijan and Russia, infringes on people's rights and is undemocratic."

But it's not only Russian education that's under threat. Vahid Nahysh, president of the private broadcaster ANS, wants the government to revoke the three free public channels allotted to Russian television companies ORT, NTV and RTR and give them to local broadcasters instead.

"Those who wish to watch Russian television are free to buy a satellite dish like they have to do in Georgia," said Nahysh, "A nation watching television in a foreign language cannot hope to ever learn its mother tongue."

Noticeable changes have occurred since the bill took effect. Increasing numbers of employers have been rejecting all job applications that are not written in Azeri and colleges refuse to consider such submissions.

Maleika Abbaszade, dean of admissions with a public admission board, explained that all official documentation must be written in the native language, and in Latin script, not Cyrillic.

The country has been striving to return to the Latin alphabet since it gained independence in 1991. Josef Stalin imposed Cyrillic on Azerbaijan in 1936 in an apparent attempt to sever ethnic and cultural ties between the country's Turkish community and their ancestral home.

However, Abbaszade said the law is a practical one not aimed at settling historical scores. "Any Azeri citizen finishing secondary school must be able to at least apply for a job in the national language," she said.

Most of the 17 public and private colleges in the Azeri capital, Baku, have Russian departments. This year, colleges received applications from more than 44,000 graduates of Azeri language schools and just over 7,000 who attended Russian ones - a ratio of around six to one.

The difference in education levels between Russian and Azeri departments is also a cause for concern. Azeri language schoolbooks are either very old or non-existent, and professors who were trained in their own language in local pedagogical colleges are not rated very highly.

While government and opposition are determined to enforce the new law, some have called for the process to be done cautiously. "Russian is an international language and it makes no sense to discriminate against it," said lawmaker Ibrahim Isaev. "Instead of trying to close down Russian schools, why don't we focus on improving Azeri ones."

Authorities have dismissed rumors that Russian language schools are under threat of closure.

"As far as I know, Russian will be taught in Azerbaijan as long as it has an audience," said Arif Muradov, deputy chief of the department of schools at the education ministry. "We cannot afford to alienate the Russian community, so the government will continue to subsidize its schools."