Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia's Cultural Watershed

The once-hated Russian language is making a comeback in post-Soviet Armenia
By Susanna Petrosian

Moves to promote the Armenian language and marginalise Russian have met with a mixture of suspicion and regret in the former Soviet republic.


Members of the local intelligentsia argue that, without a knowledge of Russian or other foreign languages, the next generation of Armenians will find themselves cut off from the outside world.


And plans to sideline Russian TV and radio programmes have caused widespread indignation amongst the population at large.


The question of Russian-language media came to the fore at the end of last year when the Armenian parliament adopted its TV and Radio Bill. The new legislation significantly reduces the air-time allowed to Russian and other foreign language broadcasts.


According to the law, Armenian-language programmes must make up 25 per cent of all broadcasts in 2001 with the proportion rising to 55 per cent by 2004.


Grigor Amalian, chairman of Armenia's National TV and Radio Commission, argues that the law is aimed at supporting and developing the local broadcast industry.


However, producers say that the move will have a disastrous effect on the private sector which lacks the funds to translate and dub foreign programmes.


On the whole, the Russian TV channels are hugely popular in Armenia and the news that ORT would be coming off the air from January 2001 sparked a wave of national outrage.


President Robert Kocharian's press office was subsequently forced to release a statement insisting that the decision was prompted by financial problems rather than political agendas.


The Radio and TV Law is the culmination of a government policy which was first initiated in the early 1990s.


In the wake of independence, there was a strong reaction against Russian language and culture which many believed had been imposed on Armenia by the Kremlin as a means of exerting political pressure.


Activists from the nationalist Mashtots movement even dismantled busts of the Russian writers Pushkin and Chekhov which stood outside the schools named after them.


The busts were only replaced after members of the Yerevan intelligentsia intervened.


Most Armenian intellectuals believe that a Russian education not only gives children access to a wealth of academic literature, it also offers them a better start in life.


Levon Galstian, head of the State Inspectorate on Languages, comments, "We have arrived at a psychological and social watershed which has created many problems including the disintegration of social unity."


Today, existing legislation states that Armenian should be the official language of both the education system and the government bureaucracy.


But some experts claim that this approach has led to a wave of radical thinking which in turn has forced dozens of highly qualified specialists to leave both teaching and the civil service.


One analyst commented, "This education policy has inflicted serious damage on the study of foreign languages - and especially Russian."


Certainly, the closure of Russian schools across Armenia has prompted a mass exodus of ethnic Russians from the former Soviet republic. Of the 80-90,000 Russians living in Armenia prior to 1993, only 15-16,000 have remained.


Yuri Yakovenko, vice-president of the Rossia association, commented, "The Russians and other minority groups simply saw no prospects for continuing their children's education [in Armenia]."


Other ethnic minorities have also found the Law on Language to be an insurmountable obstacle. For example, the tens of thousands of Azeri refugees in Armenia are effectively barred from working in any state-run organisation.


However, the policy of extremes ushered in by independence has tailed off and, in recent years, there has been a backlash against the language legislation.


There are currently 15 schools in Armenia where classes are held in Russian as well as four all-Russian schools. In March 2000, the president's office set up a coordinating committee to review the question of education in foreign languages.


One of the greatest problems that faces the education system is the lack of Armenian-language text-books and study aids - around 90 per cent of available books are in Russian.


While the country lacks funds to translate the texts, young Armenians who have grown up with only a sketchy knowledge of Russian are effectively unable to access this vast informational resource.


Nuridjan Manukian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Science and Education, said, "In many state institutions, they recognise that the teaching of Russian and other foreign languages is essential for our country. It is therefore imperative to raise the level of study programmes, to publish new text-books and even to open special schools which offer an in-depth study of Russian and other languages."


According to Manukian, 26 schools are already offering "an in-depth study of Russian" whilst plans are afoot to create similar programmes in other schools.


Some experts have even proposed giving Russian the status of a second state language - a suggestion dismissed by the rector of Yerevan State Linguistic University, Suren Zolian, who said, "This is absurd from a legal and political point of view".


Meanwhile, private initiatives are leading the way. A branch of the American University opened in Yerevan five years ago and the Slavic University established a local campus in 1998. The summer of 2000 saw the launch of the


French University where students can study several foreign languages at the same time.


However, despite widespread acknowledgment that foreign languages are the key to self-advancement, in Armenia's harsh economic climate a good education remains the privilege of a small minority.


Susanna Petrosian works for the Noyan Tapan news agency in Yerevan