Azerbaijan: Language Law Controversy

Ethnic Russians fear legislation introduced to bolster the Azerbaijani language will discriminate against them

Azerbaijan: Language Law Controversy

Ethnic Russians fear legislation introduced to bolster the Azerbaijani language will discriminate against them

A new law promoting the native tongue has angered the country's Russian minority, which claim it infringes their rights.

The Azerbaijani 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.

A spokesperson for the Democratic Congress of Azerbaijan, DCA, an influential alliance of right-wing nationalist movements, said the Russian language has gained pre-eminence across the country in recent years, and schools teaching it have multiplied.

DCA deputy and poet Sabir Rustamhanly said the legislation is aimed to encourage Russian-speakers to learn the language of the country they are living in, and that no restrictions on citizenship were planned.

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

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."

Of Azerbaijani's eight million people, between 30,000 and 50,000 are ethnic Russians. However, many other minorities - including Turks, Jews, Georgians, Lezghinians, Talysh, Armenians, Ukrainians and others - also use their language. Overall more than two million residents, many of them ethnic Azerbaijanis, are estimated to speak Russian at home and at work.

The Russian community is naturally opposed to the government's drive. "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."

Noticeable changes have occurred since the bill took effect. Increasing numbers of employers have been rejecting all job applications that are not written in Azerbaijani 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.

An edict to this effect was signed last year. The country has been striving to return to the Latin alphabet since it gained independence in 1991. Stalin had imposed Cyrillic script 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 believes government edicts have nothing to do with it. "Any Azerbaijani citizen finishing secondary school must be able to at least apply for a job in the national language," she said.

Most of Baku's 17 public and private colleges have Russian departments. This year, colleges received applications from more than 44,000 graduates of Azerbaijani language schools and just over seven thousand who attended Russian ones - a ratio of around six to one.

The difference in education levels between Russian and Azerbaijani departments is also a cause for concern. Azerbaijani 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 parliament deputy Ibrahim Isaev. "Instead of trying to close down Russian schools, why don't we focus on improving Azerbaijani ones."

The authorities, meanwhile, have dismissed rumours 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 subsidise its schools."

Qamal Ali is a journalist with the Zerkalo newspaper in Baku

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