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

Kabardino-Balkaria: Languages Threatened

The end of television broadcasts in the Kabardinian and Balkar languages has sparked a debate over the future of the Russian autonomous republic.
By Valery Khatazhukov

A front-page newspaper article in a government newspaper has stoked up a row in Kabardino-Balkaria about the cancellation of virtually all television broadcasts in the two native languages of the Russian autonomous republic.


The article “She has become a stepmother” by the veteran television journalist Mukhab Bzhenikov was published in Adygskoe Slovo on February 14. The “stepmother” in question is the Russian television channel VGRTK, which the reporter accused of mistreating its “daughter”, Kabardino-Balkaria’s local television company, by pulling the broadcasts.


Bzhenikov also confronted the local authorities by calling on them to break their silence on the issue. He told IWPR that it was time for the republic to have an independent channel that protected the national culture.


The row dates to January 1 this year, when the republican television channel ceased all programmes in the Kabardin and Balkar languages on economics, culture, language, history, and literature, as well as concerts and theatre performances. All that remains is a 20-minute broadcast per week for both languages.


The unexpected decision has sparked anger and heated debate, with letters to the newspapers and calls by intellectuals to have the programmes restored.


“It feels like someone has died in the family,” said Taujan Kardanova, a 70-year-old pensioner in Nalchik.


“It’s horrible to think that I will never see plays featuring my favourite actor Ali Tukhujev or the sad songs of the legendary folk singer Zaramuk Kardangushev again. The Soviet Union gave us television, radio and newspapers in our native language. We must bring them back.”


According to the 2002 census, 950,000 people live in Kabardino-Balkaria of whom 500,000 are Kabardinian and 120,000 are Balkars. The majority speak Russian as well as their mother tongue, but usage of the two indigenous languages is also high.


Zaur Mambetov, who heads the nationalities department of the republic’s culture ministry, criticised the suspension of native-language broadcasting as a violation of the constitutional right of citizens to develop their national culture and receive information in their mother tongue, and claimed the move violated international conventions.


The leaders of the local nationalist movements, Khase for the Kabardinians and Tere for the Balkars - both of which have been banned by the authorities and operate mostly underground - have also denounced the move as part of a systematic campaign to suppress national cultures.


“This is a clear and well-planned process,” claimed Ibrahim Yaganov, deputy head of the Khase movement. “First they banned the national movements, then removed the ‘ethnicity’ box from our passports, closed the majority of classes taught in the native language, removed all traces of sovereignty from the constitution of Kabardino-Balkaria, and now they are stopping broadcasts in the native languages. Next we can expect them to abolish the autonomous republics altogether.”


Rita Tsitsova, a history teacher from Nartkaly, said, “To reverse the situation, our ethnic statehood – if it does exist – must prove its capability to survive. In other words, we must find the money to restore Kabardinian and Balkar broadcasting immediately.


“This republic was established to conserve and enrich the culture and traditions of Kabardinians and Balkars, to look out for their interests.”


Kabardino-Balkarian television has been part of the Russian National Television & Radio Company, VGRTK, for several years. While this boosted the broadcasting facilities and equipment of the local channel, it also deprived it of editorial independence.


VGRTK spokesperson Anastasia Kasyianikova told IWPR, “The main reason why the broadcasting schedule has been changed is that the local channel’s rating has dropped as a result of too much local programming.


“As for the upcoming presidential elections [on March 14], I can say we did intend to clear broadcasting space somewhat for campaign programming, but this was not our main motive. To assume that native-language broadcasting will resume after the elections is groundless conjecture.”


Speaking at a presidential council meeting Ruslan Zhanimov, head of the channel, confirmed that the company had no plans to restore native-language broadcasting after the Russian presidential elections.


Television employees, who are on the verge of losing their jobs, were reluctant to discuss the crisis. But one republican government official, who asked not be named, told IWPR, “The reason why broadcasting was slashed is purely financial.


“VGRTK had warned Kabardino-Balkar televison three years ago that its programming was going to be cut unless the local channel found some way to pay for itself by securing local government support or, alternatively, starting its own independent channel.


“But local television officials have done nothing to deal with the problem. In neighbouring North Ossetia, where they also knew this was coming, they shifted to another channel keeping all their local programming intact. The entire budget of our television was 22 million roubles (around 700,000 US dollars) in 2003, and is nine million roubles less this year. If that’s needed to bring back local programming, our government should be able to provide it.”


Another government-supported television channel, NOTR, which covers elections and other official events but broadcasts only in Russian, receives five to six million roubles from the local budget.


For many intellectuals, the survival of the national culture is at stake. Local writer and ethnic researcher Zaur Naloyev told IWPR, “Kabardinian and Balkar are our republic’s national languages only formally.


“There is only one native-language theatre, one newspaper, one literary journal, and a few TV and radio shows. Now that TV broadcasting has stopped in Kabardinian and Balkar, our languages have been deprived of their most popular outlet.


“The authorities are highly unlikely to try and solve this problem, as there are no organised groups in society who can pressure the government to take action.”


Valery Khatazhukov is managing director of the Kabardino-Balkar Human Rights Advocacy Centre in Nalchik.