The recent demotion of the status of the Tatar language is one of a growing number of moves made by Moscow against the wealthy and autonomously-minded republic of Tatarstan.
On 29 November 2017, the state council of the Republic of Tatarstan, a wealthy autonomous region in Russia’s Volga region, passed a version of the school curriculum proposed by Moscow. According to this document, the Tatar language may now only be studied in the region’s schools only with the consent of pupils’ parents — and for no longer than two hours a week.
The Tatar language was once obligatory in all Tatarstan schools — so why, 25 years on, has one of the last attributes of the region’s autonomy and sovereignty finally met its end?
A very unique agreement
Tatar, of the Turkic language family, counts as Russia’s second language — both by geographic distribution and number of native speakers. As of 2010, nearly 4.3m people declared themselves to be Tatar speakers (the USSR’s census of 1989 put their number at 5.1m).
In the late 1980s, the democratisation of Soviet society and moves towards decentralisation helped to revive the country’s indigenous languages. Boris Yeltsin’s August 1990 declaration in Tatarstan’s capital of Kazan that Russia’s regions should “take as much sovereignty as they [could] swallow” was seen as a green light by the region’s national elites, who were eager to develop the Tatar language.
In the late 1980s, the democratisation of Soviet society and moves towards decentralisation helped to revive the country’s indigenous languages
In 1992, in accordance with a law passed by the regional parliament, Tatar became the official language of Tatarstan, alongside Russian. This status was also fixed in the constitution of the autonomous republic. The political ambitions of Tatarstan’s leaders grew strongly after the region signed a unique bilateral agreement on the “delimitation of jurisdictions and mutual delegation of authority” with Moscow.
When it came to education, this had an impact on the compulsory hours of Tatar-language study in local schools. I remember very well how in the 1990s, students of our class were divided into “Tatar” and “Russian” groups, depending on their knowledge of the language. But even for Tatars like myself, studying the language was no mean feat — help with my homework came not so much from my parents, who largely only knew spoken Tatar, but from my grandparents. True enough, the authors of our textbooks were trained specialists who had completed Tatar-language academies and mastered the language to perfection. But it still seemed as though nobody in a position of authority had seriously thought up a methodology for teaching Tatar to other nationalities.
Dissatisfaction among the mums and dads wasn’t helped by the fact that due to the increase in Tatar language lessons, the number of hours devoted to Russian language and literature were decreased. Out of the overall 35 hours of study a week (no longer required by today’s standards), six were spent studying Tatar. Admittedly, a few complaints about this from pupils’ parents were largely ignored by the republic’s authorities, and the federal authorities, so it seemed, weren’t interested in the issue.
For 25 years, the republic’s authorities did not bother to reform the system for teaching Tatar in schools, despite numerous declarations that they would do so
Thus for a quarter of a century, the special status of the Tatar language in the region’s schools remained unquestionable. Initially, this was largely due to the authority of the first president of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiev, and then the functioning — if only nominally — treaty between Moscow and the Republic of Tatarstan.
Nevertheless, a fact remains a fact: for 25 years, the republic’s authorities did not bother to reform the system for teaching Tatar in schools, despite numerous declarations that they would do so. Over that time, studying the Tatar language was not simply the right — but the duty — of every school pupil in Tatarstan.
Speaking Moscow, speaking Kazan
The results of a sociological study carried out among young people in Tatarstan in 2015 showed that the majority of respondents wanted to learn English (83%). Some 62% also named Russian as an attractive language — and only 38% voiced support for Tatar. In explaining their views, young people pointed to the lack of incentive to study Tatar. Having a fluent command of the language wouldn’t help them find a good job or any particular advantages.
In 2017, however, Tatarstan has lost the remnants of its former sovereignty. Moscow refused to extend its special bilateral treaty with Tatarstan, making it in essence a regular subject of the Russian Federation. In July, at a conference of the presidential council on inter-ethnic relations in the neighbouring republic of Mari El, president Vladimir Putin declared that it was impermissible to reduce hours of Russian-language study in autonomous republics. “To force somebody to study a language that isn’t their native one is just as impermissible as reducing hours of Russian-language study. I’m paying attention to this,” stressed the president.
Following the results of this meeting, Putin instructed the General Prosecutor’s Office to carry out an inspection of how Russia’s regions were “complying with legislation concerning the right of citizens to voluntarily study their mother tongue”, and to submit a report by 30 November 2017.
Officials in Tatarstan immediately reported that there were no problems concerning the status of the Tatar language in the region, and there could not be any. “We have the constitution of Tatarstan, [which specifies] two official languages — Russian and Tatar. They are equally distributed in our schools, and we act in accordance with federal standards,” stated Engel Fattakhov, Tatarstan’s Minister of Education and Science. “We have no violations whatsoever, and all our actions have been agreed with the [federal] Ministry of Education.”
Pupils’ parents who did not agree with this statement started to organise themselves — they started communities on social media, started exchanging documents, holding roundtable discussions and public demonstrations. By this point, stopping the flow of complaints, which numbered in the thousands, from Tatarstan’s outraged parents to the federal authorities had become unrealistic. In turn, Tatar nationalists mobilised to demand that Tatarstan’s government do something to save the Tatar language.
In September, Tatarstan’s Ministry of Education and Science justified compulsory Tatar language study in the republic’s schools by reference to the holy of holies, the Russian Constitution. Local government officials argued that in accordance with the Constitution, republics of the Russian Federation have the right to enshrine their own regional languages in law. The Ministry added that since 1 January 2018, the amount of hours’ study of the Russian language would be increased to comply with the recommendations of the federal ministry of education and science.
A month later, a commission from the General Prosecutor’s Office arrived in Kazan. According to informed sources, they criticised the slowness of Tatarstan’s prosecutors and demanded immediate results. Tatarstan’s chief prosecutor Ildus Nafikov, who is believed to be the local authorities’ appointee, was now in a very unenviable position. After all, that spring Nafikov had claimedthat Tatarstan had seen no violations of federal laws on education!
Just like his predecessor Kafil Amirov, who was forced to resign in the early 2000s under pressure from the federal centre to bring Tatarstan’s laws in line with federal legislation, Nafikov rolled up his sleeves and started work following Moscow’s decrees on the language issue.
A few days later, in his annual message to parliament, Tatarstan’s president Rustam Minnikhanov acknowledged the ineffective system of Tatar language teaching, but didn’t have a word to say about the potential reduction of hours allocated to studying the language.
During this period, with the blessing of Tatarstan’s government in the Kazan Kremlin, meetings of the “tame” World Congress of Tatars and Assembly of Peoples of Tatarstan were held. On instructions from the republic’s Ministry of Education and Science, directors and teachers of schools across the region urgently convened meetings with parents and compelled pupils’ mothers and fathers to sign petitions in support of the Tatar language.
During the November public holidays, late in the evening, Tatarstan’s ministry of education and science sent school directors “methodological recommendations with various examples of curricula”. All of the proposals provided for the obligatory study of Tatar, stressing that it was the official language of the Republic of Tatarstan. The Prosecutor’s Office found these “night-time recommendations” by the regional ministry of education to be illegal, and launched an investigation into the local officials responsible.
This latest attack on the Tatar language is not the only blow inflicted on Tatarstan by Moscow over the past year
Officials in Tatarstan now had only one option left — to reach an agreement directly with Olga Vasilyeva, Russia’s federal Minister of Education and Science. For several weeks, her counterpart from Tatarstan regularly flew to Moscow and back in hope of reaching a compromise solution — two hours of compulsory Tatar-language education a week. Meanwhile, deputies from the state council of Tatarstan twice postponed discussion of the language issue, because they couldn’t provide any positive news to the Tatar-speaking population.
Time to say “saw buliğız” (farewell)
The “i”s were dotted and “t”s were crossed on 29 November. For the first time in these tense few months, Ildus Nafikov publicly spoke out on the language question at a meeting of Tatarstan’s state council. He explained that his subordinates had conducted a thorough investigation of all 1,412 educational institutions across the republic, and identified 3,500 violations of the law. According to Nafikov, the federal Ministry of Education had developed a version of the curriculum according to which the Tatar language may be studied in schools for no more than two hours a week. Tatarstan’s parliament approved this option without question, and the region’s minister of education Engel Fattakhov resigned from his post.
In Tatarstan, this outcome was seen as a failure of the republic’s authorities. “This is no compromise, but a complete defeat for the Tatar language — and, if you will, the Tatar nation,” declared Fauzia Bayramova, a well-known activist from the Tatar national movement. Ildar Gilmutdinov, a Tatarstan deputy in Russia’s national parliament, added merely that “it is important for us to ensure those for whom Tatar is a mother tongue know the language, and that those for whom it is not leave school with at least a basic conversational ability.”
On 3 December, Mikhail Babich, presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District, noted that “this problem was not born yesterday, but has been building up for many years”. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that for a quarter of a century, the federal authorities witnesses these violations of citizens’ rights in the region and did nothing at all.
In Kazan, it seems one of the tasks of the “federals” is to find a way into Tatarstan’s politics through locals’ discontent with the regional leadership
This latest attack on the Tatar language is not the only blow inflicted on Tatarstan by Moscow over the past year. Here in Kazan, it seems to me that one of the tasks of the “federals” is to find a way into Tatarstan’s politics through the local population’s discontent with the regional leadership. The banking crisis (and story of the collapse of TatFondBank), yet another scandal involving torture at the hands of police (not just involving the police at Kazan’s Dalny police station and a bottle of champagne, but also the recent suicide of a 22-year old man in Nizhnekamsk) are just some examples. The slip-ups of local government and law enforcement officials have been deployed to maximum effect — including in the media.
The main goal of the federal authorities’ “special operation” against Tatarstan appears to be a slice of the wealthy republic’s best assets (in particular, TatNeft). From my point of view, attempts to weaken Tatarstan — or more precisely, its regional elite — will only continue.
Meanwhile, we face presidential elections. Tatarstan’s leader Rustam Minnikhanov has already called on us to “forget past offences and demonstrate the unity of our nation, showing support to our future president”. Of course, he’s talking about Vladimir Putin.
Translated by Maxim Edwards.