chapter  2
25 Pages

International norms and legal status of minority languages in Russia

BySTEFAN OETER

Introduction Russia constitutes the case with the most extreme complexity as far as minority languages in Europe are concerned. Such complexity must be borne in mind when dealing with the international legal status of minority languages in the Russian Federation. The chapter will thus as a first step try to provide a brief overview of the complex linguistic situation in the Russian Federation, but also of the differentiated legal set-up that applies to the far more than one hundred minority languages in Russia. In a second step, the chapter will shed light on the international legal obligations that Russia has entered into under international law, with a particular emphasis on the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities. The relationship with (and interplay between) the international standards applicable and the complex internal legislative set-up will also be considered. In order to do justice to the challenges of protecting and promoting minority languages, one should also look to the administrative practice that is claimed to implement the legislative standards, although this is very difficult without reliable empirical research. Administrative practices, however, probably constitute the most important determinant for the real degree of protection and promotion of regional and minority languages. There may be a large amount of well-meaning legislation but as long as it is not implemented in the daily practice of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus, it does not seriously change the asymmetries of language use and recurring patterns of language shift. In a further part, the chapter will attempt to look deeply into some of the main problems of ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the main instrument of the Council of Europe for the protection and promotion of minority languages. Although Russia has signed the Charter and gave a political pledge to ratify it in decent time, such ratification has been postponed now for more than ten years. There are good grounds to be careful with ratification – the Charter is a complex instrument in itself, and if combined with the extreme complexity of the Russian situation, a badly prepared ratification could do a lot of harm. But most problems could be solved with the necessary good will, as the chapter argues. The obstacles towards ratification, however, shed an

interesting light on the problematic situation of minority protection (and language policy towards minority languages) in Russia, which steers an undecided course between assimilationist ‘nation-building’ and huge concessions to ‘titular nations’ and ethnic groups mobilizing on issues of ethnicity.