Moscow Suggests Armenia Adopt Russian As Official Language
Russian officials have suggested that it might be a good idea for Armenia to adopt Russian as an official language. While the proposal was made in the spirit of eternal Armenian-Russian brotherhood, it was nevertheless received coolly in Yerevan.
The suggestion emerged after the Russian Duma adopted a law, on July 12, allowing drivers from Eurasian Union countries to work as commercial drivers in Russia, but only if those countries recognize Russian as an official language. "In this way we're providing encouragement to governments which respect the Russian language and enshrine it in their constitutions and recognize it officially," said Leonid Kalashnikov, a Duma member and one of the law's authors.
In practice that means that those from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan -- all of which recognize Russian as an official language -- are covered, but Armenia is not.
Another Russian lawmaker, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, drove home that point in a meeting on July 17 with his Armenian counterpart Ara Babloyan. "The decision we're talking about affects citizens of Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, as the traffic rules of those two countries are studied in Russian. And, coming to work in Russia... of course they know the rules, and and it would also help their work to know the Russian language," he said. "Make it [the Russian language] official, and then the law would automatically apply to Armenia as well." According to the account of the meeting from Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Babolyan merely gently raised the question of whether the law would "leave out in the cold Armenian citizens."
Officials in Armenia -- where, it should be noted, the prevalence of Russian is far greater than in its neighbors Georgia and Azerbaijan -- said they appreciated the suggestion, but weren't interested. And they criticized Russian media reporting for distorting the Armenian side of the conversation.
"I want to nip in the bud these unhealthy discussions, which have in large part arisen because of poor media coverage, publishing only the suggestion of Vyacheslav Volodin without mentioning the position of the Armenian side," said Armen Ashotyan, another Armenian MP who was with Babloyan in Moscow. "For us Russian is a language of global significance, but it's not and it will not be on our agenda to give it the status of an official language and enshrine it in the constitution."
And Babloyan later expanded his remarks via a spokesman:
"The speaker of the parliament [Babloyan] responded [to Volodin's suggestion] that there is no such problem and it is not expected on Armenia's agenda. The Russian language is taught in all schools in Armenia, so the knowledge of Russian is entirely sufficient. The sides agreed to address this issue in the future," said the spokesman, Arsen Babayan.
This was far from the first time that Russia has overstepped the bounds of brotherly relations with respect to the language issue in Armenia. In 2014, Russian TV firebrand Dmitriy Kiselyev visited Yerevan and publicly complained about the poor Russian that his taxi driver spoke. That ignited a wave of controversy among Armenians, who depend on Russia for their country's fragile security but increasingly resent Moscow's overbearing approach.
This latest episode also spurred a wave of angry social media posts and newspaper op-eds in Armenia.
"Moscow will force the Armenian authorities to give the Russian language some sort of status," wrote Sargis Artsruni on 1in.am. "This is a brazen attack that must be neutralized, and even intelligently counterattacked -- on the theme of Russian arms sales to Azerbaijan," he wrote, referring to one of the largest bones of Armenian contention -- massive sales of Russian weaponry to Baku, Armenia's foe. "It's not enough to just whine, or make out of it a Brazilian soap opera, with heartstring-tugging pictures of Armenian-Russian brotherhood, but to make some real policy -- present Moscow with concrete demands."
But the law is also exciting nationalist passions in Russia. "All of this ambivalence about the cobbled-together post-Soviet constructs like the CIS or the Eurasian Union or the CSTO instantly became clear," wrote one writer in Komsolmolskaya Pravda. "At once we've crossed a watershed -- who in this space is our real ally, and who is a false ally.... We can expect that this law is only the first step and if the Duma makes dozens more preferences for countries defending the Russian language in their constitution, we'll start to show who's boss."
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.