The Diplomat‘s Stephen Blank argues that in post-Soviet Central Asia, even in Kazakhstan, the Russian language is waning. This has obvious consequences for Russian soft power on the ground in the region.
[I]t has been clear for some time, and recent news reports confirm it, that the Russian language is steadily losing ground in Central Asia in educational institutions and in much of the media throughout Central Asia. To be sure, Moscow is trying to counter this, for instance with recent attempts to saturate the Kazakh media. Yet this trend towards establishing the primacy of national cultures and languages at the expense of Russian builds on twenty years of steady nationalization of the culture of these states as a matter of deliberate policy, on their deliberate efforts to maintain an openness to the larger globalizing trends in the world economy, and on a generation of growing restrictions on Russian language use in broadcasting and other media.
Of course, Central Asian leaders will not publicly attack the use of Russian language or create situations that could tempt Moscow to intervene in Central Asia on the same pretexts as it employed in Ukraine. But while the invasion of Ukraine created and still generates considerable anxiety in Central Asia, the crisis that Russia faces as a result of its action makes intervention in Central Asia a less likely prospect for the foreseeable future. Given the steep economic decline Russia has experienced following its Ukrainian adventure a third front on top of Ukraine and the North Caucasus is the last thing Moscow seeks. Nonetheless, leaders like Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev point with pride to the growth of Kazakh as the native language and more younger students are preferring English or Chinese to Russian.
In Kyrgyzstan, a recent report showed different forces at work but similar outcomes. The poverty of the Kyrgyz school system means that despite Russian claims of large-scale support for Russian-language teaching abroad, means that only 11 percent of Kyrgyz students are going to superior Russian schools in that republic. Students otherwise are not learning Russian and competent teachers are hard to find. All this, of course, generates a vicious cycle. Similarly, in December 2013, Veniamin Kaganov, Russia’s deputy education minister, was quoted in Tass as saying that the number of Russian speakers had fallen by 100 million since the break up of the Soviet Union. Neither is this outcome unique to Kyrgyzstan or Central Asia. Although globalization certainly plays a role here, all these states have taken serious policy steps since 1991 to create a stronger sense of national identity among their peoples, a policy line that inevitably translates into privileging native languages over Russian and English and now Chinese over it as well.
This outcome strongly suggests that while state support for the propagation of he Russian language abroad is a point in Russia’s 2009 national security strategy, Moscow is apparently steadily if somewhat unobtrusively failing to achieve its goals. And this testifies to a continuing failure to actualize Russia’s soft power despite an enormous state investment. The manifestations of this failure may be quiet and not immediately visible but they do point to the steady erosion over time of Russian power of all kinds in Central Asia, although its military capabilities there remain potentially formidable.