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Russia-Religion and Foreign Policy

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In the 1990s, there have been indications that religious considerations can influence certain areas of Russian foreign policy, as they have in the past. Relations with the newly independent Muslim states of Central Asia are a case in point. In all five republics of that region, the Russian government has strongly supported secular, autocratic Islamic leaders whose hold on power is justified in part by an ostensible threat of Muslim political activism. However, only in Tajikistan has a faction with any sort of connection to Islamic groups attempted to take power. There, a nominally secular Islamic party has played a central role in a prolonged guerrilla war against the Russian-supported regime, with assistance from Afghan forces.

Beginning in 1992, the conflict between Muslims and Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina has tested the deeply ingrained tradition within the Orthodox Church of protecting coreligionists in the Middle East, the Balkans, and elsewhere beyond Russia's borders (see Central Europe, ch. 8). Russia's former minister of foreign affairs, Andrey Kozyrev, cautioned against making the Orthodox religion a determinant of Russian foreign policy, lest such a policy promote a split in Russia itself between Orthodox and Muslim believers. Nevertheless, nationalist sentiment in Russia caused the Yeltsin government to limit its participation in international sanctions and military actions against Serbia.

The Russian Language

The Russian language has dominated cultural and official life throughout the history of the nation, regardless of the presence of other ethnic groups. Linguistic groups in Russia run the gamut from Slavic (spoken by more than three-quarters of the population) to Turkic, Caucasian, Finno-Ugric, Eskimo, Yiddish, and Iranian. Russification campaigns during both the tsarist and communist eras suppressed the languages and cultures of all minority nationalities. Although the Soviet-era constitutions affirmed the equality of all languages with Russian for all purposes, in fact language was a powerful tool of Soviet nationality policy. The governments of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation have used the Russian language as a means of promoting unity among the country's nationalities, as well as to provide access to literary and scientific materials not available in minority languages. According to the Brezhnev regime, all Soviet peoples "voluntarily" adopted Russian for use in international communication and to promote the unity of the Soviet Union.

Beginning in 1938, the Russian language was a compulsory subject in the primary and secondary schools of all regions. In schools where an indigenous language was used alongside Russian, courses in science and mathematics were taught in Russian. Many university courses were available only in Russian, and Russian was the language of public administration in all jurisdictions in all fifteen Soviet republics. Nevertheless, the minority peoples of the Russian Republic, as well as the peoples of the other fourteen Soviet republics, continued to consider their own language as primary, and the general level of Russian fluency was low (see The Post-Soviet Education Structure, ch. 5). In the mid-1990s, in every area of the federation, Russian remains the sole language of public administration, of the armed forces, and of the scientific and technical communities. Russian schools grant diplomas in only two minority languages, Bashkir and Tatar, and higher education is conducted almost entirely in Russian.

Although Russian is the lingua franca of the Russian Federation, Article 26 of the 1993 constitution stipulates that "each person has the right to use his native language and to the free choice of language of communication, education, instruction, and creativity." Article 68 affirms the right of all peoples in the Russian Federation "to retain their mother tongue and to create conditions for its study and development." Although such constitutional provisions often prove meaningless, the non-Slavic tongues of Russia have retained their vitality, and they even have grown more prevalent in some regions. This trend is especially visible as autonomy of language becomes an important symbol of the struggle to preserve distinct ethnic identities. In the 1990s, many non-Russian ethnic groups have issued laws or decrees giving their native languages equal status with Russian in their respective regions of the Russian Federation. In the mid-1990s, some 80 percent of the non-Slavic nationalities--or 12 percent of the population of the Russian Federation--did not speak Russian as their first language.

Data as of July 1996

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