Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

Hegemonic Project or Survival Strategy? Language Rights in the Former Soviet Space

Kitty Lam

January 2007

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


The Soviet Union's collapse brought to surface a complex ethno-political situation in the territory it formerly spanned. Changes in interstate boundaries separated various ethnic populations from their perceived homelands. This post-Soviet landscape has created policy dilemmas for the Russian government, as some 25 million Russians found themselves living outside the borders of the Russian Federation. How Russian leaders have dealt with issues pertaining to its 'compatriots' in the non-Russian Soviet successor states has become a subject of interest to Western observers. In particular, Western analysts have been observing the expression of ‘ethnic diaspora’ issues in Russian foreign policy.

This study examines the extent to which Russian foreign policy concerns on the rights of ‘compatriots,’ particularly in terms of language status, can be used as a political tool to gain leverage in the ‘Near Abroad,’ especially in the western post-Soviet space. The western post-Soviet space, in this paper, refers to the Baltic states, as well as two members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Ukraine and Moldova. These states represent a region where East-West competition for regional influence clashes. Russian foreign policy goals on the language debate can thus serve as a partial indicator of how Russia attempts to cope with international challenges to its perceived 'sphere of influence.'

This paper argues that while Russia's active foreign policy role in demanding linguistic rights for Russian-speaking communities in the former Soviet republics should be viewed as an attempt to cope with its changing status in the international system. It should not be construed as a viable foreign policy tool for gaining political leverage in the post-Soviet space. Although Russia during the early years after the Soviet system's disintegration, especially during Boris Yeltsin's first presidential term, displayed tendencies to link the rights of Russians in the ‘Near Abroad’ to broader security issues, this foreign policy strategy no longer has a central role. The changing political environment that resulted from gradual stabilization in the western part of the post-Soviet space has led to changing foreign policy priorities on the Russian agenda. Russia, in recent years, has placed emphasis on more pressing security and economic issues, such as secessionist conflicts, terrorism, and energy. The Russian diasporas themselves have not been successful in serving as “independent actors exerting influence on homeland foreign policies,” rendering futile any attempts to use minority rights as a political tool. Thus, rather than continuing to tackle the political dimensions of the language debate without concrete results, Russia has shifted its focus on this issue to the cultural and identity dimensions.