Without exaggerating, 2021 was the year of the Russian language in relations between Central Asia and Russia. No other issue seemed to so consistently top bilateral diplomatic relations as much as the Russian language. Senior Russian government officials repeatedly reminded their Central Asian colleagues of the significance of maintaining and increasing support for the Russian language in their respective countries.
In the most recent bilateral meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, on December 28, 2021, the Russian president said that the best way to help labor migrants from Tajikistan adapt to living in Russia and ensure comfortable living conditions and steady work would be to study the Russian language. Russia is a top destination for labor migration from Tajikistan and for the first nine months of 2021, more than 1.59 million Tajik citizens entered the country for the purpose of work. Tajikistan’s economy is highly dependent on remittances from those migrants.
Putin delivered a similar message to Uzbek President Shavkat Miziyoyev during their most recent bilateral meeting in November. Putin reported that his Uzbekistan colleague agreed with the proposal of preparing labor migrants prior to their trip to Russia by teaching the Russian language and legislation so migrants know their rights and observe the Russian Federation’s laws and regulations. Similar to Tajikistan, Russia is a top destination for Uzbek citizens for temporary work. In the first nine months of 2021, more than 3 million Uzbek citizens entered Russia as labor migrants.
Prior to those two meetings, Putin had another opportunity to speak on the same topic to a bigger audience: the leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent Countries (CIS) at the annual summit of the CIS countries in October. He said then, “We all understand well and know how many labor migrants work in Russia from the CIS countries. It is important for you and for us that people adapt and easily enter the normal life of Russia. As a minimum, knowing the Russian language is a must. You need to understand what Russia is.”
Kazakhstan is not a large labor migrant-sending country to Russia, so similar finger wagging on the importance of the Russian language is not possible for Moscow in relation to Nur-Sultan. But Kazakhstan has a large number of ethnic Russians living in its territory. This demographic composition serves, for Moscow, as an easy and convenient pretext.
Since early December 2021, when the Kazakh lawmakers adopted a law that exclusively mandated the Kazakh language be used first on any visual information, such as street advertising, signs, price tags, letterheads and others. In the previous version of the law, Kazakh and Russian were both required languages. The change has caused great consternation among some Russian lawmakers.
One Russian lawmaker called the move in Kazakhstan a sign of nationalism and called on Moscow to show strength in response, saying only the language of power would be understood. Another lawmaker said that the decision would inevitably lead to a reduction in the use of the Russian language, which will affect diplomatic relations. Russian lawmakers decided to look into the issue deeper early in 2022 by requesting more information from their Kazakh colleagues.
Putin had a chance to emphasize that the Russian language was a significant factor in Kazakhstan-Russia relations, during his annual marathon press conference on December 23. While describing the state of bilateral relations, he responded, “I am very grateful to the leadership of Kazakhstan for their attentive attitude to the maintenance and development of the Russian language… Many people in Kazakhstan are studying Russian. This is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.”
2021 was hardly the only year Moscow emphasized the Russian language as a major foreign policy issue with its neighbors. Nevertheless, constant statements made in 2021 toward the Central Asian states indicate the extent of Moscow’s “fixation” on the Russian language. Moscow has indicated that it will not abstain from using this permanent heightened sensitivity to the Russian language as a lever to pressure migrant Central Asian workers, who are essential to the sending countries, in addition to protecting ethnic Russian populations from supposed language discrimination.