A new signpost in Kyiv, Ukraine installed in 2016. Similar Ukrainian-English language signs are finally replacing the common Russian-language signs, a remnant of Ukraine's three and half centuries-long status as a colony of the Russian monarchic empire that later transformed into a communist one. (Image: UNIAN)
The Euromonitor group, using UN and national data sets, reports that the number of people using Russian in the post-Soviet states has declined by ten percent or more since 1994, a decline that reflects the re-orientation of these nations away from Moscow and puts paid to Vladimir Putin’s efforts to base his “Russian world” on the Russian language.
In Kazakhstan in 1994, 33.7 percent of residents mainly spoke Russian; as of last year, only 20.7 percent do. In Latvia and Estonia, the corresponding figures are 40.5 percent to 29.8 percent and from 33.3 percent to 23.4 percent, while in Ukraine the number declined from 33.9 percent to 24.4 percent (kommersant.ru, belaruspartisan.org and sobkorr.ru).
Some of this reflects the declining share of the ethnic Russian populations there as a result of out-migration and dying out of aging groups as well as the higher birthrates and lower death rates among the titular non-Russian nations. But much of this reflects a desire to participate in the broader world, English- or Chinese-speaking, directly rather than via Russian.
It is still true that older members of the elites speak Russian. After all, those over 50 grew up and were educated in a Russian-dominated environment. But younger people – and they are entering and will soon dominate the elites now – speak much less Russian even than the national figures suggest.
On the one hand, Moscow must come to terms with what other former imperial centers have: Some in its former colonies will continue to look to it and its language. But over time, ever fewer will, preferring instead to use their national language or to learn international languages that are more useful to them than Russian.
And on the other, Western countries which interact with these countries are increasingly going to have to devote the resources to provide training in these non-Russian languages for diplomats and businessmen rather than continuing to assume, as many still do, that they can “get by” with Russian.
That may be true in some places and for a while yet. But it is rapidly ceasing to be the case.
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