Tomasz Kamusella: Russian and Democracy

Russian and Democracy

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

At present, not a single state with Russian as its official or co-official language is a democracy. It is obviously people, not languages, who decide on a given polity’s political system and actual governance. However, Moscow made Russian into the ideological foundation of Russian neo-imperialism, or rashism. The fact increasingly casts this language in the role of a global symbol and enabling instrument of autocracy.

 

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World Languages and Democracy

Languages do not determine whether a state is democratic or not. Australia or Britain where English is used for official business are democracies. Yet, the political system in such officially English-speaking polities as Eswatini or Zimbabwe is openly autocratic.[1]  ‘World languages,’ or languages of wider communication, be it Chinese, French or Spanish can be employed as a useful yardstick of political systems, or at least an analytical lens through which such systems can be observed. Some languages of wider communication seem to correlate more with democracy, while others with autocracy. For instance, countries with English as an official or co-official language tend toward democracy, be it Britain, India, or the United States. On the other hand, Chinese is official in totalitarian China, in autocratic Singapore, and in democratic Taiwan. Significantly, apart from Taiwan, there is no other democratic state with Chinese as its official language. Hence, the vast majority of Chinese-speakers live in an autocracy.

In the context of Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war on peaceful and democratic Ukraine, it is of immediate relevance to check whether the official (alongside widespread unofficial) use of Russian in a state, correlates more with democracy or autocracy. This task’s urgency is deepened by the Kremlin’s belligerent rhetoric of a global conflict between the ‘Russian world (civilization)’[2] and the ‘collective West.’[3] At present, in the case of practically all world languages employed in state administration, there are polities that pursue both democratic and autocratic systems of government. For instance, Brazil with the official language of Portuguese is a democracy, while Lusophone Guinea-Bissau an autocracy. In the case of Francophone polities, Canada and Chad constitute a similar pair, while in the case of the official employment of Spanish Costa Rica is a democracy but Equatorial Guinea an autocracy.

 

Exceptions: Arabic and Russian

From the perspective of the entire globe, there are two exceptions to this typical spread between democracy and autocracy among the countries with world languages in official use. These exceptions are Arabic and Russian. At present, not a single polity that employs one of these two languages is a democracy. Until 2018, Arabic was co-official with Hebrew in Israel, or in the single democracy of the Middle East. Afterward, Hebrew became the polity’s sole official language, whereas Arabic enjoys a mere ‘special status in the state.’[4] In the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia took significant strides toward democracy, but the goal still eludes this country and its Arabic-speaking inhabitants.[5] Neither did the Western intervention in Iraq (2003) nor in Libya (2011) introduce democracy there.

Another exception is the Russian language. It should not be of much surprise, given the fact that all the post-Soviet countries emerged from the breakup of the totalitarian Soviet Union. Until 1991, the SU was the world’s sole polity, where Russian functioned as an official language. The hope was that most post-Soviet states, led in the early 1990s by pro-democracy Russia, would aspire to and gradually join the world’s club of democracies. This now dashed expectation was mostly based on wishful thinking and on the example of the former Soviet bloc countries in Central Europe. Despite some setbacks on the way, within the two postcommunist decades, all these countries swiftly became democracies and subsequently progressed to become member states of NATO and the European Union (EU).

 

Autocracy à la russe

In turn, across the post-Soviet space, Russia began inching toward autocracy following the 1993 shelling of the Russian Parliament (Duma). Most post-Soviet polities, economically and politically dependent on the Russian Federation, followed suit. The Kremlin exerted increasing leverage on them, be it through the Commonwealth of Independent States or, after 2015, through the Eurasian Economic Union. For a time, Central Asia’s Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan even surpassed Russia in this drive toward the political hard rock bottom of totalitarianism. With the rise of Mr Vladimir Putin to the post of Russia’s hand-picked leader in 2000, he has steadily directed the country and its allies first toward hardening autocracy and now, after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, to unrepentant Soviet-style totalitarianism.

The only post-Soviet states that successfully escaped the Kremlin’s death-cold embrace are the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Their inhabitants were never fully or successfully Sovietized because the SU effectively conquered and annexed the three countries late, only during World War II. Together with Central Europe’s erstwhile Soviet satellite states, these three Baltic countries joined NATO and the EU. The SU grabbed Moldova also in the course of the Second World War. But in this case Moscow frustrated Chișinău’s pro-democratic and pro-European aspirations by waging a neo-imperial war on this newly independent country in 1990-92. Russia engineered the unrecognized separation of this country’s easternmost region (so-called Transnistria) from Moldova. To this day the destabilizing hindrance of this de facto polity has kept Moldova out of NATO and the EU.

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The Russian president took personal offence at the pro-democratic (‘color’) revolutions in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004) and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Through economic and political pressure, the Kremlin gradually and repeatedly dashed any hopes for democracy in the last state. But these methods did not work elsewhere. So, Russia waged neo-imperial wars of conquest on Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, respectively. As a result, on the seized Georgian and Ukrainian territories, Moscow established two de facto polities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the former case and two in the latter, namely, the ‘people’s republics’ of Lugansk (Luhansk) and Donetsk. Furthermore, the Kremlin annexed Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

The stalemated situation reminds that observed in Moldova. These new de facto states and annexation have effectively prevented Georgia and Ukraine from opening accession negotiations with NATO and the EU. Both organizations, if possible, prefer not to accept as members polities with an ongoing border conflict. However, such a consideration did not stop NATO from accepting Greece as a member state in 1952. What is more, in 1981, this country was allowed to join the European Communities, or the EU’s predecessor. In the case of Greece, the West’s strategic considerations entailed by the cold war trumped Athens’ intractable border conflict with Turkey.

A similar urgent and unprecedented situation unfolded after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which so blatantly breached the Helsinki Final Act’s foundational principle of the inviolability of borders in Europe. Gradually, the EU and NATO began to recognize the Ukrainians’ and the Georgians’ democratic and pro-European aspirations vis-à-vis resurgent Russia with its neo-imperial program of conquests, as encapsulated in the Kremlin’s official ideology of Russkii mir (Russian world), or rashism. In 2022, the full-scale Russian invasion of all Ukraine dispelled any further doubts and false hopes harbored in the West.

To the Kremlin’s undisguised ire, the West’s unceasing stream of military, economic and political aid for Ukraine under relentless Russian attack made this country into a de facto member state of NATO. Furthermore, seven million out of the total of 15 million Ukrainian war refugees[6] found haven in the EU.[7] Hence, nowadays, a fifth of all Ukrainians already live in the European Union. On top of that, four months into the war, in June 2022, Brussels opened accession negotiations with Ukraine.[8]

Georgia is determined to follow into Ukraine’s footsteps, already set on the membership path to the Euro-Atlantic structures. Azerbaijan left the Russian sphere of influence after sustaining significant territorial losses in the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh (1988-94). Moscow guaranteed the security of Armenia’s gains. These guarantees, however, stalled the country’s democratization, which otherwise would have been facilitated by the extensive Armenian diaspora in the US and France. Yet, in 2020, Armenia lost most of its gains in another war with Azerbaijan. Moscow and Ankara promised to guarantee the new settlement. But now military and political advantage turned in Baku’s favor,[9] Russia busy with its war on Ukraine.[10] The Armenians’ palpable displeasure with the inefficiency of Russia as the guarantor of the country’s security may mean that, like Georgia, Yerevan may turn toward democracy and the Euro-Atlantic institutions.[11] Meanwhile, under Turkey’s tutelage and influence, Azerbaijan turns more deeply toward autocracy.

 

Russian and Autocracy

The Kremlin’s current neo-imperial course is steeped in autocracy, or the Russian government and elite’s principled opposition to democracy. Russian propagandists see the latter system as a badge of shame that identifies the ‘collective West.’[12] The ongoing war on Ukraine permitted Mr Putin to do away with any of Russia’s remaining pretences to democracy and human rights.[13] The country was overhauled again into a straightforward totalitarian regime.[14] In this dramatic ‘improvement’ on autocracy, the Russian president draws on the Belarusian dictator’s methods of total suppression and control of society and politics. These were trialled and implemented across Belarus in the wake of the 2020 pro-democratic protests, which erupted following the country’s falsified presidential election.[15] Subsequently, in return for Moscow’s economic support, the Kremlin compelled Belarus to become an accomplice in its criminal war on Ukraine.[16]

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In this manner, the Kremlin hopes to turn the clock back and recreate a more tsarist-like Soviet Union. A new Russia 3.0, imperially enlarged in its territory and global stature. A Russia that would become an equal partner of China and a renewed superpower-style scourge of the US. A Russia, which would faithfully emulate the Beijing consensus of some liberalization in economy, but totalitarianism in politics and governance. Mr Putin agrees with the Chinese that it was Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (limited freedom of speech with elements of multiparty politics), which precipitated the demise of the SU.

Due to the steeping of the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ideology of the Russkii mir in Russian, this language plays now a prominent role among the country’s weapons of hybrid warfare.[17] Russian counts in this role on par with the Kremlin’s long stick of oil and gas blackmail.[18] Mr Putin wants to reunite all the globe’s Russian-speakers in a single polity again, at best under his continuing totalitarian rule. Dictators never relinquish power until death parts them from it. This is in nutshell what rashism is about.

The recognized and de facto polities with Russian as an official language either aspire to emulate Russia’s political system or the Kremlin compels them to. As a result, none is a democracy. Russian is the sole official language of the Russian Federation, alongside the de facto states of Donetsk, Lugansk and South Ossetia. What is more, Russian functions as a co-official language but, in reality, dominates in all spheres of life across Belarus and the unrecognized polity of Transnistria. Last but not least, Russian is recognized as a co-official language in the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, alongside the de facto polity of Abkhazia.

In the wars of 2014 and 2022, the Kremlin has sought a similar outcome in Ukraine. Ideally, in emulation of the Belarusian model, Russian was to become co-official in this country. But as a matter of fact, Ukrainian would be reduced to an ornamental flourish in such a Ukraine under the Kremlin’s de facto control. In this scenario, the vast majority of communications and publications would be rendered exclusively in Russian, not Ukrainian. This is the diminished situation of the Belarusian language suffered by the Belarusians in today’s Belarus, which is ‘their’ country only in name.

A similar victory of the Russian world in Ukraine, preceded by Russian occupation, would have reduced this country to a colony of Russia, which is now the case of Belarus. As a result, autocracy would have been a foregone conclusion in Ukraine that would be corralled back into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence. And last but not least, none other than the Russian language would loud and clearly herald this rashist victory of autocracy in Moscow-dominated Ukraine.

 

Dangers of Russian

Revealingly, in November 2022, at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lamely attempted to justify his country’s war on Ukraine in the terms of rashist language policy. In his words, Russia invaded Ukraine to protect the country’s Russian-speakers from the necessity of acquiring and using the state language of Ukrainian. He proposed, to the world leaders’ utmost surprise, that Britain would surely invade Ireland if the country banned English, or France would attack Belgium if French were phased out from official use there.[19] But unlike in Central Europe or in the world view of the neo-imperial ideology Russkii mir (or rashism), language does not equate politics elsewhere in the world. After all, the dropping of English as an official language in postcolonial India, Mandatory Palestine-turned-Israel, Pakistan, or Tanzania did not provoke any military intervention on Britain’s part.

As long as Russia remains wed to totalitarianism and pursues this neo-imperial course of rashist invasions, Russian is set to symbolize autocracy, due to the Kremlin’s actions and its concomitant abuse of this language. The ideology of the Russian world (rashism) amplifies this connection by equating all the world’s Russian-speakers with the Russian Orthodox ‘civilization.’ Moscow’s message to this end and entailed ‘civilizational loyalty’ are underpinned with the shared recent Soviet past and enforced through the communication sphere of Russophone mass media. Through propaganda, troll farms and with blatant censorship, the Kremlin aspires to control and weaponize the entirety of this Russophone communication sphere.

Unsurprisingly, in this geopolitical context and with the aforementioned means of influence, the Kremlin seeks to instrumentalize the Russian-speaking diaspora, so that they would identify with and support Russian neo-imperialism (rashism). For instance, considerable Russophone communities account for a quarter of the population in Estonia or Latvia. Both Baltic countries opted for democracy and as EU and NATO members became part of the West. Hence, Moscow has spent a lot of money and designed much propaganda to target the Russian-speakers living there with an eye to destabilizing Estonia and Latvia. Rashist propaganda has been effective and prevented as many as 200,000 Russian-speakers in Latvia[20] and almost 100,000 in Estonia[21] from naturalizing.

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The numbers account for two thirds of all the Russophones in the former country, and a third in the latter, and amount almost to a tenth of all the inhabitants in both cases. To prevent expulsion or other administrative measures that could compromise these individuals’ human rights, the irregular status of such non-citizen was normalized with the stop-gap measure of Latvian and Estonian ‘alien passports.’[22]

This is not an ideal solution, but the only one possible as long as the Russophones concerned either do not want to apply for Latvian and Estonian citizenship, or do not want to acquire a working command or the state language, which is a requirement of naturalization. Obviously, almost none of them would consider ‘returning’ to Russia or any other post-Soviet country of their ethnic origin, which is invariably an autocracy. They are keenly aware of the advantages of democracy, rule of law and the two Baltic countries’ EU membership. Learning Latvian and Estonian for having access to these privileges is a small price to pay. After all, no one would say that the requirement of mastering the state’s official language is an unreasonable requirement for a foreigner (or any other non-citizen) seeking naturalization in Britain, Denmark or the Netherlands.

Following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that the Kremlin will do its utmost to abuse these two Russian-speaking communities in Latvia and Estonia for achieving its rashist (neo-imperial) goals. It was none other than Moscow, which was behind the push of Latvia’s Russian-speakers (namely, those who had already successfully naturalized) for the language referendum in 2012. They wanted to make Russian into Latvia’s second official language. Fortunately, this proposition failed, but practically all eligible Russian-speakers, or a third of the voters, cast their ballots in favor of Russian.[23]

Where Moscow is unable to achieve its goals in a military fashion, it is adept at abusing principles of democracy to seek autocratic outcomes. Had the aforementioned referendum in Latvia ensured the co-official status for Russian, afterward the situation most probably would develop, like in Belarus. The Russophone communication sphere would quickly expand at the expense of its Latvian counterpart. Next, the Kremlin would claim Latvia as part of ‘true Russia.’ Like Belarus, Latvia – seen as a ‘stray province’ – would be compelled to gradually ‘re-integrate’ with Russia. Otherwise, the Kremlin would intervene militarily to ensure this rashist course, as it does now in Ukraine.

As long as Moscow sees all Russian-speakers to be de facto Russian citizens and in the neo-imperial fashion seeks to re-conquer countries inhabited by them, Russian will remain a badge of autocracy. This language will continue symbolizing Russian neo-imperialism (rashism). Speaking and reading in Russian will not be neutral, but a clear political choice in favor of a foreign totalitarian power. In the dark 20th century, Hitler’s Third Reich abused Czechoslovakia’s German-speakers in such an imperial manner. In 1938, at Munich, the West’s democratic powers humored Berlin by ordering Prague to give up the country’s German-speaking areas (Sudetenland) to totalitarian Germany. Yes, these Western democracies contributed to the demise of  interwar Central Europe’s sole remaining democracy.

A repeat of such a folly would be tragic for democratic Europe, spelling its end. Hence, it must be borne in mind that a language ceases to be mostly a politically neutral medium of communication and a main channel for enjoying culture, when a totalitarian power decides to weaponize it. Democracies must be watchful and keenly aware of this possibility, even if they do not equate their own state languages with politics. Like a century ago, nazi Germany weaponized the German language, today, totalitarian Russia has made Russian into an instrument of autocracy and rashist neo-imperial invasions.

November 2022

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index#By_country

[2] https://www.svoboda.org/a/30619105.html

[3] https://ru.hrodna.life/2022/10/21/siloviki-azot/

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20180719173434/https://knesset.gov.il/spokesman/eng/PR_eng.asp?PRID=13978

[5] https://www.ips-journal.eu/topics/democracy-and-society/tunisias-democracy-is-under-pressure-5998/

[6] https://www.iom.int/news/needs-growing-over-8-million-internally-displaced-ukraine

[7] https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine

[8] https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/news/2022/06/24/7141985/

[9] https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-57150521

[10] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/top-armenian-official-unhappy-with-response-russian-led-alliance-interfax-2022-09-16/

[11] https://eutoday.net/news/security-defence/2022/eu-announces-monitoring-mission-for-armenia-azerbaijan-border

[12] https://tass.com/politics/1477149

[13] https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/04/19/putin-s-war-has-moved-russia-from-authoritarianism-to-hybrid-totalitarianism-pub-86921

[14] https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/putin-proceeds-with-north-koreanisation-of-russia-df9ddv87k

[15] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-07-06/kremlin-pushes-new-wave-of-repression-at-home-as-war-drags-on

[16] https://carnegieendowment.org/politika/88317

[17] https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/11/07/for-russia-even-the-language-can-be-a-weapon-a68072

[18] https://theconversation.com/russias-weaponization-of-natural-gas-could-backfire-by-destroying-demand-for-it-182102

[19] https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/russian-foreign-minister-sergei-lavrov-ukraine-uk-ireland-1972265

[20] https://www.pmlp.gov.lv/lv/media/8187/download

[21] https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/pol10/0001/2015/en/

[22] https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2017/estonia-gray-passports/

[23] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-17083397

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