Russian has lost more ground than any other language over the past 20 years as newly independent former Soviet states have attempted to assert their linguistic sovereignty.
The fading influence of the tongue highlights the fading influence of Moscow amid efforts by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, to reassert the former superpower’s importance on the world stage with its military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
The use of Russian has retreated fastest in Kazakhstan, where in 2016 just 20.7 per cent of people said they typically spoke Russian at home, compared with 33.7 per cent in 1994, according to data from national censuses and the UN, collated by Euromonitor International, a research group.
The findings come in the week that Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, said the central Asian country would convert the Kazakh alphabet to Latin script, arguing that the transition to a Russian-style Cyrillic script in 1940 was motivated by “political reasons”.
Estonia and Latvia, two of the three former Soviet Baltic states, have each seen drops of about 10 percentage points in the proportion of their population citing Russian as their first language since 1994, with Russian speakers in Latvia falling from 40.5 per cent to 29.8 per cent, and those in Estonia from 33.3 per cent to 23.4 per cent, as the first chart shows.
Ukraine has seen a similar slide in Russian speakers, from 33.9 per cent in 1994 to 24.4 per cent last year, while Russian-speaking minorities have also declined in Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
In Georgia, which went to war with Russia in 2008, Russian speakers have declined from 6.4 per cent of the population to just 1.1 per cent. Mikheil Saakashvili, the country’s president between 2008 and 2013, announced a plan for English to replace Russian as its second language in the wake of the conflict.
Chris Weafer, senior partner at Macro-Advisory, a Moscow-based consultancy specialising in the former Soviet states, said the decline of Russian and the rise of local tongues such as Kazakh, Latvian and Ukrainian was driven by the political forces unleashed by the break-up of the USSR.
“Countries were held captive under Soviet rule and when they broke free they wanted to start shedding the trappings of captivity, including language,” he said.
“[This was] partly to distance them from Russian influence, both cultural and especially political, [amid a] fear that keeping the Russian language would make it easier for Moscow to exert influence on their politics [with] the threat of Russian propaganda and news broadcasts influencing the domestic agenda.”
More positively, some countries turned away from Russian as part of a strategy to create political alliances with the West and Asia and attract investment, he added.
Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital, a Moscow-based investment bank, agreed, saying: “Where Russian was the lingua franca of the Soviet Union, since 1991 there has been a desire on the part of the new national leaders to develop their nationalism in order to give their states more stability. The Baltics hated the Russification that had been forced on them.”
Mr Robertson also pointed to the “significant flow” of ethnic Russians, particularly from central Asia, back to Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s as a factor in the decline of Russian in some states.
One country, Belarus, has defiantly moved in the opposite direction, however. Whereas in 1994 just under half of the population cited Russian as their main language, by last year 71 per cent did.
Mr Weafer believes that the “push and pull effect” worked the opposite way in Belarus compared with the other post-Soviet states, with the West largely opposing Alexander Lukashenko, president since 1994 who, a year later, oversaw a referendum that put the Russian language on an equal footing with Belarusian.
“Unlike the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine, no effort was made by the EU or US to engage with Belarus. Instead the attitude in the West was one of ‘last dictator in Europe’ and they shunned him and the country, hence Minsk had to stay close to Moscow,” Mr Weafer said.
Mr Robertson cited the “extremely close” links between the two countries, such as the easy access Belarusians have had to Russia’s labour market, as well as a lack of the nationalism seen in other post-Soviet states, as factors behind the increasing dominance of the Russian language.
“There wasn’t the same nationalism in Belarus. They had never even had a year of independence [before the break-up of the USSR]. They are called white Russians, they weren’t really seen as something else,” Mr Robertson said.
Elsewhere, the Euromonitor data point to Spanish increasing its stranglehold in much of Latin America at the expense of indigenous languages.
Although most countries in the region have long been viewed as Spanish speaking, minorities have continued to cite local tongues as their main language spoken at home. However, since 1994, these minorities have become smaller still.
In Bolivia, the proportion of people citing Aymara as their first language has almost halved from 23.2 per cent to 12.4 per cent in that period. With Quechua, an indigenous language now favoured by 17 per cent of Bolivians, also in decline, the proportion of the population speaking Spanish as their first language has risen from 55.3 per cent to 65.3 per cent, as shown in the second chart.
In neighbouring Peru the use of Quechua as a first language has declined from 16.2 to 11.6 per cent of the population, while in Guatemala Spanish is now almost as widely spoken as a first language as the various local tongues.
In some countries indigenous languages are in danger of being squeezed out altogether. In Chile, for instance, they are now favoured by just 0.4 per cent of the population, down from 1.7 per cent in 1994, while in Ecuador indigenous tongues other than Quechua are now preferred by just 0.2 per cent of people, from 2.4 per cent in 1994.
Mr Robertson believed the increasing dominance of Spanish was being partly driven by businesses, which favour a common language to facilitate cross-border trade across the Americas.
This trend is strengthened further by the rise of Spanish as the second language of the US, he added: as of last year, the language was preferred by 13.4 per cent of people in the US, up from 8.9 per cent in 1994.
The Spanish language’s tightening grip on Latin America is in contrast to the pattern in much of the world, where heightened levels of migration have chipped away at the ubiquity of national tongues.
This has been particularly notable in many English-speaking countries, such as the UK, Australia and Canada, as well as the US.
English has, though, made headway as a first language in Singapore, where it is now favoured by 36.1 per cent of the population, up from 19.8 per cent in 1994, with Chinese declining in popularity.
Mr Robertson attributed this to the efforts of Lee Kwan Yew, the city-state’s founding father, who ruled for three decades until 1990, to promote English as a common language in order to facilitate the integration of its ethnically mixed population.
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