REPORT: Post-Soviet Language Wars in Comparative and Geopolitical Perspective, Part 1

by Gordon M. Hahn


Russia’s new federal law ‘On Education in the Russian Federation’ passed by the State Duma and Federation Council in late July and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in August caused considerable controversy in Russia and some quarters in the West. The new Latvian law on education caused much less stir abroad generally but caused sizable demonstrations in Latvia and official Russian protests against what is viewed as yet another form of discrimination against ethnic Russians in Latvia and the Baltic states more broadly. Ukraine also adopted new legislation touching on language use, which serves as a good marker for the Maidan regime’s transition to democracy, the rule of law and a civil rather than an ethnic state. How do these laws actually reflect the state of democracy, the rule of law, civil versus ethnic state-building, and ethnic minority rights in these three countries? This article is an attempt to answer this comparative question and flesh out the international and geopolitical implications of the answer.

It is a fact of political life (though not a norm of international law) that smaller ethnic minorities tend to enjoy fewer rights and privileges in comparison with the majority than do larger ethnic minorities in relation to the majority. This is because law affecting minority rights is a political outcome, and the smaller the community the less likely they will possess the resources necessary to mobilize and lobby political pressure to shape legislative outcomes. Assuming all else — including the responsiveness of the government and the ethnic majority to ethnic minority preferences and rights — a state with a small minority population is less likely to afford minorities as many rights as a government in a country with a larger ethnic minority population. This especially true if the minority population consists of one or a small number of ethnic minority groups, affording the state and the ethnic majority fewer opportunities to divide and rule the minorities.  Thus, a state with a larger ethnic majority and numerous ethnic minorities will tend to afford minorities fewer right. A state with a smaller ethnic majority and a larger ethnic minority population is likely to afford the minority population greater rights. A state with no majority ethnic population but rather a plurality will tend towards the same outcome. How do these theoretical propositions play out in the three states in this study? What does the comparative result say about the relative state of democracy on the issue of minority rights as well as of civil state-building in the three states.

A Comparison of Ethnic Minority Populations and Ethnic Minority Languages in Latvia, Ukraine and Russia

To answer these questions we need to look at the comparative demographics of our three subject countries’ ethnic minorities and their languages present status prior to recent legal amendments coming into force. The Russian Federation’s total population is almost 81 percent self- identified ethnic Russians. there are also other large ethnic groups. Some 3.9 percent of Russian citizens are Tartars, 1.4 percent – Ukrainians, 1.2 percent – Bashkirs, 1.1 percent – Chuvashiyans and 1.0 percent Chechens. There are another 179 ethnic minorities — most of them indigenous — living in Russia. 3.9 percent of the population did not declare any ethnic origin ( There are 36 languages having state language status in Russia. Russian is the state language countrywide. In addition, 35 minority languages have state status at the national republic or national district level, which affords them special status in the respective territorial-administrative units or ‘national autonomies,’ including national minority language study financed from both the republic and federal state budgets.

Ukrainians make up nearly 77.8 percent of Ukraine’s total population. Russians make up the bulk of the non-Ukrainian 22.2 percent minority population and are the second largest nationality with almost 17 percent of the population. Other minorities include: Belorussians – 0.6 percent, Bulgarians – 0.4 percent, Hungarians – 0.3 percent, Crimean Tatars – 0.5 percent, and Romanians and Poles each make up 0.3 percent of Ukraine’s total population. Jews comprise 0.2 percent of Ukraine’s total population. Other minorities present are 1.8 percent. The major language is Ukrainian, spoken by 67 percent of the population, while the second most common language is Russian, spoken by 24 percent of the total population. The remaining 9 percent is comprised of various other languages ( These statistics include Crimea’s population. Excluding Crimea’s population of some 2.4 million with 2 million being ethnic Russians, then ethnic Ukrainians comprise some 80 percent of Crimea-less Ukraine’s population and ethnic Russians – some 13 percent. In surveys that include the dual category “Russian and Ukrainian,” which holds for many in Ukraine, ‘Russian’ was chosen by some 22 percent in 2014, and 13 percent in 2017, while the mixed category has remained fairly stable around 17-18 percent. As of 2015, Ukraine had 621 schools that taught in Russian, 78 in Romanian, 68 in Hungarian and five in Polish, according to education ministry data (

Latvia’s total population is less than 2 million: 1,952,294. Ethnic Latvians comprise 62 percent of the total population, minorities – 38 percent. Ethnic Russians comprise a large majority of the non-Latvian minority population, comprising 26.9  percent of Latvia’s total population. Belarusians comprise 3.3 percent, Ukrainians – 2.2 percent, Poles – 2.2 percent, Lithuanians – 1.2 percent, Jews – 0.2 percent, and Romani – 0.3 percent of the Latvian population ( However, as many as 36 percent of the population has declared the Russian language to be their native tongue ( Under Latvia’s bilingual language regime extant before the recent amendments, Russian majority-populated schools could offer the majority of subjects at the lower level classes in Russian, with the percentage declining as students graduated to higher classes. In the higher classes in secondary education, 40 percent of subjects were taught in Russian and 60 percent in Latvian. Each school could decide what courses were taught in which language (

In sum, the minority population in Russia is significantly smaller than that in Latvia, slightly smaller than that in Ukraine.


Country                           Total Population                   Minority Population                   Ethnic Russian Population


Russia .                             143,959,979                       27, 360,000 (19%) estimate          126,599,000 (81%) estimate

Ukraine*                             41,500,000                       35,200,000 (80%)                               5,400,000 (13%) estimate

Latvia                                    1,952,294                            819,000 (38%) estimate           604,805 (26.9%) estimate


*estimated minus Crimea


SOURCE: World Population Review,


Thus, we would expect that minorities in Russia — especially if one takes into account the additional factor of its less responsive soft authoritarian regime type — would have the most difficult time breaking through the dominance of the ethnic Russian majority and the state apparatus it dominates. After Russia, Ukraine’s Russian minority — similar in size to Russia’s total minority population but not fractured into more than a hundred indigenous ethnic minorities —  expectedly would do better, and we would predict that Latvia’s larger ethnic Russian minority would be able to win even more language rights.

It is important to add that there are no geographically concentrated Ukrainian or Latvian populations, as there are ethnic Russian and Russophone populations geographically concentrated especially in Ukraine’s east in Donbass and the southeast, but also in some Latvian regions. So there can be no reciprocal expectation that Ukrainian and Latvian minority language rights should or could realistically receive significant state support. In order to conclude whether or not or comparative expectation as to language rights outcomes pans out, we need to look at the three countries’ respective recently amended laws touching on language.

Russian Law on Minority Languages in Education

According to the 2018 amendments to Russia’s Law ‘On Education,’ Russian law allows but no longer makes mandatory the study in primary, secondary, and higher education of minority (non-Russian) languages. More specifically, the law’s Article 14 ‘The Language of Education’ allows and guarantees the right to “the teaching and study of the state languages of the national republics” in schools located in Russia’s 22 national republics along with the Russian language as it is the state language of the entire Russian Federation. At the same time, the law’s Article 14.4 provides “a citizen” “the right to receive pre-school, primary general and basic general education in their native language from among the number of languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation as well as the right to the study their native language from among the number of languages of the peoples of the Russian Federation within the limits of the possibilities available in the educational system” ( In other words, taking the Tatar language as an example, if one’s native language, as is the case in Tatarstan, is also a state language of the Republic of Tatarstan, then one has the right to both study some subjects in the Tatar language and study the Tatar language in state and private schools. Parents of students therefore have the right to choose or ‘opt-in’ to courses of study in, and of their native language or the state language of the republic. Otherwise, all subjects are taught in Russian, and the study of Russian is mandatory for all students and cannot suffer from study of republican state and minority language study, the law stipulates.

The only way that this right can be lost legally is through claimed budget or space restrictions that go beyond ‘the limits of the possibilities available in the educational system.’ This is possible, but very unlikely in the national republics, especially those with large titular nationality populations as in Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, Kabardino-Balkariya, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya, and North Osssetiya. Dagestan, with 14 ‘larger’ native nationalities alone, is a special case and potentially a problem. There is no state language other than Russian in Dagestan. It would be difficult for a school inside or outside the republic with a student population including a native Dagestani language or many Dagestani languages — whether Avar, Dargin, Kumyk, Tabasaran, and so on — to offer study in, and of all those languages. Thus,  Dagestani language study issues could become a political problem as well, especially if the different minorities are dissatisfied with the new federal law and, however unlikely, be able to overcome differences to coordinate pressure to change it. Another problem would be for, say, an Chuvashiyan living in St. Petersburg to receive an education in the Chuvash language or study Chuvash in a state or private educational institution given the enormous resources (financial and teaching personnel) that would be provided for every minority student in a school the opportunity to study in their native language or study their native language.

At the same time, there are possibilities for organizing non-Russian minority and state language lessons for children as low as at the municipal level for children by making use of the powers delegated to the republics in the sphere of education, which remains relatively federative in contrast to most spheres since Putin’s new policies moved away from the asymmetrical unofficial federalism of the Boris Yeltsin era to a more unitary state model. Thus, in the new Law ‘On Education’ Article 8.3 stipulates one of the national republic powers in education to be “the guarantee of additional education for children in municipal general educational organizations by means of offering subventions to local budgets, for expenses including salaries, the purchase of textbooks and study materials,” and more ( Thus, there is nothing to prevent, for example, Bashkortostan, Chuvashiya or Kabardino-Balkariya from devoting additional funds to schools for the specific purpose of Bashkir or, given the large ethnic Tatar population in the republic, even of Tatar language courses.

This is the law for the state educational system financed from federal, regional, and municipal budgets. There is nothing in Russian law that prevents the founding of a Tatar, Ingush, Ossetiyan or ethnic school that offers courses in their respective language or that conducts the teaching of all courses in that language. The only limitations would be receiving accreditation from the federal government and, for parents and students in both state and private schools, their willingness to study partially or solely in their non-Russian native language in a situation in which the state final high school level examination – the United State Examination or YeGE) is given only in Russian. The YeGE determines whether one receives a diploma and one’s future prospects when applying to universities, so parents will want to be sure their children are most proficient in Russian and therefore may opt out. Over time this could constrain the diffusion of the native language in the particular ethnic minority community and even endanger the language’s survival. Ultimately, that outcome will be determined by the robustness of the particular national minority population’s sense of national identity.

Ukrainian Law on Minority Languages in Education

On September 25, 2017 Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a new law ‘On Education’ basically stipulating that all secondary education must be in the Ukrainian language. In pre-school and primary education, any study in, or of minority languages, seems to relegated  to voluntary after school special courses. The new law is being implemented gradually from September 2018 until September 2020. According to Article 7.1, the law establishes the state language (Ukrainian) as the language of the educational process,” and the “state guarantees every citizen of Ukraine the right to receive formal education at all levels (pre-school, general secondary, vocational (vocational), professional and advanced and higher), as well as out-of-school and postgraduate education in the state language in state and communal educational institutions” ( This law replaces a law adopted under the Viktor Yanukovych government overthrown in February 2014 under which in regions with a minority population of 10 percent or more could offer study in and of the language of the respective minority. Under this law ethnic Russians in Crimea and more than 10 other regions were able to study in Russian and study the language itself. In Transcarpathia, Hungarians could study Hungarian and in Hungarian.

For “persons belonging to ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples of Ukraine, the law never declares that the ‘state guarantees’ or ‘contributes’ to study in those languages. Instead, it is declared that “the right” to study in their native language “is guaranteed” for ethnic minorities but only in “communal educational institutions for obtaining pre-school and primary education” but not secondary education. The restriction to ‘communal educational institutions’ here is important. The term ‘communal educational institutions’ means schools, universities, educational centers, and so on, which are owned and financed by regional and municipal governments and not by the central state or privately. These are fewer and far less prestigious. This means that there is no legal mechanism for the study of subjects in minority languages in secondary education, and where it exists at the pre-school and primary school level it is confined to local educational institutions and the Ukrainian central government is not obliged by law to ‘guarantee’ or ‘contribute to’ this process in any way.

There is a distinction made in the law here between “ethnic minorities” and “indigenous peoples of Ukraine,” but the cause on the latter which flows that on the former is absolutely identical, only with the words ‘indigenous peoples of Ukraine’ replacing the words ‘ethnic minorities. It is not clear why this is divided in this way. For members of ethnic minorities, “(t)his right is exercised through the creation, in accordance with the law, of certain classes (groups) with learning in the language” of the respective national minority or indigenous people, “in addition to along with the official language” (Ukrainian), in the case of ethnic minorities, and “along with the official language” (Ukrainian), in the case of indigenous peoples ( Thus, the law requires that study in indigenous peoples’ and ethnic minorities’ languages occur in conjunction with such study in the Ukrainian language, and, more importantly, not as part of the regular school curriculum in pre-school and primary school ‘communal’ (local) educational institutions but special groups or classes likely convened during after-school hours.

In terms of the right to study the languages themselves, whereas study of Ukrainian is mandatory in all schools at all levels, persons belonging to indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine “are guaranteed the right to study” the language of the respective people or minority in “communal institutions of general secondary education or through national cultural associations.” Again, the central state is not obliged to guarantee or contribute to such study as it is with regard to the official, Ukrainian language.“(T)he state contributes to” and “guarantees” the mandatory study of not only the state language (Ukrainian) but also “contributes to the study of languages of international communication, primarily English” (Article 7.3). The state even “contributes to the creation and functioning of educational institutions abroad, in which study is conducted in Ukrainian or Ukrainian is taught” (Article 7.6) ( Moreover, by limiting this to study in ‘communal educational institutions’ there again — as with the study in minority languages in pre-school and primary school — exists no legal mechanism for ensuring the study of minority languages in primary schools, and where it exists at the secondary school level in local educational institutions, the Ukrainian central government is not obliged by law to ‘guarantee’ or ‘contribute to’ this process in any way. Also, like Russia, Ukraine has a unified examination for high school graduation.

Upon a quick reading, Articles 7.5 might seem to mitigate the indigenous and minority languages’ second class status to a degree. 7.5 states: “At the request of the applicants of vocational (vocational), vocational and higher education institutions of education create opportunities for studying the languages ​​of the indigenous people, the national minority of Ukraine as a separate discipline” ( However, the pivotal words here are (a)t the request of applicants.’ Thus, it appears that students, who are members of indigenous or minority peoples ‘can request the creation of opportunities’ to their people’s language but only during the process of applying to attend a vocational of higher educational institution.’ This opens up the possibility that a student who requests an opportunity to study Russian, Hungarian, Tatar or Romanian could be discriminated against in the application process by virtue of having made such a request.

Latvian Law on Minority Languages in Education

In March 2018, Latvia amended its Law on Education and its Article 9 ‘Educational Language,’ which covers language use in public (state) and private educational institutions. This is the fourth time Latvia has amended law’s language clauses since gaining independence form the USSR, with each round of amendment marking a successive narrowing of the use of non-Latvian languages (mostly Russian), in the country’s schools. The newly amended law came into effect in part a month later in April 2018 and will be implemented incrementally in parts through 2021 beginning from pre-school to seventh grade in September 2019. The law’s Section (i.e., Article) 1 stipulates that in pre-school, primary school and secondary school, all “(e)ducation in state, local government and state higher education institutions shall be acquired in the state language,” the ‘state language’, of course, being the Latvian language ( Education can be obtained in a foreign language, which Russian and all other languages are categorized as, under four exceptions, according to Section 2.

The first exception (Section 2.1) includes some private schools–those which function in Latvia on the basis of a bilateral or multilateral treaty between Latvia and another or several other countries. Since Latvia and Russia have not concluded such a treaty, and Latvia would be very unlikely to ever agree to conclude on, Latvia’s ethnic Russian community will be unable to restore Russian language use in education in any significant way. At least one of the three international schools in Latvia’s town of Pinki, a British international school with some 100 students from pre-school to currently seventh grade and presumably established on the basis of the required treaty between Latvia and Great Britain, does offer after-school Russian language lessons because of demand created by the large ethnic Russian cohort in attendance at the school. But this covers but a drop in the bucket of the large ethnic Russian community in Latvia, and the children of these ethnic Russians must balance after-school opportunity to study Russian with their children receiving pro-NATO propaganda at the school at the same time.

The second exception, under Section 2.2, stipulates study in a foreign (non-Latvian) language, including Russian, is possible in “state and local government educational institutions in which minority education programs are implemented, in compliance with the provisions of Section 41 of this Law.” Section 41.1 on “Minority Education Programs” holds such programs “are developed by an educational institution by choosing one of the national curricula for pre-school education or the model curriculum included in the relevant state education standard.” Section 41.2 also requires such programs to include content for “the integration of minorities in Latvia.” Latvian national ‘curricula for pre-school education’ and ‘model curriculum’ are available in annexes from Latvia’s Council of Ministers from 2012 and may be withdrawn or changed as a result of the new law. The pre-school curriculum is contained in an “Annex 2” of the Council of Ministers  and includes 9 subject areas, on ow which is “the language of the minority” and should cover “language development and orientation in the neighborhood, development of speech in the mother tongue, introduction of literature and folklore, and literacy” ( Another, nearly identical pre-school education curriculum can be found in an Annex 4 ( There is no designation of how many hours per day/week such study should include or any other details or directions, with all issues left up to the schools and their directors. Moreover, there is no indication in the Annexes that subjects will be taught in a non-Latvian language but only that a non-Latvian language will be one of the nine basic subjects or that this will be allowed beyond pre-school.

A third exception, contained in Section 2.2.1, allows “educational establishments,” presumably state and private, to implement subjects in education “in whole or in part in a foreign language in order to ensure the acquisition of other official languages ​​of the European Union.” This will benefit the microscopic Belorussian and Polish minority communities but not the Russian community. The fourth exclusion (Section 2.3) reads that education in another language can be acquired “in other educational institutions provided by law.” Thus, the law appears to outlaw education in, and study of a non-Latvian language beyond pre-school in both state primary and secondary schooling. There appears to be a legal opening in Section 2.3 to study in, and study of a non-Latvian language in private primary and secondary schooling, but they are not fleshed out in the law. As the anti-Putin, pro-democracy Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta notes, the amended Latvian law forces private schools to choose: “either switch to Latvian or lose your license” (

In higher education, programs of study in state institutions may be “implemented” only in the state language of Latvian, with the following exceptions (Section 3). Sections 3.1-3.5 allows study in the official languages of the European Union in universities, colleges, and vocational higher education institutes with several limitations. Term papers, theses, and dissertations cannot be completed in Russian but only in Latvian or under certain conditions in an official language of the European Union (Section 3.5). It needs to be added that Latvia has a national language examination that tests whether students and residents without roots in Latvia’s pre-Soviet past have a minimal level of knowledge of the Latvian language, which effects university admission and right to gain citizenship, respectively.

In sum, the Russian law appears to be more accommodating of ethnic minorities’ language rights than are the Latvian and Ukrainian laws in terms of providing opportunity both to study in one’s native language and study one’s native language at all the various levels of education in state or private schools. Russia provides opportunities in both at every level of the education process to limited degrees albeit. These opportunities are not available in higher education in either Latvia or Ukraine. Under the new Latvian law, study of subjects in a language other than Latvian, English and EU state languages beyond pre-school will no longer be allowed outside foreign language schools set up on the basis of treaties with foreign states. This bans the native language of Latvia’s largest minority — ethnic Russians — from being used in the study of school subjects. Russian can be studied as a foreign language in state schools, but the law remains unclear on this issue as regards private schools not created under a treaty with a foreign country. In Ukraine, there is no legal mechanism for the study of subjects in minority languages in secondary and higher education. Where it exists at the pre-school and primary school level it is confined to local educational institutions and the Ukrainian central government is not obliged by law to ‘guarantee’ or ‘contribute to’ this process in any way. In terms of studying one’s minority native language, the right is limited to study in communal institutions of general secondary education or through national cultural associations; there is no such right for pre-school and primary school students.

Part 2 of this article is forthcoming in some 10 days.


About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California,

Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government.

Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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About Gordon M. Hahn