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4. Appeals, News and Views from Endangered Communities

Threat to Chuvash Autonomy
October 4, 2004

This, from the New York Times, makes an interesting, though discouraging, follow-up to the lead article in our last issue of Ogmios.I have emphasized the specific mentions of the Chuvash language. - Ed.

In Russia, Dissent Grows Over Moves to Curb Autonomy by Steven Lee Myers

CHEBOKSARY, Russia, Sept. 30, 2004 - President Vladimir V. Putin may have cowed Russia's national political leadership with his plan to concentrate still more power in the Kremlin, but in regions of the country that stand to lose the most, he has inflamed fierce popular discontent. People in this region along the Volga denounced Mr. Putin's proposal to end direct elections of governors and other regional leaders as unconstitutional and potentially destabilizing. They fear that the Kremlin is planning further steps to recreate a Soviet-like power over the people.

"We had such a long period of restrictions," said Vladislav V. Yefimov, a bookkeeper, referring to the Soviet era. "We were fed up with them. Now we are going to have them again, and I do not understand what for." The reaction among those interviewed here underscored what polls suggested was seething dissent in this and the other 20 ethnic republics that had achieved a measure of autonomy since the Soviet Union disbanded. In one poll across Russia, nearly half of those surveyed opposed Mr. Putin's proposal. But here, at least anecdotally, the opposition appeared to be stronger.

Mr. Putin has defended his plan, issued days after at least 339 hostages, half of them children, died in a terror siege at a school in Beslan, Russia, by saying he wanted to unify Russia against the threat of terror. But many warn that it could have the opposite effect, stoking ethnic divisions that in an extreme case dragged Chechnya, another of the republics, into more than a decade of bloodshed.

Atner P. Khuzangay
"Inside this monolithic structure there will be certain movements," said Atner P. Khuzangay, a leader in this republic of Chuvashia as it won some autonomy in the early 1990's. "There will be tension. I would not call it resistance, but tensions will appear." It remains to be seen whether public opposition will have any effect on Mr. Putin's proposal, which his aides submitted to a pliant Parliament in late September. Its leaders, all Putin loyalists, promise to adopt the changes quickly, but already there are signs of political challenges.

A regional legislator in Kaliningrad has asked Russia's Constitutional Court to clarify the legality of the proposal. The Chuvash National Congress, a private organization here, plans to meet on Oct. 8 to draft a statement of opposition. Its president, Gennadi N. Arkhilov, called the proposal "doomed," and added, "if not now, then eventually."

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said regional parliaments, which under Mr. Putin's proposal would ratify Kremlin appointees, could still baulk, especially when regional laws conflicted with federal law or practice. Chuvashia, for example, requires that its president be a speaker of Chuvash, a Turkic language spoken by two-thirds of the region's 1.4 million residents. The new legislation, though, would give Mr. Putin the authority to disregard such requirements and to disband regional parliaments if they rejected his appointees twice.

"It will be very complicated to do this without risking an explosion," he said in a telephone interview. "There will be real opposition, but it will, perhaps, not be very public."

Indeed, few senior political leaders have openly defied Mr. Putin on the issue. Even the governors and other regional leaders, who will lose their independence and electoral legitimacy when the plan takes effect, have lined up behind Mr. Putin - at least publicly.

One exception is the elected leader of Chuvashia, President Nikolai V. Fyodorov. He has responded with silence, even when local journalists have pressed him to comment. He declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, with his office citing scheduling conflicts. Other elected officials here said he opposed Mr. Putin's proposal, but dared not say so publicly.

Mr. Fyodorov's position is delicate in part because of the nature of the autonomy that Chuvashia, like the other republics, received after Russia's first president, Boris N. Yeltsin, famously told regional leaders to "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow."

Chuvashia, a central region of forest and fertile steppe slightly smaller than New Jersey, wrote its own constitution and drafted its own laws. The Chuvash language, once consigned to private conversations, experienced a revival in schools, theaters and, most important, in the corridors of government. Mr. Fyodorov, an ethnic Chuvash who was first elected president in 1993, was generally, though not universally, considered a democrat and a nationalist willing to defy Moscow.

When war broke out in Chechnya in 1994, he issued a decree allowing soldiers from Chuvashia to refuse to fight there - an effort he ultimately lost. In 2000, when Mr. Putin stripped regional leaders of their seats in the upper house of Parliament, the Federation Council, Mr. Fyodorov was among the most vocal critics.

Unlike Chechnya, Chuvashia never had a separatist movement. One reason is that the Chuvash, descendents of Bulgar tribes that settled the Volga region in the seventh and eighth centuries, adopted Russian Orthodoxy, while other Turkic regions, including neighboring Tatarstan, adopted Islam. Another reason, people here said, was the autonomy Mr. Yeltsin granted.

Even under the Soviet system, Chuvashia had received special autonomous status on June 24, 1924 - a date still celebrated as the republic's independence day. That autonomy, though, existed only in theory; the Central Committee in Moscow controlled everything. To the Chuvash, Mr. Putin's proposal amounts to the end of Russia's short experiment with federalism.

"Putin needs a fully controlled system, a system where a command from the top is carried out just like in the barracks," said Yevgeny L. Lin, the leader of the liberal Yabloko Party here. "Federalism includes elements of independence, which he does not want, because there is no room for them in the barracks."

Like others here and in Moscow, Mr. Lin expressed concern that the Kremlin might also be considering plans to do away with the republics altogether, merging them into larger regions more easily controlled from the federal center.

Some here are resigned to the erosion of the region's autonomy. They call it an inevitable characteristic of Russia, where democratic traditions never really took root. "There's a saying in Russia," said Oleg A. Delman, an independent member of the local parliament, or State Council, who opposes the Putin proposal. "A country without its czar is like a village without an idiot."

Mikhail N. Yukhma, another of Chuvashia's nationalist leaders in the 1990's, has grown embittered with Chuvashia's course. He is a fierce critic of Mr. Fyodorov, whom he accuses of building his own autocratic power. He said he would prefer a leader sent from Moscow.

"I should admit this idea failed here," he said of Chuvashia's period of autonomy. "The electoral system can yield fruit only in some place like the United States - not here."

Viktor A. Ilyin, a Communist member of the State Council, said Chuvashia had been steadily losing autonomy ever since Mr. Putin came to office and began to strengthen his political hold over all of Russia. The region's budget increasingly relies on federal resources, doled out, he said, based on loyalty to the Kremlin.

But he said Mr. Putin's proposal - in its starkness - could prove too much for people to accept quietly.

"We should take into account the psychology of our people," he added. "They are like a young birch tree. If you bend it and bend it, sometimes it breaks. Sometimes, it snaps back." Scottish moves to save Gaelic

28 Sept 2004 The Guardian, London

The Scottish parliament today published a bill designating new powers to a Gaelic language board in a last-ditch attempt to save and revive the historical language of Scotland. The Scottish Gaelic language bill was first presented last year, but has now been strengthened to give greater powers to BÚrd na Gŗidhlig, the body designated to promote the use of Gaelic in schools, local authorities and government. Under the new bill, BÚrd na Gŗidhlig will be able to issue statutory guidance to schools on teaching about, and in, the Gaelic language, and will be able to advise all public bodies on the use of Gaelic. The 2001 census showed a slow but steady decline in the use of Gaelic in Scotland, with 58,552 people speaking the language regularly, compared with 65,978 10 years previously.

The Scottish education minister, Peter Peacock, who has ministerial responsibility for Gaelic, said: "Today is an historic day for Gaelic as we move to secure the status of the language in Scotland, ensuring that - rather than dying out as some have gloomily predicted - it has a long-term future. "The publication of the bill is just one reason for optimism - the fact that Gaelic medium education is flourishing and the number of young speakers is rising also gives us real hope." He added: "This bill will make it easier for people to use Gaelic and ensure that public bodies - such as councils and health boards - have to take the needs of Gaelic speakers into account." The chairman of BÚrd na Gŗidhlig, Duncan Ferguson, said: "This is a momentous day for Gaelic, and BÚrd na Gŗidhlig is delighted to welcome the publication of the revised bill. This bill is a clear demonstration of the executive's determination to secure and revitalise Gaelic, and it is also a most encouraging reflection of extensive consultation with, and input from, many people committed to the future of Gaelic nationally."

End of the Line for the Welsh Language Board


The National Assembly of Wales has announced that the Welsh Language, Board, established in 1994, will be abolished in 2007. This is part of the Labour dominated Assembly Governmentís aim of reducing the number of semi-official bodies. In July 2004 it announced that bodies with responsibilities for economic development, education and tourism would be abolished in 2006, and at the beginning of December it announced the end of the language board, the curriculum assessment board and the health professionalsí body.

The reaction throughout Wales has been mixed. The opposition parties have condemned the move but there is disagreement among the language pressure groups if this is a good thing for the language or not. The First Minister of the Assembly Rhodri Morgan said when he made the announcement that "you can justify the existence of armís length bodies in government but there is no such thing as armís length public money. Ministers are always responsible for its scrutiny. There is no dodging that responsibility".

The Assembly Government says that there is no need now for the Language Board as the government has established the Iaith Pawb (Language for All) policy and that it will appoint an independent regulator to ensure that the appropriate government department implements this plan.

But before the announcement, the Welsh Language Board - and others - had warned that the demise of the Board would make the language a "political football" as it was before the Board was established. The former minister with responsibility for the language, Jenny Randerson of the Liberal Democrats, warned that abolishing the board would make the language a "political matter".

After the announcement, the Language Board issued the following statement: "The Board has contributed enormously towards the reviving of the language over the last decade and this is reflected in the 2001 Census figures where an increase in the number of Welsh speakers was recorded. The Board wants assurances that it will be possible to support the momentum under any new regime. The Board will discuss fully with the Assembly Government the process of transferring its responsibilities and duties, and the method of regulating language plans in general."

But the language pressure group Cymuned has attacked the plans. "This means that the future of the Welsh language will be decided entirely by the Labour Party," says Aran Jones, the groupís chief executive. "The Assembly Government has failed to win more power from Westminster, so now itís trying to increase its power by turning back the process of devolution within the borders of Wales." Cymuned has asked Alun Pugh, the Minister for Culture, to confirm that decisions about the Welsh language "will not be made on the basis of prejudice within the Labour Party".

Nevertheless, many language activists see this as an opportunity to attack the Labour Party who they perceive are not totally committed to the language, although it was Labour that established the Language Board. They say that the party will not from 2007 onwards be able to "hide" behind the Language Board if they are perceived not to be doing enough for the language. "One should look at this as a new opportunity," says Dafydd Morgan Lewis of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society). "In its place a new Language Council should be established which would be more representative than the Board and also to establish a language ombudsman, a language planning body and a centre for standardising terms. They must look again at the Welsh Language Act as this act is now useless after this decision. Cymdeithas yr Iaith has already arranged a National Forum to discuss these matters."

Many working in the field of language revival have accepted that there is nothing they can do to change the Assembly Governmentís decision. All they can hope for is that the expertise that the Board had gained over the years will not now be lost.