Armenia's plans on teaching Russian raise fears of Moscow influence

Yerevan (AFP) –


Armenia plans to increase teaching Russian in schools in a move that has sparked widespread concerns that Moscow's influence is growing in the ex-Soviet state.

The education ministry has launched public discussion of the reform on the use of the Russian language, as the Caucasus country marks 26 years of independence from the former Soviet Union.

Learning Russian is already mandatory in Armenian primary schools.

But now the government wants Russian to be taught to an advanced level at a greater number of schools and for secondary schools to use both Armenian and Russian when teaching physics, maths and geography.

Russian "is the most widely used (foreign) language" in Armenia, Education Minister Levon Mkrtchyan said at a press conference.

He argued that similar teaching programmes already exist for other foreign languages such as English, French and German.

The education ministry's plans, however, have quickly turned into a political dispute, reflecting sensitivities over the use of the Russian language in Armenia and other former Soviet republics.

According to a poll this month on the website of Armenia's education ministry, only 25 percent back the linguistic reform, while 75 percent are against it.

"Nobody is against children learning several languages, but when we are talking about forced Russification, it becomes a direct threat to national sovereignty," said political analyst and former opposition lawmaker Stepan Safarian.

Opposition lawmaker Anahit Bakhshyan said she also firmly opposes the plans.

"Why is it necessary to popularise Russian in a country where 98 percent of the population is Armenian," she asked.

"All foreign languages are important, why should we single out Russian?... According to our constitution, our official language is Armenian. There cannot be a second one," she added.

After the fall of the USSR, Russian-language schools were closed and the use of Russian vastly decreased.

Today, young Armenians prefer to continue their studies in the West.

Armenia's own language is Indo-European and totally unrelated to Russian, with its own unique alphabet.

But Yerevan has edged closer to Moscow in recent years, preferring an economic union with Russia over a trade agreement with the European Union.

The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament Vyacheslav Volodin recently asked Armenia to make Russian an official language in exchange for Moscow recognising Armenian driving licences. Yerevan refused.

Armenia's plans to expand Russian teaching come shortly after Ukraine limited the use of Russian in schools with a controversial new law.

Kiev's law was met with criticism not only in hostile Moscow, but also in neighbouring Hungary and Romania.

- 'Everyone taking English' -

Critics of Armenia's plans say that English, not Russian, is most beneficial for young Armenians.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, international companies have set up offices in Yerevan and recruit primarily English speakers.

"All prestigious and well paid jobs require a good level of English," said Gohar Sukiasyan, who is in the final year at a Yerevan school.

"In my class, almost everyone is taking private English lessons in addition to learning it at school to further their careers," she said.

- 'Political influence' -

The government has in part justified the planned education reform as part of rapprochement with Russia.

"Armenia and Russia are part of the same military defence system in which the working language is Russian," the deputy speaker of Armenia's parliament Eduard Sharmazanov told AFP.

"Our future officers are trained in Russia."

He also stressed that the "language of communication" inside the Eurasian Economic Union which Armenia is part of -- along with ex-Soviet Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- is Russian.

In addition, Russia is home to a huge Armenian diaspora.

"If (Armenian migrants) did not speak Russian, it would complicate their employment," said Sharmazanov.

The number of Russian companies has grown considerably in the country and the demand for the Russian language has increased accordingly, said Serob Khachatryan, an expert on Armenia's education system.

"But everyone understands that a language is not only an instrument of communication," he added.

"It is first of all a tool to increase political influence in the country."