Russian-language devotees often like to remind listeners that the first words in outer space were said in Russian. But Russian promoters have been struggling to make sure that those words continue to make sense to folks in the South Caucasus, one of the most linguistically diverse regions of the former Soviet Union.
Local cultures here have always put up strong resistance to Russia’s attempts at linguistic and cultural homogenization; now, Russian is challenged by both the ongoing comeback of vernacular languages and, as the area opens up ever further to the outside world, a growing command of English.
But other developments -- such as Moscow's ongoing endeavors to grasp breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in its embrace -- apparently offer opportunities, too. And, so, where else for the Russian Book Publishers' Association (along with the Pushkin State Russian Language Institute and the Russian cultural-center network, Moscow House) to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus but in largely Russian-speaking Abkhazia?
On December 18, an array of Russian linguists, writers, researchers and educators gathered in Sukhumi to discuss ways of saving the Russian language in the South Caucasus. “The Russian language is what creates our shared cultured space, ties our nations, regions and peoples together,” Ilya Manevich, head of the Russian Book Publishers’ Association declared at the conference, Ekho Kavkaza reported.
So much for the Russian Spring: “skewed” campaigning, an alleged drop of Botox and a reported bit of voting magic, and Vladimir Putin is back as Kremlin boss. Putin owes much of his victory to the Caucasus, and, already, the congratulations are coming in from territories and countries in the Russian-owned, Russian-occupied or otherwise Russian-preoccupied region.
South of the Caucasus ridge, separatist Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both safely tucked inside a wall of Russian arms, reported 90 percent support for Putin among registered Russian voters. The separatist chiefs of these territories, both existentially dependent on Moscow, did not opt for an interpretive dance, but did cast their votes for Putin and encouraged their electorates to follow suit.
It's big, it's rich and it's near, so why isn't it more here? No, not Russia, the leading lady of many a former South Caucasus drama, but what some describe as a promising actor waiting in the wings -- Turkey.
At a March 2 conference in Tbilisi on "Turkey's South Caucasus Agenda: Roles of State and Non-State Actors," sponsored by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation and the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV)*, academics, analysts, NGO-niks and retired diplomats debated the likelihood of Turkey acquiring a more active role in the region as a force for peace.
But don't expect Ankara to rush at the opportunity. As one Georgian participant noted, there are more questions than answers about what Turkey's role in the South Caucasus should be.
Right now, even while "looming large" over the region, "Turkey is indeed pushing below its weight . . . politically," commented Peter Semneby, the European Union's former special representative to the South Caucasus.
The reasons are many -- the foreign-policy distractions of the Middle East and Iran, coupled with the rise of nationalist tendencies in Turkish domestic politics (and accompanying wariness about any further outreach to Armenia), plus Ankara's desire not to irritate Russia, which still sees the South Caucasus as its own backyard.
More mundane explanations also play a role; more than 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, expertise in the South Caucasus still runs relatively thin among Turks, noted TESEV Assistant Foreign Policy Programme Officer Aybars Görgülü.