Rising Profile of Russian-Language Schooling in Azerbaijan: Inferiority, Opportunity or Challenge?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 151

(Source: Vestnik Kavkaza)

During his latest visit to Azerbaijan, on September 27 (see EDM, October 1, 12), President Vladimir Putin said that the main basis for the Russian language lies in the hearts and minds of people. He also mentioned that he and his Azerbaijani counterpart, President Ilham Aliyev, had discussed “interest in the Russian language” on September 1, in Sochi (Azertag, September 27). Notably, amidst Putin’s visit, Azerbaijani Minister of Education Jeyhun Bayramov issued a directive to continue the intensified teaching of the Russian language in 50 elementary and secondary schools in the country, where the language of instruction is Azerbaijani. The initial implementation of this project had commenced in 2017 (Edu.gov.az, September 27).

A couple weeks later, on October 11, Russia’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, Mikhail Bocharnikov, stated that branches of three additional Russian universities—the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the Higher School of Economics and Moscow State University of Humanities and Economics—would be set up in Azerbaijan. Local branches of two Russian universities—the Lomonosov Moscow State University and Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University—already operate in the South Caucasus country (Trend, October 11). Furthermore, there are 341 public schools in Azerbaijan where the language of instruction is Russian. However, those schools are not sufficient to accommodate increasing numbers of applicants interested in studying at these so-called “Russian sector” institutions.

The tendency of Azerbaijani parents to send their children to Russian-language schools has been rising considerably. The issue regularly inspires public debates in Azerbaijan—but mainly via social media. This time, however, the debate spilled out into the Azerbaijani parliament, with a number of high-profile members disagreeing on the matter. Indeed, Member of Parliament (MP) Govhar Bakhshaliyeva, who is also the director of the Oriental Studies Institute under the Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences, seriously warned against the growing numbers of Azerbaijani children attending Russian schools, calling it “fundamentally wrong.” She recommended teaching Russian as a foreign language in Azerbaijani schools instead of treating it as a language of instruction. In contrast, the head of the parliamentary commission on legal affairs and state building, MP Ali Huseynli, who had recently floated the idea of Azerbaijan joining the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (see EDM, September 10), argued that Bakhsaliyeva’s criticism goes “against the position of civil society” (Yenicag.az, October 12; Musavat.com, October 13; Mozalan.az, October 15).

Meanwhile, MP Kamila Aliyeva suggested that Russian-language schools—currently free and paid for with state revenues—should have to charge tuition. But this suggestion faces opposition and appears unrealistic under the current circumstances (Musavat.com, September 5; Gumilev-center.az August 29). MP Qudret Hesenquliyev stressed the need for establishing free English-language public schools instead. He said that Azerbaijan should seek to set up local branches of the world’s top 200 universities (Realpress.az, October 13). The first deputy speaker of the parliament, Ziyafet Asgerov, supported opening branches of Russian universities on Azerbaijani soil, but he spoke out against remarks downgrading the quality of domestic education, saying such criticism was the product of a legacy Soviet mindset (Baku.ws, October 13). Finally, MP Nizami Jeferov, a leading Azerbaijani academician who chairs the parliamentary commission on culture, noted that parents took their children to Russian schools because English-language schools were too expensive. Jeferov emphasized the need for an analytical approach to the issue of why people are so often turning to Russian-language schools (Mektebgushesi.az, October 14).

Indeed, Deputy Speaker Asgerov’s above-mentioned remarks highlight an enduring local stereotype, born during Soviet times, that the Russian sector offers a higher quality education and that Azerbaijani schools are inherently inferior to Russian ones. Holders of such a view claim that students of Russian-language schools perform better, are more intellectual, and have a broader worldview than their peers in Azerbaijani schools. Furthermore, some supporters of Russian-language education describe it as offering access to the world (Sputnik.az, September 20, 2018; Azvision.az, June 22, 2018; Movqe.az, November 29, 2016; Elchi.az, March 1, 2016).

However, such claims are misleading and arise from a widely shared inferiority complex regarding Russian-language education. First, the English language—not Russian—dominates the world and, therefore, theoretically offers its speakers superior global access. Second, and even more importantly, the topic is wrongly framed as Russian versus Azerbaijani schools. The essence of the problem is actually generally rooted in differences between urban and rural schools in the country. Russian-language schools operate mostly in the capital city of Baku, where the quality of schools and educational facilities, living standards, and general well-being are much better compared to those in rural areas and provinces. According to the State Examination Center, Azerbaijan’s worst-performing schools are in rural areas and provinces, while the best-performing ones are in Baku (Report.az, April 26, 2017; Mia.az, April 27, 2017; Oxu.az, September 7, 2018). Third, reports abound that admission to Russian-language sectors of local universities are facilitated through setting lower admission points, increasing acceptance quotas, and easier exam questions compared to the Azerbaijani sector. Therefore, parents feel encouraged to send their children to the Russian sector of primary and secondary schools in the hopes that they will then enjoy “privileged” admission to local Russian-language universities in the future (Cebhe.info, July 15, 2018; Aznews.az, Telebe.az, August 19, 2018; Musavat.com, August 22, 2015).

Thus, the debate highlights a myriad of inter-related sociological, psychological, economic and political factors. Psychologically, a persisting inferiority complex plays a significant role in increasing interest in Russian-language education in Azerbaijan. Economically, many parents send their children to Russian-language schools simply because they are free and funded by the state, while all English-language schools are private and financially out of reach. Russian universities are the only foreign institutions of higher learning operating in Azerbaijan; there are not even any Turkish colleges despite Azerbaijan’s strong and close ties with Turkey. And politically, the issue is viewed as essential to maintaining good relations with Moscow, particularly in light of the ongoing Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Karabakh (Newtimes.az, October 11, 2017; Kavkazplus.com, November 14, 2015; BBC News—Russian service, September 9, 2009). Considering the current upswing in Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia (see EDM, September 18, 2018; October 12, 2018), the favored position Russian-language schools currently enjoy in the country is unlikely to change. Yet, local officials will need to remain watchful of the way that Moscow uses education as part of its soft-power toolkit to influence its neighbors (see EDM, February 29, 2008; May 16, 2017; April 4, 2018; October 12, 2018).