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Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/2/2003

What's Russian for `politics as usual'?

Back to the kitchen with you, Ivan!

That was the message the State Duma sent to Russia's media last month when it overwhelmingly passed a Russian language bill. The bill would have banned profanities and foreign words that have Russian equivalents from official documents, advertisements, and the media.

It appeared that Russian journalists were being forced back into their Soviet past where kitchens were the only places to freely discuss politics. Many were predicting resurrection of Soviet-style “literary editors,” who carried out political censorship.

But Ivan was spared on a technicality.

The parliament's upper house, the Soviet of Federation, commonly referred to as the Senate, overwhelmingly rejected the bill.

Good for them because the Russian name of the Senate, Sovet Federacii, is a “federation” in the finest French-from-Latin Romance tradition. Had the senators passed the law, they would have to rename their own house.

But the senators rejected the bill for another reason.

The ban was packaged with a bill mandating Russian as the official language of the entire Russian Federation, a country with more than 100 ethnic minorities, some of whom - in accordance with Russia's constitution - have been using their own tongues as their official languages. So senators representing ethnic minorities voted against it.

The State Duma, the Russian parliament's lower house, on the other hand, comprises representatives, most of whom are ethnic Russians or Russian speakers, and who are Putin loyalists and could care less about the rights of minorities. So the representatives passed the bill.

I am happy though that the senators didn't. It means the media is still in business, at least until the clowns in the Duma figure out how to unbundle the word ban from the language bill.

It is hard to imagine though that Mr. Putin - whose No. 1 presidential prerogative is to safeguard the constitution - would have signed the bill into law. Mr. Putin is smart enough not to openly challenge the constitution. He would have refused to sign the proposal into law.

Besides, if passed, the bill would have undermined Russia's effort to reform its accounting system to bring it in compliance with international standards.

Moreover, most business terms in Russian are foreign. Russia's business majors have learned them from manuals written in English or translated into Russian. It is simply impossible now to make them unlearn those terms without trashing Russia's accounting system and undermining tax collections.

No president in his right mind would want that.

So had the senators passed the proposal, Mr. Putin would have refused to sign it into law and emerged as a savior of Russian democracy, economy, and statehood.

Hence, the bill was not a serious attempt to change law. At a glance, it appeared to be a PR attempt on Mr. Putin's part.

But even that is hardly the case, because Mr. Putin clearly realized that the senators - whom he does not quite control yet - would not pass a bill that violates constitutional rights of their constituents.

The most probable scenario therefore is that Mr. Putin was trying to flush out his adversaries in the Senate.



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