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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 October 2006, 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK
Russia president targets diaspora
By Steven Eke
BBC Russian Affairs analyst

Russian President Vladimir Putin
The Russian diaspora is estimated to be more than 30 million strong
President Vladimir Putin of Russia has called on the governments of the former Soviet countries to do more to ensure Russian remains a shared language.

It is a highly contentious issue in countries with pro-western policies, such as Georgia and the Baltic States.

Mr Putin has also pledged to make it easier for ethnic Russians living abroad to live or work in Russia.

His comments came during a congress of representatives of Russian communities from more than 80 countries.

The status of the millions of ethnic Russians living outside Russia's borders has emerged in recent months as a key theme in Mr Putin's policies.

Said by officials to be as many as 30 million people strong, the Russian diaspora is, potentially, a powerful tool in boosting Russia's influence abroad.

Language and sovereignty

Across the former Soviet Union, Russian is estimated to be used as a first language by fewer than half of those who actually know it.

It has been displaced by national languages, in education, the media and officialdom.

Russia says this is discriminatory.

However, Mr Putin's call to protect and develop what he calls "the Russian-speaking expanse" will be seen by many national governments as provocative.

For them, the revival of their own languages was an essential part of sovereignty and regaining their independence.

The question of Russian language remains a highly divisive issue in Ukraine, for example.

But Mr Putin's plans go far beyond language - having already outlined a plan to encourage tens of thousands of ethnic Russians to move, or permanently return, to Russia, he also announced a commission to co-ordinate the scheme.

Russia's liberals have expressed concern about what they see as part of a dangerous revival of Russian nationalism.

On the one hand, they say, there are frequent attacks on ethnic minorities.

On the other, those seen as "true Russians" are to be offered housing, jobs and financial incentives to return to Russia.

The Russian government has recently announced that it can accommodate up to 50,000 returnees next year, and would be targeting the successful Russian communities in Germany and Israel as priorities.

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