This Day in International Law: April 14

Russian-Estonian dual language sign in Rapla, Estonia.

By Ilya Akdemir

April 14th, 1978, marks the date of mass protests in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, mainly in its capital Tbilisi, over Georgians’ linguistic rights. Sparked by the announcement of a draft Georgian Constitution which was to replace the 1937 Georgian Constitution, the protest quickly gained traction, particularly among Georgian students and the local intelligentsia.

At the crux of the issue was Article 75 of the proposed Constitution, which made Russian the sole official language of the Georgian Soviet Republic, replacing Georgian language’s official state language status under the 1937 Georgian Constitution.

As the protests grew, the local Georgian Communist Party boss, Eduard Shevardnadze – essentially the de-facto leader of Soviet Georgia – began supporting the protests. Such open defiance of the party line and virtual independence in the decision-making was traditionally not well-tolerated by the Soviet authorities in Moscow, as perhaps was best demonstrated by the 1968 Invasion of Czechoslovakia. This time however, a peaceful solution was achieved.

Negotiating with the Soviet Government in Moscow, Shevarnadze – who went on to become the President of Georgia after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 – was able to preserve Georgian language’s official status in the new Constitution as the sole state language, just as it was under the 1937 Georgian Constitution. The protests achieved their objective and the Soviet Government had to back down. This was perhaps the first time a people in the Soviet Union successfully stood up to preserve its linguistic rights.

But to this day, the issue of linguistic rights remains largely controversial in the geographical area of what once was the Soviet Union, which makes the Georgian protests of 1978 both relevant and important from an international legal perspective. Indeed, issues regarding language often lie at the heart of the disputes between Russia and states that were once part of the Soviet Union or aligned with it.

For instance, Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine and the subsequent annexation of Crimea was justified in terms of Russian minority’s language rights – Yanukovych’s request for intervention, which was read by Russia’s representative at the Security Council Vitlaly Churkin, clearly states that “the people are being persecuted on the basis of their language and political beliefs.”

Similarly, Russia’s relations with the Balkan states have often been overshadowed by issues language and culture, such as the controversy surrounding the World War II Soviet war memorial in Estonia’s capital Tallinn, or Latvia’s referendum which led to the rejection of Russian as the official language, despite a significant Russian minority. On the other hand, leaders of Baltic states have expressed fears that Russia might use language-based justifications to annex parts of Baltic states that are populated by Russian minorities as it did in Ukraine.

Indeed, all these issues pose difficult international legal questions, from minority rights protection and their linguistic rights, to issues of war and intervention. The issues surrounding the 1978 Georgian demonstrations resonate to this day and demonstrate that language will remain an important factor in international law.