Kyrgyzstan Unwise to Squeeze Minority Languages

Drive to promote Kyrgyz language could leave minorities out in the cold.

Kyrgyzstan marked the third anniversary of a mass outbreak of ethnic bloodshed with memorial events held in the capital Bishkek and the southern city of Osh on June 10-14.

More than 400 people were killed in several days of violence between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around Osh and Jalalabad in June 2010.

These days, politicians in Kyrgyzstan say all the right things about creating harmony among the various ethnic groups and promoting the rights of minorities.

The government’s latest report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, submitted in February, says all ethnic groups are entitled to maintain their languages, and linguistic diversity is guaranteed under the law. Citing figures from 2011, the document says that ethnic minorities are well represented in government, the civil service and police.

As for minority languages, it talks of plans to expand broadcasting in Uzbek, Kazak, Tajik and Russian.

It did acknowledge that since June 2010, Kyrgyz had replaced Uzbek as the language of teaching in many schools in the south, although it insisted this was what parents wanted.

Despite the assurances given by government, changes in language policy over the last year suggest that all is not well.

In January, parliament passed two laws designed to promote the Kyrgyz language. One of them requires all legal documents to be produced only in Kyrgyz; previously they appeared in Russian as well. The other allows local government institutions to conduct all their business in Kyrgyz alone, if they so wish. Both laws are now in force.

The legislative changes have been criticised by local and international rights groups. The Interbilim NGO, which organised a petition against the legal documents law before it was passed, described it as a form of discrimination against people who did not speak Kyrgyz.

The other law, covering local government, is very vague on whether it is just districts, or whole provinces as well, that can opt to go monolingual, and on the circumstance in which they can make that decision. It will leave people with no option to fill out forms and interact with local institutions in Russian.

Russian is commonly used as a lingua franca by all minorities, not just Slavs, and is the main language of some Kyrgyz as well. Although the constitution accords Russian the status of an “official language”, these reforms effectively downgrade and sideline it.

They also make further inroads into the use of Uzbek in public life. The language enjoys no official status, but is used by Kyrgyzstan’s largest minority, which accounts for an estimated 14 per cent of the population.

The UN committee’s own findings, which came out in March, expressed concern over the position of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan. It described the disappearance of Uzbek-language TV and newspapers since 2010 as “lamentable”.

A third bill making it mandatory for government officials to have a command of Kyrgyz and to be tested on their knowledge has not yet made it through. President Almazbek Atambaev returned it to parliament on June 10.

At the moment, the president, the speaker of parliament and the head of the supreme court are the only officials required to demonstrate fluency in the language.

Other controversial points in the bill would have dropped the requirement for simultaneous translation into Russian at public gatherings, and introduced fines for anyone in a public positions unable to function in Kyrgyz.

President Atambaev said he raised objections to the bill because parts of it were in breach of the constitution and would discriminate against and exclude minorities.

The attempt to squeeze Russian out of public life is particularly regrettable given the importance of this language for Kyrgyzstan’s dealings with the Russian Federation and other former Soviet states.

Kyrgyzstan wants to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, whose other members are Kazakstan and Belarus. This will offer it access to a market of 170 million people, for most of whom Russian is their first language.

Secondly, hundreds of thousands of people from Kyrgyzstan are away working in Russia. Their remittances prop up the moribund Kyrgyz economy. They cannot function without knowing Russian. In December, Moscow tightened up its rule with new language tests for migrant workers in the retail and service sectors.

Third, Kyrgyzstan’s tourism industry relies mainly on visitors from Kazakstan and Russia. Here too, being able to communicate is really a necessity, not a choice.

Pavel Dyatlenko is a political analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank in Bishkek.