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Concern About New Tajik Language Law

Critics warn effort to make Tajik compulsory discriminates against those who mainly speak Russian.
A new law making Tajik the only language acceptable for official use is likely to create discrimination against those who do not speak it well, critics say.

The special status previously enjoyed by Russian is omitted from the law, passed by the lower house of Tajikistan’s parliament on October 1 and approved by the upper chamber two days later, leading to fears that the country’s close political and economic relationship with Russia could suffer.

The law makes it mandatory to use Tajik in official communications, and appears to leave out the option of using Russian.

As in the last law, adopted in 1989 in the last years of Soviet rule, Tajik is designated the country’s “official language”. What has changed is that Russian is no longer accorded unique recognition as “the language of interethnic communication”.

Instead, the law speaks generally of the right to use “other languages” in daily life, and guarantees that there will be no obstructions to this.

As well as being the mother tongue of the now small Slavic population in Tajikistan, Russian is commonly used as lingua franca. Non-native Tajik speakers include the substantial Uzbek minority and a clutch of ethnic groups in Badakhshan whose Iranian languages differ substantially to Tajik, a form of Persian.

Supporters of the new law have pointed out that Russian’s special place remains in enshrined in the constitution, and their aim is merely to encourage Tajiks to speak their language as much as possible, instead of switching to spoken and written Russian when conducting official business.

President Imomali Rahmon proposed the new legislation on the annual Language Day on June 22, as part of a campaign to boost the use of Tajik in public life.

Few would contest this aim, but many have been unsettled by a clause requiring every citizen to have a knowledge of Tajik. As the Senate or the upper house of parliament gathered on October 3 to approve the bill, its chairman Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloev said, “It is unpatriotic to be a citizen of the republic and not to know the state language.”

Earlier, in a lower house dominated by the president’s People’s Democratic Party, the bill had gone through virtually unopposed. Only Communist Leader Shodi Shabdolov stood up to criticise it. He said the provision requiring a knowledge of Tajik should really only apply for people seeking work in the public sector, and called for Russian to get its legal status back.

Opponents of the move point to Tajikistan’s cultural, political and economic ties with Russia.

An estimated one to 1.5 million migrants work mainly in Russia and Kazakstan and the money they send home contributes 30-40 per cent of Tajikistan’s gross domestic product, according to World Bank figures. To operate abroad, they need a good working knowledge of Russian.

Dushanbe-based sociologist Galina Sobirova told IWPR, “Russian is needed by our labour migrants, and by the officials and public figures who represent Tajikistan in the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS; former Soviet bloc], and it therefore deserves special treatment.”

Journalist Khurshed Atovullo expressed a similar view. “If we want our labour migrants to avoid running into difficulties in Russia and to help our economy, then we should pay as much attention to Russian as to Tajik.”

The issue was sufficiently important to the Kremlin for President Dmitry Medvedev to raise it on a visit to Dushanbe in July for a security summit with leaders from Tajikistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Following the meeting, Sergei Prikhodko, aide to the Russian president, told reporters that the delegation had been reassured by Rahmon that Tajikistan was still committed to the use of the Russian language.

Journalist Jovid Mukim, who supports the new legislation, says he does not believe the role of Russian will recede as a result.

“As long as we have relations with Russia and CIS countries, it will remain and it won’t lose its status,” he said.

He believes the 1989 law, which made Tajik the number one language for the first time, has failed to deliver, because Russian still prevails in public life and many Tajik officials do not speak their own mother tongue.

“Over 20 years, the law could have brought a lot of change but failed to do so. The new legislation should fill these gaps,” he said.

The deputy director of Tajikistan’s Centre for Strategic Studies, Saifullo Safarov, agreed that a change in the softly-softly approach towards government officials was long overdue.

“For 18 years, we were soft on bureaucrats who didn’t know Tajik. We arranged language courses for them, but many have not taken it seriously,” he said. “Other ethnic groups may use Russian – no one is forbidding them to do so, and this is enshrined in the constitution.”

The importance of Russian has gradually been eroded since 1991, when Tajikistan became independent. There are 15 schools and one university left that use it as their teaching medium. Russian-language newspapers and radio stations still exist, but mostly in urban areas.

Critics fear the new law could encourage over-zealous bureaucrats to discriminate against other communities. Some say it already happens.

Zebo, a 30-year-old Dushanbe resident whose father is Tajik and mother is Russian, recalled how an airport official refused to reply to her in Russian.

“At the airport information desk a young woman replied in Tajik to my question [in Russian], and cited instructions to speak only Tajik,” she said. “I did not understand her and it was only because I know my rights that I got her to reply in Russian.”

Another Dushanbe resident, 30-year old Маdina, said that during a recent visit to the public notary, a staff member refused to deal with her request unless she spoke in Tajik.

“I fear that when the bill becomes law, I will have problems communicating with officials,” she added.

According to Communist leader Shabdolov, “We’re aware that even now there are complaints about people getting told off for not speaking Tajik. Those who don’t speak Tajik for one reason or another will now be penalised.”

Fines are envisaged for breaking the new law, although it remains far from clear what would constitute an offence, for instance refusing to fill out a form in Tajik.

During the parliamentary debate, one member of parliament raised perhaps the most practical objection of all.

Ismoil Talbakov pointed out that at a time when Tajikistan’s economy is in deep trouble, and that it was going to cost immense amounts of money to produce Tajik translations of the Russian-language documentation of some 100,000 institutions, companies and farms.

Nafisa Pisaredjeva is an IWPR-trained journalist in Tajikistan.

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