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Kyrgyz Language Dispute

Simmering linguistic divisions are raising the political temperature in Kyrgyzstan
By Toktobai Mulkubatov

Some astonishing mistakes recently noticed in the Kyrgyz language edition of the country's constitution have highlighted the uneasy coexistence of Kyrgyz and Russian in the tiny republic.


A sentence which reads in Russian, "the Legislative Assembly of the Kyrgyz Republic can introduce martial law only in the event of aggression against the Kyrgyz Republic" is translated into Kyrgyz as, "martial law can be introduced in the Kyrgyz Republic in the event of the Legislative Assembly attacking the Kyrgyz Republic."


Having spent many years working in Russian, it seems that the Kyrgyz political elite barely glanced at the constitution when it was published in Kyrgyz.


Although both languages enjoy legislative recognition - Kyrgyz as the state language since 1989 and Russian as an official language from this year - there is a certain


political and psychological discordance between them.


Only a very small number of Kyrgyz citizens are comfortable with both. Quite apart from the Russian, Ukranian and other national minorities, a distinct linguistic division exists among the ethnic Kyrgyz themselves.


In the 1960s, strident measures were imposed to strengthen the study of Russian language in Kyrgyz schools, while the study of the Kyrgyz was effectively forbidden in Russian schools.


The number of Kyrgyz schools in towns fell catastrophically and Russian schools were even opened in some purely Kyrgyz settlements "at the request of the inhabitants". With a population of half a million, the capital of Bishkek was left with only two Kyrgyz language high schools and no Kyrgyz kindergartens.


Moreover, the chances of gaining a place at the better Soviet universities was vastly improved by a knowledge of Russian. An indifference to Kyrgyz culture, language and history in the emerging generation was almost inevitable.


Many Kyrgyz settlements were renamed, with some amusing results as Kyrgyz names and surnames were remoulded into Russian. The name Omurbai, a combination of "Omur" - life - and "Bai" - prosperity - was written in Russian as Umer-Bai - similar sounding but very different, as "Umer" means "dead".


When Kyrgyz was adopted as state language a conflict emerged between the urban Russian-speaking Kyrgyz youth and the young rural Kyrgyz-speakers who moved to Bishkek from all over the country in search of better opportunities.


This confrontation between the children of a single nation divided by language, sometimes ending in fighting. Bolstered by the law on languages, the rural youth rightfully demanded a comprehensive knowledge of their native language from their contemporaries.


As a result, while some city-dwelling Kyrgyz did manage to master the day-to-day needs of their language, hundreds of thousands emigrated to Russia and abroad.


The Kyrgyz parliament now obliges presidential candidates to speak the state language and the Central Election Commission has set a Kyrgyz language exam.


Many Kyrgyz-speaking citizens have welcomed this move, but ten years after independence there are still no proper facilities or resources for the study of the language.


The rural Kyrgyz, who were once denied a proper education in the Russian language now suffer the indignity of city-dwelling Russian speaking Kyrgyz telling them they should hurry up and learn their own language and customs.


So language has become an instrument of political revenge and it is no secret that the language exam for presidential candidates was devised partly to exclude prospective candidate Felix Kulov. A typical member of the Kyrgyz urban elite he was considered one of the main opponents of the current president.


Of course research shows that the modern Kyrgyz voter most wants a pragmatic leader who will strive to improve living standards. The nation dreams of an intelligent and charismatic president who will safeguard the constitution, few really care whether he can reproduce a series of set texts in the state language.


But then, no one has consulted voters on this issue. Do they really want to subject candidates to a language exam or not? Of course there has been no referendum on the issue, nor has anyone checked whether the exam infringes basic human rights or the Kyrgyz constitution.


Meanwhile, seven ageing academics at the Kyrgyz Literary Academy will continue to set tests for eminent presidential candidates such as journalist Melis Eshimkanov, parliamentary deputy Omurbek Tekebaev and industrialist Almaz Atambaev.


Even human rights campaigner, Tursunbek Akunov, himself a qualified veterinarian, would need to sit the exam if he sought higher political office.


Each candidate has strong regional support from thousands of voters who admire their personal qualities, talents and ideas. If, in the space of 45 minutes, the candidate doesn't write something which satisfies the essay commission, how will those supporters react?


Nobody can guarantee that disqualifying a candidate from the elections on the basis of a badly written essay won't lead to a wave of protests, or swell the ranks of protesters who have now been sitting in the centre of Bishkek for over three months.


Thus a rash and poorly thought out decision by the Central Electoral Committee risks discrediting the state language of Kyrgyzstan. This despite the fact that the Russian language was recently granted official status.


No one, as yet, has argued that the official language is any less valid than the state language. Indeed, that makes it only logical that presidential candidates should also sit an exam in Russian.


Toktobai Mulkubatov is an IWPR contributor.