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Kyrgyz Schools in Language Row

Education ministry backtracks as Uzbek minority representatives voice angered at moves to cut schooling in their language.
By Abdumomun Mamaraimov
Kyrgyzstan’s education ministry has reversed a decision to reduce the hours assigned to ethnic minority languages in the school curriculum, following an outcry from Uzbek community leaders.



The decree, published without fanfare in the teachers’ newspaper Kutbilim in June, simply stated that lessons in Kyrgyz language lessons would be increased by two hours at the expense of Uzbek- and Tajik-language classes.



The measure applied to schools where the main language of instruction is Uzbek or Tajik, not to mainstream schools where teaching is in Kyrgyz. Schools that use Russian were also unaffected.



Ethnic minority leaders, particularly among the Uzbek community in the south, the country’s second largest ethnic group which accounts for between 700,000 and a million people or 15 to 20 per cent of the population, were incensed at what they saw as an diminution of their cultural rights.



The order appeared to come from the top, but when member of parliament Davran Sabirov raised the issue with Education Minister Kanybek Osmonaliev on behalf of his fellow Uzbeks, there was considerable doubt about who had given the instructions.



“It isn’t clear how the decision was made. I personally spoke to the education minister, and he told me he knew nothing about it,” said Sabirov. “The order was signed by his deputy.”



One of Kyrgyzstan’s two deputy education ministers, Adina Boronov, also disclaimed responsibility for the new regulation. Speaking on August 27 – three days after Uzbek community representatives formally asked President Kurmanbek Bakiev to annul the order - he described the instruction as "absurd”.



Boronov suggested this was a deliberate ploy by “those who would like to set these ethnic groups [Kyrgyz and Uzbek] against one another”. The consequences, he added, could be “appalling”.



Even as the ministry was distancing itself from the measure, local education officials were trying to justify it. Chyrmash Dooronov, head of the education for Jalalabad region in southern Kyrgyzstan, pointed to recent amendments passed in parliament which require the state only to provide language teaching in Kyrgyz and two foreign languages, This is a change from the previous requirement to encourage people to learn Kyrgyz, Russian – widely spoken among all ethnic groups in the country – as well as other indigenous languages.



As things stood, said Dooronov, increasing the number of hours assigned to Kyrgyz necessarily meant cutting other parts of the school curriculum. If there was a problem, it should be referred back to parliament. “This has to be clarified with the deputies,” he said. “We work on the basis of laws adopted by parliament.”



Education officials in Jalalabad and Osh, another region with a substantial Uzbek population, said the order had actually been prompted by pleas from members of the community for better Kyrgyz-language provision. The education department in Suzak district said such a request had come directly from Sobirjon Mazaitov, chairman of an Uzbek association called Davr in the Osh region.



Not true, says Mazaitov. He says Uzbeks are keen for their children to learn Kyrgyz, but that does not mean they are prepared to lose out on classes in their own language.



“It is the state’s constitutional duty to provide equal conditions for all ethnic groups to learn the state and native languages,” he explained. “We have applied to all levels of authority, including the president of our country, for our children to be given the right conditions for learning the state language. But we didn’t ask for that to happen to the detriment of our own language”.



Sabirov agreed that learning Kyrgyz was a good thing, but that cutting Uzbek classes to make room for it would have a damaging effect on the community’s sense of identity. “Our children won’t learn anything – they learn different things through their own language,” he said.



The Tajik community, which numbers around 40,000, have some schools where teaching is at least partly in their language, but as Bahromjon Marasulov, head of the Tajik cultural centre in Jalalabad, explained, "Our children mostly go to Russian or Uzbek[language] schools. We were trying to achieve at least some optional [Tajik] hours for our children there, but now we have this situation. It’s wrong.”



Such was the level of political concern about the change that when the Kyrgyz parliament came back from its summer recess on September 3, a group of deputies immediately asked to see education minister Osmonaliev.



According to member of parliament Muhammadjan Mamasaidov, who also heads the national Uzbek cultural centre, “We explained the situation surrounding the decree to the minister, and convinced him the measure was wrong. After this, he annulled it.”



A new order dated September 4 restores Uzbek- and Tajik-language hours, and introduces the extra two hours a week of Kyrgyz as a replacement for other subjects.



Ethnic issues are always a sensitive political issue in Kyrgyzstan, especially in the south, given the size of the Uzbek population there and its proximity to Uzbekistan, with which diplomatic relations are often troubled.



Some damage has already been done to public confidence in central government’s commitment to diversity. Minority leaders who already felt that their schools had second-class status saw the move to downgrade secondary languages as a conspiracy.



Teachers from three schools in Jalalabad mounted a demonstration outside the mayor’s office in protest at the cut in language classes, and wider protests were planned, as well as an emergency meeting of Uzbek cultural organisations across the country.



However, the threat of further action was defused when the second decree reversing the changes was quickly dispatched to the south, and the following day, September 5, the local authorities in Osh and Jalalabad called in education officials and Uzbek teachers to give them the news.



Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR contributor in Kyrgyzstan