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Language Controversy in Kyrgyzstan

As pressure grows for curbs on the status of the Russian language, some argue that alone will do nothing to promote the use of Kyrgyz.
By Cholpon Orozobekova
The recurring issue of language policy in Kyrgyzstan is much more than an abstract matter for academic debate, as it tends to raise awkward questions about identity and nationhood, and who is embraced within those concepts.

Language – which comes down to whether Russian should enjoy the same status as Kyrgyz – has come up time and again since the country became independent in 1991. The last occasion was five years ago, when the then president, Askar Akaev, succeeded in according Russian the status of “official language” while Kyrgyz kept the title of “state language”. It was a compromise that granted Kyrgyz superior status while allowing Russian to be widely used in public life.

After a lull of several years, the issue has come to the fore again as politicians debate the wording of a proposed set of wide-ranging amendments to the constitution.

The Ashar movement, which as long ago as 1989 was lobbying for improved status for the Kyrgyz language in the then Soviet republic, published a statement in the press on November 10 calling for Russian to lose its official status. This public statement was followed by the establishment of a campaign headquarters for “protecting the state language from the expansion of Russian”.

The move was supported by Kyrgyz nationalist-minded groups such as the Asaba party and the Uluu Birimdik movement, which pledged to use the ongoing constitutional process to lobby for changes in favour of Kyrgyz.

“The role played by Russian in society should remain and [even] be increased, and study of the Russian language should continue,” said Emil Kaptagaev, who heads Uluu Birimdik. “But the fact that Russian has been made an official language reduces the sphere where the state language is used; it allows people to say they write and speak the official language, which prevents the state language from ever establishing itself.”

Doolot Nusupov, who is one of the leaders of Asaba, insists that Kyrgyzstan has done more than enough to uphold the position of Russian.

“Uzbekistan and the Baltic states put considerable pressure on Russian and don’t indulge it the way we do here,” he said. “Russian-speaking citizens have been holding various press conferences since our appeal, and they are aggravating relations between the two peoples even further. It would be better if they stopped harking back to the Russification of the Soviet period and began to study some Kyrgyz at least a bit, out of respect for the country.”

Ethnic Russians and others who use the language as their main means of communication were taken aback at what they saw as evidence of a nationalist upsurge.

On November 15, the Russian Union of Compatriots wrote to President Kurmanbek Bakiev urging him not to let the country “be divided into Kyrgyz and non-Kyrgyz”. The union even asked the president to authorise criminal lawsuits against anyone fanning the flames of ethnic hostility.

Before doing anything that might be seen as encroaching on the Russian minority’s rights, Kyrgyzstan’s leadership is likely to consider the views of Moscow, whose political and economic influence on this small republic remains strong. As journalist Masha Postnikova noted, such an action “may displease President Vladimir Putin”.

Since Russian is commonly used as a second language by ethnic Kyrgyz, concerns about upsetting the status quo are not restricted to Russians.

“We must all think about the future of Kyrgyzstan,” commented journalist Azamat Tynaev. “It’s a future that does not belong just to the Kyrgyz. The Kyrgyz republic has always been a multiethnic country. If everyone leaves and only the Kyrgyz remain, we ourselves will suffer most of all.”

As an ethnic Ukrainian, Larisa Vasilkova, falls into the category known here as the “Russian-speaking population”. But in fact she not only speaks Kyrgyz fluently, she teaches the language at the Slavonic University in Bishkek.

Asked about the proposed downgrading of the status of Russian, though, she replied, “I am very unhappy. I speak in Kyrgyz and respect the language, and this is the gratitude I get.”

This IWPR contributor conducted a brief and unrepresentative survey of passers-by in Bishkek. Those who were just visiting from rural areas appeared generally favourable to the nationalist agenda.

“What’s the point in calling this country Kyrgyzstan if we can’t improve the status of our own Kyrgyz language?” asked Kenesh Bakasov, from the Jetyoguz region in Issykkul region. “We ourselves let the Russians take over.”

Kyrgyzbek Narkeev, who comes from the village of Achakaindy in Naryn region, also supports curbing the status of Russian, “We have not only failed to teach Russians to speak Kyrgyz, we have even granted official status to Russian. And we look over our shoulders, wondering what Russia will say, how we’ll live without the Russians and so on. We will live without Russians, even if they leave.”

However, interviewees who identified themselves as long-term Bishkek residents were less strident on the issue.

“Kyrgyzstan depends on Russia, so Russian shouldn’t be touched at the moment,” said Ainura, a Kyrgyz woman, who added, “Nothing will change if we do change the status of Russian - we have always spoken it and we’ll keep on doing so. But it would offend Russia.”

The language question is clearly of concern to those lobbying on behalf of Kyrgyz or Russian, but it has also been an issue that politicians have seized on whenever the time was right.

Although Kyrgyz enjoys senior status, little was done to promote it for many years. President Akaev established a state commission to develop its use, but there were long periods when there was no funding for the agency.

In part this neglect may be due to the fact that the Kyrgyz elite have tended to conduct their daily business in Russian.

Since the March revolution, some senior officials have shown more of an interest in Kyrgyz. For example, Defence Minister Ismail Isakov ordered that all commands and military terminology should be translated into Kyrgyz, and soldiers even began singing their army songs in the language.

Former foreign minister Roza Otunbaeva ordered diplomatic negotiations to be translated into Kyrgyz, while Justice Minister Marat Kayipov proposed that cabinet meetings should be conducted in the state language rather than Russian. Kayipov also suggested that the amended constitution should be drafted in Kyrgyz and then translated into Russian.

Edil Baisalov, who heads the NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, accepts that Kyrgyz has had a bad deal over the years, but says changing the law will not fix things. He recalled how his brother was unable to find a good kindergarten that used Kyrgyz as the teaching medium, so that his daughter could have a good grounding in her mother tongue.

Since Kyrgyzstan became independent, most schools have used Kyrgyz rather than Russian as the principal language, but there are still relatively few in the capital, where all the prestigious, well-equipped schools use Russian.

“There isn’t a single decent Kyrgyz-language school or kindergarten in Bishkek. Everything is in Russian,” complained member of parliament Kubatbek Baibolov. “We only have ourselves to blame. What sort of country is it that cannot develop or attend to its own state language?”

Baibolov, too, believes that placing legislative restrictions on Russian is not going to help Kyrgyz, “Those who consider themselves ultrapatriotic think it’s enough to change the status of Russian. But we believe that without altering the status of Russian, more attention must be paid to promoting the state language.”

Cholpon Orozobekova is a correspondent with Radio Azattyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL.

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