Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Speak Kyrgyz, Not Russian, Diplomats Told

New rules seem unworkable since most diplomats currently work in Russian and will find it hard to switch language.
By Yevgenia Kim
A ruling that Kyrgyzstan’s diplomats must use the official language, Kyrgyz, wherever possible has met with dismay from critics who say decreeing linguistic change is not enough to ensure that it actually happens.



The decision was announced at a December 11 meeting of the Kyrgyz parliament, when amendments to the law on use of the state language were passed.



Until now, foreign embassies like other public institutions have conducted most of their business in Russian. But the government is now engaged on a drive to force officials to use Kyrgyz instead.



It is only the latest in a series of campaigns since the Central Asian state gained independence in 1991 to promote the status and use of Kyrgyz in public life, which to date have had only partial success.



Diplomats, in particular, use Russian as a common language in dealings with other former Soviet states; and English or the language of their host country in the wider international community. Internal business and documentation is in Russian.



Until now, the legal position has been that people can choose whether to conduct official communications in Kyrgyz – the “state language”, or Russian, which retained special status as an “official language”.



Now that is to change. The amended language law comes ahead of next year’s deadline for making Kyrgyz mandatory for use in official documents. Lack of preparation has meant the deadline has shifted more than once – initially it was set for 2000, later postponed to 2005 and now 2010.



At the December 11 session, Almazbek Karimov of the governing Ak Jol party, who drafted the changes to the law, complained to his fellow parliamentarians that all civil servants except the diplomatic corps had made the switch to Kyrgyz.



“They must not only conduct negotiations in Kyrgyz, but also receptions, meetings and other events in the Kyrgyz language,” he said.



Speaking in an earlier parliamentary debate on November 18, Asylbek Jeenbekov, representing the opposition Social Democratic Party , said, “Experience has shown that officials will not learn the language unless there is legislation.”



He stressed that the proposed legal changes were meant to encourage people to use Kyrgyz, not punish those who did not.



The aim, he said, was that the law would prompt people “to start studying the language today, so that in five or ten years it is spoken perfectly”.



Diplomats will still be allowed to speak Russian on formal occasions, but only within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the broadest grouping of former Soviet states. What is less clear is whether the same applies to bilateral relations, for example whether a Kyrgyz diplomat will now be required to use an interpreter to talk to a Ukrainian counterpart, when both would be able to converse freely in Russian.



Kyrgyz diplomats, past and present, are wary of the implications of the language switch, saying there are all sorts of obstacles that have not been taken into account



Roza Otunbaeva, a former foreign minister and ambassador and now a leading light in the opposition Social Democrats, said enacting the bill before the diplomatic service had the capacity to obey it was “putting the cart before the horse”.



“Currently, 90 per cent of diplomatic staff are simply incapable of conducting negotiations and correspondence in Kyrgyz,” she said during the November 18 debate. “How are they going to implement the law? In the diplomatic service, you cannot make mistakes; you have to weigh every word. Anyway, you cannot force someone to learn the state language by coercion.”



Like other commentators, Otunbaeva said Kyrgyzstan did not have enough translators and interpreters.



At an earlier discussion in parliament on November 10, the current foreign minister Kadyrbek Sarbaev said that in places like China and Japan, there was simply no capacity to translate between Kyrgyz and local languages.



Kyrgyzstan’s ambassador to the United States, Zamira Sydykova, agrees that money needs to be put into language training.



“We have very few qualified Kyrgyz translators. Funding will need to be allocated for their training,” she said.



Kyrgyz has undergone something of a grassroots revival since independence, for demographic reasons. Ethnic Russians left in large numbers, while internal migration saw ethnic Kyrgyz moving from the countryside to the towns, and especially from southern areas to the north, where the Russian language traditionally had a stronger hold.



As a result, the latest surveys show that in urban areas of Kyrgyzstan, the percentage of people who speak only Russian has slipped from 70 to 30 per cent since 2005.



One of the changes to the law requires a knowledge of Kyrgyz as a condition of employment in the diplomatic service, and is being seen as potentially discriminatory against ethnic minorities.



In reality, it is likely to have the greatest impact on the ethnic Kyrgyz who predominate in the diplomatic service. They are commonly come drawn from the educated elite and spend their working lives operating in Russian, whatever they speak at home.



“The amendments contradict the constitution, article 15 of which stipulates that the state guarantees equality of rights irrespective of ethnicity and language,” said Pavel Dyatlenko, an analyst with the Polis Asia think-tank. “This law makes a knowledge of Kyrgyz compulsory.”



Yevgenia Kim is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kyrgyzstan.