Velvet Discrimination in Kyrgyzstan

Some Russians say they no longer feel they belong, as parliament debates a law to give Kyrgyz language a greater role.

Velvet Discrimination in Kyrgyzstan

Some Russians say they no longer feel they belong, as parliament debates a law to give Kyrgyz language a greater role.

As Kyrgyzstan’s parliament discusses a controversial language law, members of the substantial Russian minority say they increasingly feel excluded from positions of power.


Community representatives told IWPR that while Russians do not face overt hostility or discrimination, they sense that there is no future for them in the Central Asian republic.


The proposed law would boost the use of Kyrgyz in public life, making it a requirement that top government officials have a good knowledge of the language and that it is the main language used in official communications. Russian is currently used for many official purposes.


There are also provisions to set media outlets a “quota” for the percentage of airtime or column space in Kyrgyz rather than Russian, and encourage greater use of the language in the education system.


The law is clearly designed to address a situation where, after a period in the early Nineties when Kyrgyz was actively promoted as a vehicle for national identity, Russian has quietly re-established itself as the main language of administration.


But the substantial Russian minority, left behind after the fall of the Soviet Union, watches government policy closely for any sign that its status and rights are being diminished.


Many already feel beleaguered, not by racism but by the petty obstructions they say are laid in their way because they are not ethnically Kyrgyz.


“Russians encounter inequalities and humiliations on a daily basis in various areas of life,” Valery Uleyev, head of the Slavic Diaspora association in the southern region of Jalalabad, told IWPR. “It’s known as velvet discrimination.”


Some look back fondly to the Soviet period when Russians formed the USSR’s majority population, and ethnic tensions were kept firmly suppressed. Viktor Gusakov, a farmer of Russian origin, recalls a bureaucratic system which used to apportion each ethnic group a set number of posts. Now, he said, the Russians, Uzbeks and Germans who are the major ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan do not even get those positions of nominal importance.


“I don’t care about that, as I’m not dying to become a [parliamentary] deputy, but I feel bad for my children,” he told IWPR. “Does it mean they will forever be second-class here?”


Gusakov is just one of many who plan to emigrate with his family, “We are preparing the documentation to leave for Russia. There’s no one waiting for us there, and my sons and daughter are very unlikely to become presidents there, but at least that won’t be caused by their having the wrong nationality [statement of ethnic origin rather than citizenship] stamped in their passport.”


Many would find it hard to leave a country they regard as their home. “I am a fourth-generation resident of Kyrgyzstan, I’ve got grown-up children and I hope to live to see my great-grandchildren. I have no other homeland, and no one is really driving me out of here or being rude to me,” said Nadezhda, an elderly woman living in Vinogradnoe, a village that still bears the name given it by her great-grandfather when he arrived from Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century.


For Nadezhda, the main reason for leaving is that “nowadays, no one here values the contribution my forebears made to the common good of the republic”.


Most Russians in Kyrgyzstan live in the capital Bishkek and the fertile Chui valley which surrounds it. They started leaving the country in large numbers after it became independent in 1991, fleeing the dire economic situation as well as the sudden discovery that they were a diaspora. Of the 916,000 who lived in Kyrgyzstan when the 1989 census was conducted, 40 per cent have gone, mainly to Russia, leaving a community that today numbers around 550,000. In percentage terms, the fall is even more dramatic – from 22 per cent of the population in 1989 to just 11 per cent today.


The authorities have tried to stem the flow by giving the Russian language official status, and setting up the Assembly of People of Kyrgyzstan, a forum for the country’s various ethnic groups which held its fourth congress at the end of January. Many non-Russian groups as diverse as the Germans, Ukrainians, Tatars and Koreans rely on Russian as their first or most widely-used language.


Even the most vehement critics of President Askar Akaev give him credit for the careful balancing act he has performed since independence to keep ethnic tensions in check, while promoting Kyrgyz national identity. As well as maintaining stability, the policy – embodied in the slogan “Kyrgyzstan is our common home” – has helped him maintain cordial relations with Russia, which still plays an important role as economic and security partner.


A minority of Kyrgyz would not be sorry if the Russians leave. One older woman, who teaches Kyrgyz language in the Chui region, said, “Anyone who is unhappy with the state of affairs has, after all, his own historical motherland. Let them go there. The Kyrgyz don’t have anywhere else to go, and it is quite right that they should be masters in their own country.”


This woman’s recollection of the Soviet Union is rather different from Gusakov’s, “I still well remember the offensive label of ‘natsmen’ [pejorative term abbreviated from the Russian for “national minority”], which was used for all non-Russians, even in areas where the Kyrgyz have always been the overwhelming majority.”


Such opinions are rarely expressed in public debate. They are at odds with the government’s policy of encouraging Russians not to emigrate, and do not appear to reflect the generally tolerant views of society.


Few observers see real signs that the Kyrgyz are striving for dominance over other ethnic groups. And many of the problems Russians face are as much to do with economic and social factors as with their ethnicity.


While most Russians live in the north, the smaller community in southern Kyrgyzstan – the poorest part of the country – feel especially marginalised.


“The Russian-language education system is declining in quality and the Russian information sphere [media] is shrinking,” said Uleev. “All official events are conducted in the state language [Kyrgyz] alone. Unemployment rates among Russians are catastrophic, as the [Jalalabad] region’s industrial sector is in a state akin to clinical death.


“It’s hard to describe the attitude towards Russians in the south as discrimination – we are simply ignored. We don’t exist anywhere, not in the [local] authorities, not in business, not in the third [non-government] sector.”


Uzbeks form the other large ethnic minority in Kyrgyzstan. Unlike the Russians, they live mostly in the southern half of the country, and theirs is not historically an immigrant community, simply the product of a border demarcation first carried out in the Twenties. They also differ in that they have slightly increased their share of the population in the years since independence, to about 14 per cent of a total population of some five million.


But according to Abdumalik Sharipov, an expert on ethnic and religious relations with the Jalalabad human rights organisation Spravedlivost (Justice), the two groups share a common aspiration to enjoy a little more access to positions of power.


“But so far these dreams remain only dreams,” he said.


Natalia Domagalskaya is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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