Kyrgyz Language Moving to Nationalists’ Center Stage
In his bid for a parliamentary seat, a Russian-speaking ethnic Kyrgyz friend complains that many of his constituents confront him with only one concern: ‘How can you run for parliament when you don’t speak Kyrgyz well?’Language has long been crucial to creation of national identities in former Soviet territories, where Moscow forced Russian on the populations. But since the ethnic violence in June, many Kyrgyz are now embracing a reactionary policy. Some politicians want to ensure only fluent Kyrgyz speakers (i.e. no other ethnicities) can take part in governing the country.The most dangerous newspapers write “Kyrgyzstan is for the Kyrgyz,” but their ideas are becoming mainstream. Kyrgyz feel they lost an “information war” because the world sees them as the aggressors in the June violence. Yet the economy is in free-fall and most observers fear civil war. Now is a bad time to further isolate the country.Kyrgyz, rather than Russian, should become the state’s sole language of “inter-ethnic communication,” said Azimjan Ibraimov, the head of the State Commission for the State Language under the president’s office, according to 24.kg. Every state employee should take an exam to prove his or her Kyrgyz skills, Ibraimov asserts.
Applicants for jobs at government bodies will be selected not only for their professionalism, but also for their knowledge of Kyrgyz. This concerns all officials, including ministers. Why should only the president take an exam on the state language? Moreover, while accepting an applicant who does not know the state language, for work, the employee should pay for his or her own [language] training.
Of course the Kyrgyz should speak whatever language they wish, but legislating that all government employees, down to the lowest clerk, must speak Kyrgyz will prevent an abundance of talent (Russian, Uighur, Uzbek, Meskhetian Turks, Tatars) from working towards this country’s future. Perhaps they must learn Kyrgyz since they live in Kyrgyzstan, but, as Ibraimov admits, instruction in schools is poor. Judging from their product, some rural schools no longer teach Russian. What about the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who will head to Russia in search of work? One of the largest political parties in Kyrgyzstan, Ata-Meken (“Fatherland”), held a peaceful, 15,000-strong rally in Bishkek on August 7. Party members passed out newspapers outlining the Ata-Meken agenda. On the front page: not a word of Russian. Nationalism is already an ugly part of this campaign. And Kyrgyzstan’s critical minorities, long accustomed to communicating in Russian, are going to see fewer reasons to stay, turning Kyrgyzstan into a mono-ethnic state as the most rabid nationalists wish. A Kyrgyz-only policy is one more step towards absolute isolation; and isolation, just look at Tajikistan, equals poverty.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.