Two recent events in Kyrgyzstan--the adoption of a law making Russian an official language of the republic and the announcement that Bishkek will resettle displaced Afghan Kyrgyz--highlight the continuing tensions between civic and ethnic nationalism that have marked Kyrgyz politics since independence.
The language law is clearly a step toward the goal of creating a civic society for all, regardless of ethnicity, which is enshrined in President Askar Akaev's oft-quoted slogan: "Kyrgyzstan is our common home." But the acceptance of the Afghan Kyrgyz suggests that Kyrgyzstan remains primarily the ethnic homeland of the Kyrgyz. This second trend is highlighted by the continuing use of the legendary Kyrgyz warrior-hero "Manas" as a cornerstone of state ideology.
The tension between these two approaches has its origins in linguistic imperialism during the Soviet times. Although Kyrgyz is a rich and ancient language, Soviet officials relegated it to second place behind Russian. Knowledge of Russian became the key to social advancement, and Russian education was given more priority in development planning.
CPSU General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of "glasnost" was seen by many as an opportunity to reverse some of these past injustices and restore a sense of dignity to the Kyrgyz people. It also facilitated the adoption in 1989 of a law making Kyrgyz the state language. The intention was that intellectual and political life in the republic should be slowly switched into Kyrgyz.
The celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the language law in fall 1999 clearly showed, however, that this intention was not fulfilled. In spite of upbeat talk (government newspapers ran headlines such as "Kyrgyz language is becoming an Internet language"), few non-Kyrgyz tried to learn the language. Moreover, many Kyrgyz themselves remained more comfortable with the Russian language in the workplace. One independent newspaper warned that Kyrgyz was becoming "the language of the old and the villagers," and professor of linguistics Sherali Japarov warned that Kyrgyz may soon end up a dead language, just like Latin and Sanskrit.
The passage in late May of legislation giving Russian the status of "an official language" was thus recognition of the failure of the 1989 law to achieve its aims and an affirmation of the status quo. Although presented as a measure to stem the outflow of Kyrgyzstan's Slavic population, the move has essentially two political goals: garnering support from the Russian-speaking population in the run-up to the presidential vote this fall, and winning Moscow's support for Bishkek.
The Russian language law has indeed won plaudits from Russian speakers, but at the same time it has generated a strong reaction from Kyrgyz nationalists who worry about the fate of their language. This was predictable, and it may well be that President Akaev's intention is to win support from urban Kyrgyz communities and the non-Kyrgyz population as
well as to present himself as a liberal, intelligent leader who alone blocks the nationalist hordes.
Indeed, the pro-Russian factor may have been important in determining Bishkek's latest actions. Kyrgyzstan's relationship with the West has soured following sharp Western criticism of Kyrgyzstan's March parliamentary elections. As a result, many in Kyrgyzstan view Putin as a potentially more reliable and understanding ally. And perhaps it is no
coincidence that also in the same week as the language law passed, the Soviet-era Komsomol youth league was re-launched, and a pressure group campaigning for Kyrgyzstan's entrance into the Russia-Belarus union was founded.
But the most important reason for Bishkek's actions may lie in the increasing self-confidence among the Kyrgyz as a nation. Since 1989, the Kyrgyz have achieved dominance in the country, as wealth and political power have shifted into their hands and educational possibilities increased. They feel less threatened by other groups--who have generally accepted their hegemony--and are therefore secure enough to countenance the language law. Such a scenario would be harder to imagine in contemporary Uzbekistan, where state nationalism is very strong, or in Kazakhstan, where Turkic domination over the Slavic population is less firmly established.
Many foreign observers saw violent conflicts between Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks in the early 1990s as augurs of even worse conflicts. But Kyrgyzstan has generally avoided the level of ethnic tensions that has existed over its
borders in Eastern Turkestan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan over the last decade. This is because it has been able to tread a careful path between asserting the repressed ethnic identity of the Kyrgyz while seeking to develop a state with a strong and inclusive civic identity. Anthropologist Nienke van der Heide has commented on the way Kyrgyzstan's leaders move between these two contradictory doctrines. This approach--putting Manas in charge of the "common home," so to speak--is surely one that bodes well for the future.
The author is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography, Cambridge University. He can be contacted at [email protected]