Celebratory artillery boomed from the White House lawn this morning in downtown Bishkek as Roza Otunbayeva handed power to new President Almazbek Atambayev.
The ceremony, which lasted roughly an hour, was conducted almost entirely in Kyrgyz, the “state language” of this multiethnic republic that is rarely spoken by the minorities who make up 30 percent of the population. Many Kyrgyz, moreover, particularly in Bishkek, do not speak the language at all or only with difficulty.
Atambayev’s inaugural speech opened with the obligatory reference to Kyrgyz epic hero Manas, who has become a symbol fraught with nationalist implications, even as relative moderates like Atambayev present him as a hero for all ethnicities in the country.
In the brief part of the speech delivered in Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s “official language,” Atambayev made an effort to reach out to ethnic minorities.
First he described how many Russians and Uzbeks had left the country, only to find that they missed their homeland.
“This is because we can only be happy where we were born, where we grew up, where our ancestors are buried. Only together are we Kyrgyzstan!” he said, following with the kind of dog-whistle phrasing often used to slander Uzbeks after the June 2010 ethnic violence: “And those who try to divide people by nation or by region are enemies of the country!”
He then followed with a proposal that Kyrgyz should be taught from kindergarten. Left ambiguous was how exactly controversial language policy might be implemented, an area where the devil is truly in the details.
Nonetheless, Atambayev stressed the need “to create conditions for the development of the cultures and languages of all nationalities” in the country.
He followed with another proposal welcome to non-Kyrgyz: to remove designation of nationality (ethnicity) from Kyrgyzstan’s passports, leaving only citizenship.
And with those words the new president reverted to Kyrgyz for the remainder of the speech.
It is unquestionably strange to have the head of government take office speaking a language that at least one-third of the country does not understand. Atambayev’s efforts to reach out to non-Kyrgyz, however, distinguish him from the hard-line nationalists of Kyrgyz politics. As he takes office, one question among many is whether he can make good on this half-extended olive branch, or whether divisions along language and ethnicity will continue to haunt the country.