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Kyrgyzstan: On Anniversary of Language Law, Kyrgyz-First Policies Encounter Harsh Criticism

On this, the 20th, anniversary of the adoption of Kyrgyz as the state language, government language policies remain a source of contention in Kyrgyzstan.

For members of ethnic minority groups, the de-emphasis of Russian in favor of Kyrgyz is widely seen as a discriminatory act. Kyrgyz mass media outlets, meanwhile, are struggling to comply with Kyrgyz-content provisions.

It was September 23, 1989, when the Kyrgyz Supreme Soviet, then the top legislative body in the land, enshrined Kyrgyz as the state language. Since then, Kyrgyz leaders have tried, with decidedly mixed results, to get the population to embrace the indigenous language. Recent changes, designed to accelerate the use of Kyrgyz, have become a source of acrimony for some members of minority groups.

"For several years, I had been working in the Osh city police, but this year I lost my job," Ruslan, a 31-year-old ethnic Tatar, told EurasiaNet. "At the beginning of this year, the management of the Osh city Interior Ministry Department ordered that all reports, statements and other documents be processed in the Kyrgyz language. I can understand and speak Kyrgyz, but I cannot read or write it. So, I was forced to resign."

Ruslan, who declined to give his last name, alleged that his supervisors failed to provide promised Kyrgyz language courses.

Elsewhere, officials complain that protracted efforts to expand the use of Kyrgyz are not working. "We are inspecting all state and public organizations to make sure they have switched to processing official documents in Kyrgyz. The preliminary results have shown that a number of organizations, including state ones, do not follow the law," said Nargiza Sarykova, a senior expert from the Osh Province State Language Development Fund.

Though ethnic Kyrgyz constitute roughly three-fourths of the country's population of 5 million, many living in urban areas still consider Russian to be their first language and continue to have difficulty with reading and writing in Kyrgyz. "Kyrgyz is my native language, but I feel more comfortable with Russian. Actually, this is the language I think in. As for reading and writing in Kyrgyz, it takes more time and efforts to use it," Maksuda Aitieva, a journalist, told EurasiaNet.

In Bishkek and Osh, the country's two biggest cities, Russian appears to be still used more widely than Kyrgyz.

Some observers claim the protected status of Russian -- which was made an "official language" in 2000 in an attempt to stem emigration by ethnic Slavs -- is hampering the state's ability to promote the indigenous language. "This unreasoned step [hampered] development of the Kyrgyz language," MP Ibragim Junusov told EurasiaNet.

Inattention to language issues, as well as spotty enforcement of legislative provisions, also isn't serving the best interests of many Kyrgyz, some observers contend. "The language young and adult Kyrgyz speak is a terrible mixture of the Kyrgyz and Russian languages," said Tatyana Arkhipova, senior lecturer from Osh State University, an ethnic Russian.

Representatives of ethnic minorities complain that Kyrgyz authorities are not doing enough to help them learn the state language. "There are no language courses provided by the government," said Mars Agiev, a Russian-English freelance translator and an ethnic Tatar. "Courses at private language schools are inadequate and they do not have proper methodology and well-designed programs. Quite often it is awkward to hear many Kyrgyz speaking their language so poorly, and it is kind of funny when they demand that we, ethnic minorities, speak their language."

The lingering preference for Russian over Kyrgyz appears to be connected in part to the realities of modern life. For example, technical literature for many professions is readily available only in Russian. To translate such materials into Kyrgyz is an arduous process because Kyrgyz lacks many words for highly technical and scientific terms. "Even in Kyrgyz-language [educational institutions], university teachers prefer to lecture in Russian since it is a laborious process to prepare lectures in Kyrgyz," said Arkhipova of Osh State University. "To do that, a lecturer has to translate information available in Russian into Kyrgyz."

Journalists are complaining about language provisions these days, specifically a requirement, adopted in 2008, under which at least 50 percent of television and radio broadcasts must be in Kyrgyz. Most outlets have no hope of complying with the law because of a "lack of financial and personnel resources," said Marat Tokoev, a local NGO activist. The government's approach, Tokoev continued, undermines the democratization process and "may essentially worsen freedom of speech."

If authorities get tough on enforcement and demand immediate compliance, then many media outlets will face fines, and, ultimately, will run the risk of being shut down for non-compliance.

"We broadcast 20 hours a day in three languages: Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Russian," Khalil Khudaiberdiev, the head of Osh TV, the biggest private television broadcaster in southern Kyrgyzstan, told EurasiaNet. "We are doing our best to broadcast 50 percent of our programs in Kyrgyz, which is very difficult to achieve." If pressed, Khudaiberdiev added, the "only way" for the station to comply with the quota would be to drastically cut its broadcasting hours.

Chinghiz Umetov is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.

Kyrgyzstan: On Anniversary of Language Law, Kyrgyz-First Policies Encounter Harsh Criticism

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