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Language Legislation Could Heighten Inter-Ethnic Tension in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian country in which Russian remains an official language. At present, Russian is designated as the "language of interethnic communication" between the country's 4.9 million population, which includes Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Russians, Germans, Chechens, Uighurs and other ethnic groups. Kyrgyz ranks as the "state language," a somewhat subordinate ranking that obliges members of government to have a basic understanding of the language.

Under the legislation passed by Kyrgyzstan's lower house of parliament on February 12, Kyrgyz would assume de facto status as the country's primary official language. Candidates for political office would need to demonstrate proficiency in, not merely an understanding of Kyrgyz. The same would hold for students wishing to enter or graduate from university. The law also would establish a language quota in mass media, stipulating that at least one third of all news broadcasts and advertisements be in Kyrgyz. Russian would remain an official language, but Kyrgyz will also be designated a "language of interethnic communication." State officials would be required to rely primarily on Kyrgyz.

Uzbeks are believed to comprise about 800,000 of Kyrgyzstan's 4.9 million population, or just over 16 percent. The country's ethnic Russian community makes up an estimated 11 percent of the population --¬ a drop of nine percentage points since 1990. Representatives of the country's Uzbek minority¬ characterize the language requirement for public office as an attempt by incumbent authorities to eliminate threats to their power. The country's southern regions, home to most Kyrgyz Uzbeks, have emerged in recent years as bastions of political opposition to President Askar Akayev.

Uzbek community leaders say the language bill would provide Akayev's administration with a constitutional lever to exclude non-Kyrgyz from political office. One highly placed ethnic Uzbek government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, argued that already, despite the country's official policy of ethnic tolerance, political representation for Kyrgyzstan's Uzbeks is patchy at best. "Can you find any Uzbeks among [Kyrgyzstan's] governors or ministers?" asked the official

Other observers agree. "Today, ethnic minorities don't have the opportunities to realize their potential," said Edil Baisalov, head of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-governmental organization.

The law's backers maintain that it is not unreasonable to expect public officials to speak the titular language. "A citizen willing to deal with state affairs must serve society," said parliamentary deputy Marat Sultanov after the law's passage, according to the Kabar news agency. "Over 70 percent of our population speaks the Kyrgyz language. Hence, state officials must be bilingual."

In an effort to foster support for the law from Kyrgyzstan's ethnic minorities, Akayev told a January 30 Congress of the Assemblies of People's Deputies that Kyrgyz must be adopted voluntarily by non-Kyrgyz-speaking ethnic groups. Government officials have called for funding of a state program to provide Kyrgyz-language education.

Though Akayev has given no indication on his plans to sign the legislation, a group of legislators is already planning an appeal to the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court . In 2001, the Kyrgyz constitution was amended to name Russian as an official language. Proponents of the appeal, led by Kabai Karabekov, chairman of the committee for mass media and non-governmental organizations, argue that the new legislation violates ethnic groups' rights.

At the same time, Uzbek community leaders are reviving demands for Uzbek to join Russian as an official language and for Kyrgyz state television to provide Uzbek-language programming. The Uzbek National Cultural Center recently declared that Uzbeks are "being ejected from the economic, political, spiritual and cultural development of Kyrgyzstan." Karabekov, the parliamentary committee head, sees little reason to promote Uzbek, a Turkic language like Kyrgyz, as an official language. "There is no need for that," he said. "Uzbek people don't need translations [from Kyrgyz], unlike the Russian population."

Russian community leaders say the language legislation's heavy-handed approach heightens concern among Russian-speakers that the government wants to forcibly assimilate them. Some observers suggest the law, if it takes effect, could destabilize Kyrgyzstan by heightening inter-ethnic tension and providing new stimulus for Russian-speakers to emigrate. It also would surely complicate Russian-Kyrgyz relations, they add.

"Why are politicians so inconsiderate, and why do they want to destroy so hastily the social and moral parity and accord in society that has been established with great difficulty,"said a February 18 commentary in the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty Kyrgyzstan. It concluded with a call for the language law to be approved by a nationwide referendum.

Despite the considerable criticism, government officials show no willingness to accommodate the concerns expressed by Uzbeks, Russian-speakers and representatives of other groups. State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov recently called on leaders of Kyrgyzstan's ethnic groups to support the law, "The Kyrgyz people have already shown their generosity to you and now it is time to show respect to us," Ibraimov said in his appeal.

Emil Mamataipov is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist based in Bishkek.

Language Legislation Could Heighten Inter-Ethnic Tension in Kyrgyzstan

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