Sunday, March 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Kyrgyzstan’s Language Divide Points toward Political Explosion

Paul Goble

Baku, March 2 – Kyrgyzstan, one of only three post-Soviet states where Russian enjoys a privileged position (the Russian Federation and Belarus are the others), now faces “a language crisis” that is likely to produce a social and political explosion in the next decade if nothing is done.
All higher educational institutions in that Central Asian country conduct instruction in Russian, and almost all government institutions use Russian rather than Kyrgyz in their day-to-day operations. But Russian-language training in rural areas has almost completely collapsed.
As a result, the only people who currently have access to higher education and government jobs are the 20 to 30 percent of the population that lives in the cities, a situation that is already exacerbating tensions between that group and the majority of Kyrgyz who live in rural areas.
On a Kyrgyz portal last week, Mamatkalil Razayev, the general director of the translation company RK Translations, said that if nothing is done, rural residents will be isolated and not even able to move to Russia to find work, thus creating “all the conditions for a social explosion” (
This danger, he suggested, had been highlighted last month when the Kyrgyz interior ministry announced that people working as dispatchers on its hotlines must know both Kyrgyz and Russian, a reasonable requirement given that “for 65 percent of the population,” Kyrgyz is their native language.
But such a demand creates problems because few people from rural areas know Russian and increasingly few in the cities speak it well, a language divide that exacerbates cultural, economic and political divisions between the more modern cities and the more backward rural areas.
Razayev suggested that Kyrgyzstan needs to face up to this danger and make a decision about the country’s future. According to him, Bishkek has three options: First, it could retain Russian as the de facto government language but then it would have to ensure Russian-language training in rural areas.
Second, it could decide to go over to Kyrgyz, but in that event, it would have to take steps to introduce Kyrgyz into both university instruction and government work. Or third, it could decide to leave things as they are, suggesting that the current arrangement allows for “’the harmonious development of both languages.’”
The third option is not a real one, he argued, because the current situation is not producing harmony. And consequently, the people and government in Kyrgyzstan must make a choice between the first two. Both of them would involve significant costs, he said, but a failure to make a choice soon would entail greater ones.
Razayev’s article provides a counterpoint to the comments of Yelena Yatsenko, the head of the Eurasian Inheritance Foundation, to a conference in Moscow on Friday on “Russian Language in the New Independent States: Realities, Possibilities, Perspectives” (
Acknowledging that Russia education and media are in decline across the entire region, she said the situation was especially grim in the Baltic and Caucasus countries, where few want to use the language and many see Moscow’s support for Russian language instruction as interference in their domestic affairs.
But even where there is not hostility to Russian, fewer and fewer people are studying it. In Tajikistan, Yatsenko said, only two percent of students are currently learning Russian. And the situation in Uzbekistan is not much better. Consequently, the number of people in the region who will use Russian in the future is almost certain to fall.
The Russian language activist suggested there were only two bright spots she could call attention to. On the one hand, in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, more than 80 percent of the populations know Russian and use it frequently both in public and at home.
And on the other, she said, Belarus has declared it a “state” language, and Kyrgyzstan made it an “official” one. Razayaev’s comments show, however, that this status in the latter may provoke a violent reaction, one that could mean official insistence on the use of Russian now could lead to popular demands that it not be used at all.

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