Thursday, May 16, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Kyrgyzstan Latest Central Asian State to Seek to Leave Russian-Language Zone

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 16 – The Kyrgyzstan parliament has passed a law imposing fines on those who use of Russian in state institutions, thus becoming the latest Central Asian government to seek to solidify its statehood by promoting its national language at the expense of Russian, a measure, a Moscow commentator argues, that will have only negative consequences.

On the portal of the Strategic Culture Foundation yesterday, Andrey Fomin argues that the Kyrgyz have forgotten the words of their great writer Chingiz Aytmatov on the ways in which the Russian language can help his fellow Kyrgyz expand their ties with the world and to have chosen instead to follow the paths of other Central Asian states (

What the Kyrgyz have now done, Fomin suggests, “might have looked completely natural in 1992 or even 2005,” given that “all the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia” have sought to promote their national languages in order to solidify their statehood. But given their experiences, what Bishkek has done appears somewhat strange.

Tajikistan introduced restrictions on the use of Russian in 2009-2010 even though so many of its people have become gastarbeiters in the Russian Federation and “the business sector of the republic functions primarily in Russian. As a result, the Moscow writer says,,Dushanbe backed down and restored Russian to its earlier status as “the language of inter-ethnic communication.”

Uzbekistan followed a similar trajectory. In its 1995 constitution and 2004 language law, that country made no reference to a special status for Russian. Moreover, it made what Fomin calls “a fatal mistake” by deciding to replace the Cyrillic-based alphabet with a Latin script, a move that he says threw the country back decades.

Turkmenistan did not give Russian a special status in its constitution, Fomin continues, but despite that, Ashgabat has pursued a more or less balanced approach about its use. Thus, “it did not occur to anyone there to fine Turkmen officials for ‘insufficient mastery of the state language.” Instead, it promoted Russian instruction in secondary and higher education.

And Kazakhstan, after having given Russian an official status in its 1995 Constitution, required in 2006 the use of Kazakh alone in five oblasts of the country, although that requirement has been honored more often in the breach than in reality. Now, Kazakhstan is promoting a gradual transition toward the Latin script.

“As we see,” Fomin writes, “over the last 20 years, all the states of Cntral Asia without exception have passed through linguistic ‘sovereignization,’ and all at present have recognized that this is a dead end.”  Only the Russian language, he says they recognize, makes the region “culturally and educationally” competitive.

That is what makes the Kyrgyzstan action so strange, Fomin continues. But there are two other reasons why it is so: On the one hand, it will be impossible, he says, “to construct ‘a single social-cultural space’ in the country without the Russian language” given the enormous ethnic diversity Kyrgyzstan includes.

And on the other, Russian is needed for what Fomin says all Kyrgyzstan citizens want “the construction of a new big country [in the form of the Moscow-led Customs Union] and the re-industrialization of the region.” What the Bishkek legislators have done is thus “a negative signal about the attitude of Bishkek toward integration into a common economic space.”

What Fomin does not say but what is likely to be more important is the following: Moscow’s desire to maintain the position of the Russian language in Central Asia reflects its commitment to building a new Russian-dominated political space there, and that may be precisely the reason why many Central Asians will seek to promote their national languages.

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