President Islam Karimov's administration spent much of the post-Soviet era trying to insulate Uzbekistan against Russia's hegemonic influence. For example, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the burning of Russian-language books was a relatively common occurrence. Now that Uzbekistan and Russia are once again the closest of allies, the Uzbek government's past language policies have suddenly developed into a problem, as many Uzbeks now have difficulty communicating in Russian.
Karimov's rapprochement with Russia began around 2003, at about the time the Uzbek leader began to grow disenchanted with Tashkent's strategic partnership with the United States. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Uzbek-Russian ties have been rapidly growing ever since the May 2005 Andijan events. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A bilateral agreement signed in November 2005 expanded economic and educational options for Uzbeks. Most Uzbeks, however, are having trouble taking advantage of the new opportunities because they lack the language skills.
Russian, of course, was the state language of the Soviet Union. But after Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, Karimov deemphasized the instruction of Russian in schools -- largely out of a desire to render Uzbeks less susceptible to Moscow's influence. Under a 1995 law on language, Russian lost its official status in Uzbekistan. The number of Russian-language, or mixed Russian-Uzbek-language, schools dropped from 1,147 in 1992 to 813 in 2000.
The situation in Andijan, scene of the government massacre in 2005, is illustrative of conditions all across the country. School № 1 in the city is currently the only one teaching exclusively in Russian, whereas at the time of the Soviet collapse there were five such Russian-only schools. Not only the number of schools, but also the number of Russian-language classes has been cut in recent years.
In 2003, the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported that 57 percent of Uzbekistan's population could speak at least some Russian. That figure included ethnic Russians, who comprised at the time about 4 percent of the population. Today, most estimates show ethnic Russians still comprising around 4 percent of Uzbekistan's 26 million inhabitants.
Despite the state policy of discouraging Russian, the desire of Uzbeks -- especially residents of the country's larger cities, such as Tashkent, Samarkand and Namangan to learn the language has remained strong. Now that bilateral political ties have been restored, Uzbekistan's capacity can't keep up with the demand for Russian-language instruction.
"You can see a revival of interest in Russian language and Russian culture," said Yuri Podporenko, a journalist who covers cultural affairs for several Russia-based publications. "People [Uzbeks] guided by an interest in [personal] development, gaining a wider knowledge of the world, in self-perfection, are moving toward Russian culture and language."
One such ambitious Uzbek is Diana Bayisheva. When she completes secondary school, she aspires to go to the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics in Moscow. She stands a good chance under the present circumstances, but as she tells it, gaining the required Russian language skills wasn't easy.
"The problem is that the higher education institutions do not have sufficient number of the Russian language departments," she said, adding that most students find themselves shut out of the language classes needed to pursue study opportunities in Russia. "More faculties with Russian language instruction and Russian teachers are needed. A shortage of Russian teachers, that's the problem," she said.
In recent years, Russian has faced competition from English in Uzbekistan as the most desirable foreign language to study. According to informal estimates, there currently exists a rough parity in the number of applicants to English and Russian programs at Uzbek universities.
In the realm of employment, Russia is the primary destination for unskilled workers who migrate in search of jobs. Over a million Uzbek citizens work at least part of the year in the Russian Federation, most of them illegally, sending a portion of their earnings home to support their families. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many of these migrant workers, who generally come from poorer rural communities in Uzbekistan, possess only rudimentary Russian. This lack of language mastery places restraints on their earning potential, as well as increases their vulnerability to abuse, bribery and discrimination, some experts contend.
Even for Uzbeks harboring no intention of going abroad, the lack of Russian-language skills limits domestic job opportunities. "You open any newspaper with want ads, and you find without fail, that practically every organization looks for a specialist knowing both Uzbek and Russian," said Irina, a university student who declined to give her last name.
Some prominent members of Uzbekistan's academic establishment, however, do not see a need to restore Russia's official status. "Uzbek became official language in 1989, and that was a right thing to do," said Ozod Sharafutdinov, a Tashkent State University professor. "Every nation, if it is independent, has the right to give its own language an official status."
Podporenko characterized the current condition involving Russian as "no rights, high demand." While he doesn't dispute the Uzbek government's right to establish language policy, he argues that it is in Uzbekistan's best interests to do more to promote Russian. "You should not live in isolation from other cultures," he said. "Russian remains the best channel of information."
Yunus Khalikov is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist based in Uzbekistan.