Over a month after President Imomali Rahmon suggested abolishing Russian as a language of "interethnic communication," Tajikistan remains abuzz with hype and fear about the potential change. Officials in Dushanbe argue that a policy alteration is needed to bolster Tajikistan's sovereignty. But Russian leaders are warning that any move to alter the status quo would result in serious economic consequences for Dushanbe.
Under current legislation, all government documents must be in either or both Tajik and Russian. Under the new draft law, all government functions would be performed exclusively in Tajik.
Russian is still widely spoken in Tajikistan, especially in interactions involving members of different ethnic groups, such as Tajiks and Uzbeks. Many non-Tajik residents of Tajikistan do not have a solid grasp of the Tajik language. Russian has enjoyed official status since 1989, prior to the demise of the Soviet empire.
Rahmon's administration has been coming under increasing domestic pressure in 2009, as the country's economy has struggled during the global financial slowdown. Some experts see the proposed language revisions as an effort to bolster the president's domestic position. "The destiny of the nation depends on the destiny of its language," Rahmon said on July 22, in comments marking the 20th anniversary of Tajik becoming the state language. "One can judge the greatness of the nation by judging the respect to the national language among representatives of this nation." At the time, he urged the Tajik parliament to rapidly act on his initiative to alter the official status of Russian.
Russian politicians angrily responded to Rahmon's initiative, suggesting that any effort to reduce the status of Russian would provoke punitive economic measures by Moscow. One called for the implementation of a visa regime for Tajiks, a move that could drastically curtail the number of Tajik guest workers in Russia. Labor migrant remittances are a crucial pillar of the Tajik economy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Moscow and Dushanbe have traded frequent barbs over the past year over the poor treatment of Tajik guest workers in Russia and the low level of Russian investment in Tajikistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Immediately prior to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's late July visit to Dushanbe, the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily quoted Russian presidential aide Sergey Prihodko as saying the Tajik authorities "should be interested in this [preservation of Russian language] more than us. If they stop speaking Russian, Tajik guest workers will not be able to work here."
Some Russian MPs have ominously warned that meddling with language policy could prove politically destabilizing for Rahmon at home. "The implementation of the law, according to which the Russian language is losing its status of interethnic communication will provoke a mutiny [in Tajikistan]," said Alexei Ostrovsky, chairman of the Russian State Duma's Committee on CIS Affairs on July 23.
The Tajik Foreign Ministry in late July sought to mollify Moscow, issuing a statement noting that the Russian language's status was protected in the Tajik Constitution. It went on to assure Russian authorities that no changes to the constitution were anticipated.
But analysts believe that Rahmon is perfectly capable of engineering constitutional amendments. "Regrettably, nationalistic moods are very strong among some parliamentarians and government officials. The constitution can be changed by means of a referendum," Lidia Isamova, a Tajik journalist and political expert, told EurasiaNet.
On condition of anonymity, another Russian-speaking ethnic Tajik journalist predicted that a language change could have unpredictable domestic economic ramifications. "More than a half of my colleagues would lose their jobs if the draft law is adopted. We won't be able to ask questions at press conferences, and our employers won't find interpreters for us," the journalist said. Institutions of higher learning, at which Russian is the primary language of instruction, would also suffer, some experts warn.
Rahmon has shown a previous willingness to make language-related changes. In 2007 -- amid another ebb in relations with Moscow -- he refashioned his own family name, and forbade newborns from bearing their parents' Russified family names ending in "-ov." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Analysts believe the president is trying to use lansguage as leverage, aiming to increase the amount of financial assistance flowing to Tajikistan from Russia. Some add that the language issue has proven to be a double-edged sword in the past for Tajikistan. "In 1989 the endorsement of the language law [making Tajik the official language] resulted in a mass exodus from the country. Adoption of the new law can provoke the repetition of the '1989 syndrome,'" Victor Kim, coordinator of the Tajik Alliance of National Minorities, told the Asia Plus news agency on July 22, referring to the brain drain of the early 1990s.
Gaffor Juraev, head of the government commission on implementation of the state language law, and one of the authors of the draft bill, believes "the law is needed" to promote Tajikistan's sovereignty. "All citizens of Tajikistan must know the state language -- at least out of respect to the country where they live," he said, in comments to Asia Plus. He added that talk of a fresh exodus caused by any new, potential changes was "absurd."
For many ordinary Tajiks, however, the move would represent an unnecessary intrusion into their daily lives. "My mother is a Pamiri Tajik, and my father is Russian. My husband is from Belarus, but he is not sure about his ethnic roots. And who are my children? They are not Tajiks, but they are Tajikistani! We have always been proud of our multiethnic past," said Nigina Ruslanova, a schoolteacher in Dushanbe.
The chairman of Tajikistan's Communist Party, Shodi Shabdolov, is among those Tajiks who oppose tinkering with language legislation. "The exclusion of Russian language as the language of interethnic communication from the new draft law [would be] a serious mistake," he told Asia Plus. "The status of Russian language in the draft law is underestimated -- in political, educational and scientific respects. Russian is acknowledged as the language of international communication in CIS countries. Moreover, Russian is one of the official UN languages.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance correspondent based in Dushanbe.