(Update: RFE/RL reports that the State Language Committee boss was sacked February 11 for his controversial de-Russification plan. Officials said Azimjan Ibraimov's push to eradicate Russian place names was complicating measures to improve relations with Moscow.)
A group appointed by Kyrgyzstan’s president is trying to make Kyrgyzstan sound more Kyrgyz. By doing away with Russian-language place names -- except for the newly christened Mt. Vladimir Putin -- they say they will protect their country from irredentist Russian claims.
According to a February 10 report by the State Language Committee, as cited by local press, 150 villages in northern Chui Province are “corrupted or ruined” because they have Russian-sounding names. Northern Kyrgyzstan still has a large Russian minority, though the population has dwindled in the past few years. Besides economic motives for emigration, many minorities are also feeling the pinch of Kyrgyzstan’s rising, often bitter, nationalism.
Members of the committee, pointing out that Kyrgyzstan’s other post-Soviet neighbors have changed many Russian names to reflect local languages, are tapping a fear that has spread quickly since ethnic violence last summer between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the south: that the Kyrgyz nation is on the verge of extinction, endangered by outsiders and fifth columns.
In the nearest future, we are going to return original historical names to our villages. Otherwise, do not even doubt it, tomorrow somebody will come and dispute: “It is our motherland. Our ancestors were living here – Orlov, Vasiliev, Konstantinov, Alekseev, Pavlov.”
One cannot fault a small nation for struggling with questions of national identity. But if only Kyrgyzstan could combine its fervor for the “state language” with a capacity to educate its citizens: Recent international tests showed more than 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 15-year-olds to have literacy levels that will not “enable them to participate effectively and productively in life.”
In the wrong hands, strict language policies can be abused. Last fall, after the interethnic violence in Osh -- a city whose population has been estimated as roughly half Uzbek -- local officials staged language-police raids to check how local businessmen (many of them Uzbek) are spelling in Kyrgyz.
Let's hope national language policy doesn't go in that direction, lest Bishkek politicians become scarier than the Orlovs and Vasilievs they fear.