A push to assert the predominance of the Kyrgyz language in Kyrgyzstan is gaining traction. But the trend is angering Russian-speakers, who complain that efforts to promote Kyrgyz are coming at the expense of their constitutional rights.
Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 constitution accords Kyrgyz and Russian equal status as official languages. Russia is recognized as a language of “interethnic communication” and can be used in official documents. Kyrgyz is a national symbol and a language the state has promised to develop. In practice, however, Russian speakers, including many ethnic Kyrgyz, complain that emboldened nationalists in the executive and legislative branches are trying to manipulate language legislation in order to sideline people who can’t speak Kyrgyz.
“I left Kyrgyzstan last fall because it is difficult to find a job for those who speak only Russian,” said Natasha Antonova, a former Osh waitress, speaking by telephone from Moscow. “These nationalist policies will drive out minorities. Many more people, and not only ethnic Russians, will leave because Kyrgyzstan is becoming a country only for Kyrgyz.”
On February 10, the head of the State Language Committee, Azimjan Ibraimov, recommended that the government rename some 150 villages with Russian-sounding names The next day, President Roza Otunbayeva fired him; news reports speculated that Ibraimov’s comments had complicated Bishkek’s campaign to attract more financial aid from Moscow, Kyrgyzstan’s primary benefactor.
The name-change recommendation isn’t the only thing vexing Russian diplomats in Kyrgyzstan. On February 8, the Kyrgyz Ministry of Culture and Information, without warning, switched the signals for the most prominent Russian television channel in Kyrgyzstan, Russia’s ORT Channel One, and the Kyrgyz state broadcaster KTR. The change makes ORT’s signal harder to access in homes across the Russian-speaking north.
Despite protests from the Russian Embassy, the ministry said February 14 it would reassign more television frequencies – ones that had been used for the popular Russian stations RTR and RTR-Planeta -- to local Kyrgyz stations. Russian speakers, including ethnic Kyrgyz, are outraged, complaining of the poor quality of local programming.
Alone, the television controversy looks like an attempt to sideline the influence of Russian media, which proved very influential during the run-up to former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s ouster last year. A concerted media campaign against him is widely believed to have empowered opposition forces. But the broadcast spat comes on the heels of several noted debates about language in parliament.
Irina Karamushkina, an MP from the Social Democratic Party, says she was the subject of discrimination when a leader of the nationalist Ata-Jurt Party complained about her inability to speak fluent Kyrgyz and her need for a translator. “There was a day when several deputies and I who don’t understand the Kyrgyz language well had to miss discussions of a number of issues since the parliament did not provide any simultaneous translation,” Karamushkina, an ethnic Russian, told EurasiaNet.org.
Karamushkina says she does not oppose the expanded use of Kyrgyz, but “this must not violate the rights of those who do not know the Kyrgyz language since it contradicts our constitution.”
Ethnic Kyrgyz officials have also faced criticism for using Russian. On February 10, when Kubanychbek Kulmatov, the head the State Customs Service, began presenting a report in Russian, several MPs interrupted him and that demanded he make his presentation in Kyrgyz. They argued that only Kyrgyz should be spoken in parliament, so that people from rural areas, whose Russian is often poor, can follow the sessions on television and radio.
Many minorities complain that the government provides no means for them to study Kyrgyz, despite promises of state-funded programs. (Approximately 30 percent of the country’s population is non-Kyrgyz, according to the 2009 census). “We should learn and promote the state language, but it must be done gradually,” said Larisa Kuznetsova of Blagodat (Grace), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provides free legal counseling in Osh.
Authorities in Osh, the scene of ethnic violence last summer that left at least 400 dead, have begun demanding all NGOs and private businesses immediately convert their paperwork from Russian to Kyrgyz, even conducting surprise inspections. Kuznetsova called such “language discrimination” illegal.
In December, Osh officials inspected 109 businesses. “As a result, 18 organizations were reprimanded since they processed paperwork in the official language,” Kanbolot Tutuev, the spokesman of the Osh Province Administration, told EurasiaNet.org. “They have been given three months to shift paperwork into the state language.”
For many Russian speakers, Kyrgyz and non-Kyrgyz, the language discrimination runs against Kyrgyzstan’s national interests. They argue that it encourages a brain-drain. “I can read and speak Kyrgyz, but cannot write it, and there are lots of such ethnic Kyrgyz like me,” said a journalist in Osh. “Even we, Russian-speaking Kyrgyz, are discriminated by the new authorities’ aggressive policy. As a result, Kyrgyzstan will suffer since they force many well-educated people, regardless of ethnicity, to leave the country.”