A legal amendment that would restrict the rights of Kyrgyzstan’s minorities sailed through parliament last week with a vote of 84 to 12. Legislators must endorse the amendment to the law “On the State Language” in two more readings before it can come into force.
The draft amendment proposes to fine government officials (clerks and above) for speaking anything other than Kyrgyz in the process of performing their official duties. Moreover, all official documents, including tax returns, would need to be submitted to authorities in Kyrgyz and only Kyrgyz, Kloop.kg explains. Currently the law allows documents to be submitted either in Kyrgyz, the “state language,” or Russian, Kyrgyzstan’s “official language.”
Under the amendment, government bodies would no longer be required to provide Russian translation at official functions, parliament would no longer consider draft laws in anything but Kyrgyz, and civil servants would need to pass a rigorous Kyrgyz language test.
The amendment would thus bar from public service and civic life anyone who does not speak fluent Kyrgyz – that is, minorities and some of the best-educated Kyrgyz, who often speak Russian as a first language. According to the 2009 census, Kyrgyzstan is approximately 71 percent ethnic Kyrgyz; Russians and Uzbeks constitute another 22.3 percent of the population.
Russian’s status as Kyrgyzstan’s “official language” would become virtually meaningless, while the amendment could further isolate Kyrgyzstan internationally.
Surprisingly, deputies known for their inability to speak Kyrgyz well, such as Felix Kulov, voted for the measure. With supporters like that, the amendment should have no trouble becoming law. (If more than two-thirds of deputies vote in favor, the president cannot veto it.)
Though the use of Kyrgyz has steadily grown since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, backers say the amendment is designed to protect the language.
“We have to support our language. Otherwise it will disappear,” the amendment’s author, MP Urmat Amanbayeva, said in comments carried by 24.kg. “We are not against other languages, but it is necessary to speak the Kyrgyz language.”
Human rights groups, however, see not-so-subtle hints of nationalism. Bishkek-based Interbilim says the amendment violates Kyrgyzstan’s constitution by putting minorities at a disadvantage.
“Language discrimination is ethnic discrimination, demonstrating unequal treatment of people of other ethnic groups that do not speak the Kyrgyz language,” the group said in a statement, adding that the amendment would also exclude talented people from government service: “Professionals who speak English and other languages, but do not have sufficient knowledge of the Kyrgyz language, will not work in the government.”
On December 17, Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev came out against the amendment. "I do not support this. I believe that the priority while recruiting people for the civil service must be professionalism,” he said, in comments carried by RIA Novosti. If the amendment passes, however, he said he would have no choice but to follow the law.
Much of Kyrgyzstan was gripped by a virulent nationalism after 2010’s ethnic violence between Kyrgyz and minority Uzbeks in the country’s south. The overt anger and hostility have shown signs of abating, but this draft legislation is only the latest initiative that looks, by design or coincidence, set to further marginalize Kyrgyzstan’s once-vibrant minority communities.