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Kyrgyzstan: Parliament Debating Controversial New Language Law

  • Charles Carlson

A draft law that would promote the use of the Kyrgyz language in Kyrgyzstan is generating controversy. Some members of parliament and nongovernmental organizations fear a law promoting Kyrgyz could lead to discrimination against the country's Russian speakers, as well as members of other ethnic communities in the country.

Prague, 5 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A new law on language that is now being debated in the Kyrgyz Legislative Assembly, the lower house of parliament, is intended to boost the status of the state language, Kyrgyz.

The "method of simply imposing Kyrgyz at all levels, something that some of our officials are proposing, won't do."
Two clauses of the draft law passed today would make knowledge of Kyrgyz mandatory for top government officials. Deputy Djangoroz Kanimetov is head of the Legislative Assembly's Committee for Education, Culture, and Social Issues, which was responsible for preparation of the draft law. "In accordance with the ninth clause, the senior officials, such as president of the Kyrgyz Republic, prime minister, chairpersons of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, as well as the chairman of the parliament, ought to be aware of the Kyrgyz language," Kanimetov said.

Debate is continuing regarding which other government officials must know Kyrgyz. In addition, the clauses stipulate that Kyrgyz, the state language, will be used in all official documents, with subsequent translation into Russian, the official language. The Legislative Assembly is due to vote on further clauses in the language law tomorrow.

UNESCO defines a "state" language as having more of a symbolic value, while an "official" language is used in government, administration, legislation, and the courts. The draft Kyrgyz law appears to be an effort to elevate Kyrgyz to more closely match UNESCO's definition of an official language. The draft language law comes at a time when official documents, textbooks and contracts increasingly use Russian.

"I would like to say that this law is one of the very important laws for the Kyrgyz people's future. It serves for the state, for the nation, as well as for [Kyrgyz] language development," Kanimetov said.

Some opposition figures and nongovernmental organizations argue that the new law could lead to discrimination against members of Kyrgyzstan's Russian-speaking community.

The first version of the new language law was passed on 20 November. Its 39 articles oblige government employees to know Kyrgyz, require at least one-third of all media and advertising to be written or broadcast in Kyrgyz, and emphasize the use of Kyrgyz in education.

President Askar Akaev, while still arguing for the use of Kyrgyz in government, now believes the study of the language should not be made compulsory in schools. Akaev told a 30 January Congress of the Assembly of Peoples of Kyrgyzstan -- which includes representatives of all ethnic groups in the country -- that while he still feels Kyrgyz must achieve a dominant position in the country over time, "this can be achieved on an exclusively voluntary basis." He said the "method of simply imposing Kyrgyz at all levels, something that some of our officials are proposing, won't do."

"We should try to achieve this goal not through administrative tools, as it is done today, not forcibly, but through voluntary education, so people choose to learn on their own accord, through creating conditions for making Kyrgyz available for study by all citizens of Kyrgyzstan. I will ask the government to support the idea of creating an Open Center of Kyrgyz Language Studies within the Assembly at the House of Friendship," Akaev said.

However, Akaev said he also believes that "we must support the official language -- Russian -- as well. It is the language of communication between peoples for our country."

Akayev suggested that the first step in the gradual rise of the Kyrgyz language would be to create advantageous conditions for Kyrgyz language study. "Of course, the focus should be on the state language, the Kyrgyz language, which is spoken by 70 percent of the country's population," he said. "Kyrgyz, just as Russian, should become a language of interethnic communication in our country."

At the same time, Akaev stressed that people from all ethnic communities living in Kyrgyzstan should have the right to communicate in and study their own native languages. He also expressed support for organizing an international congress on the Russian language to be held later this year at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University.

There are different factors tied to Akaev's statements on language. On the one hand, there is an attempt to improve relations with Russia. Kyrgyzstan needs Russia's economic support and good ties in terms of regional security and defense. By declaring Russian the official language, Akaev wants to reassure the dwindling Russian population.

However, some observers worry that authorities could use the new law to undermine Akaev's political rivals. Former Bishkek Mayor Feliks Kulov, Akaev's main rival, withdrew from the 2000 presidential race rather than risk failing the mandatory Kyrgyz-language examination for presidential candidates. The chairman of the Central Election Commission, Sulayman Imanbaev, said recently that the Kyrgyz-language test will remain for contenders who want to run for the presidency in 2005.

Government officials point out that any new program to promote knowledge of the Kyrgyz language among non-Kyrgyz will require the allocation of additional funds.

Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev spoke recently on the need for additional money to support the development of the state language. "I think that the government has to put in more budget money in order to have a state program [on the development of the state language]," he said. "There are some programs on the issue. However, the government should have special financial support regarding every article of the program."

Some organizations representing the Russian community have already expressed their understanding of Akaev's argument that non-Kyrgyz should be fluent in the Kyrgyz language. Nadezhda Beriozova, a representative of the Slavonic Foundation in Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL: "I am well aware of the mood among the Russians and the Russian-speaking population. In response to our opponents who say that the Russian-speaking people do not want to learn the [Kyrgyz] language, I would like to say the following: there is understanding among the Russians and the Russian-speaking people on the fact that in being a Kyrgyz citizen and living in this country one has to know the Kyrgyz language."

In addition to Russian, Uzbek occupies a special place among minority languages, especially in the region of Osh.

(Tynchtykbek Tchoroev of the Kyrgyz Service and Bishkek stringer Burulkan Sarygulova contributed to this report.)