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Kyrgyzstan: Congress On Russian Language Held In Bishkek Amid Concerns

  • Antoine Blua

A three-day international congress on the Russian language in the Commonwealth of Independent States is being held in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev is taking this opportunity to address concerns about a controversial new law requiring the country's officials to know Kyrgyz.

Prague, 5 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) are debating the place of the Russian language in the region. The three-day international congress in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, ends tomorrow.

Participants are discussing issues such as the language policy of CIS countries, the multilingualism of the Russian language, the Russian language in the educational environment of CIS countries, and the role of Russian literature and journalism in strengthening the positions of the Russian language in CIS countries.

Abdykerim Muratov is editor in chief of the Kyrgyz-language "Zamandash" (Contemporary) magazine. He says the event is important politically as Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, who initiated the gathering, is expected to decide next week whether to sign a bill requiring state officials to be fluent in Kyrgyz. "It seems to me that this [congress] was organized to strengthen further the prestige of the Russian language and, maybe, to make sure that [ethnic] Russians in our country and elsewhere don't get despondent," Muratov said.

"There are, on the other hand, representatives of large countries that do not want to see Russia strengthen its positions in Kyrgyzstan, who are prepared to do everything to move Russia away from Central Asia."
The new law stipulates that Kyrgyz, the state language, will be used in all official documents, with subsequent translation into Russian, the official language. The law was passed last month amid fears that it would discriminate against the ethnic Russian minority, which represents approximately 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population.

While some parliamentarians are pushing Akaev to veto the new language law, he spoke in favor of it for the first time at the congress yesterday. He said he is confident the two languages can exist together. He stressed that the status of Russian in Kyrgyzstan is under "firm protection.” "Kyrgyz as the state language and Russian as the official language of interethnic communication will always go side by side as loyal and eternal friends, helping each other in every way," Akaev said.

Akaev noted that Russian serves as a "bridge" in Kyrgyzstan's relations with Moscow. He added that Russian is the language of international and interethnic communication in the CIS. According to the president, CIS countries should upgrade the role of the Russian language in all spheres of cooperation.

Professor Vyacheslav Shapovalov is vice rector of Kyrgyz National University. He told RFE/RL that some Kyrgyz politicians and foreign governments, such as the United States, do not want the Russian language to be influential in the former Soviet republics. Shapovalov is calling on CIS member countries to protect the role of the Russian language by adopting laws.

"We live in a multipolar world. Of course, not everyone supports [this change]. There are people who push forward Islamic influence, and they are working quite hard on it. There are, on the other hand, representatives of large countries that do not want to see Russia strengthen its positions in Kyrgyzstan, who are prepared to do everything to move Russia away from Central Asia," Shapovalov said.

On the Russian side, Education Minister Vladimir Filippov -- who thanked the Kyrgyz government for caring about the Russian language -- told the congress that the Russian language is consolidating its position in the CIS. He declared that Moscow has decided to increase to $6 million this year's allocations to support the Russian language in the CIS.

Filippov also noted that Russia is increasing the quantity of textbooks and manuals in Russian to be transferred to CIS member states. This year, Kyrgyzstan purchased 200,000 copies of Russian-language textbooks and manuals from Russia, which also provided the republic with nearly 90,000 books free of charge.

Filippov noted the growing number of students from CIS states who receive free higher education in Russia. He said Moscow is increasing its quotas and is providing 7,000 full scholarships to these students in 2004, including 300 from Kyrgyzstan.

(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report.)