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Strong Language In Kyrgyzstan

Nothing ruffles parliamentary feathers quite like the passage of a language law in a multiethnic country. The disputes over Kyrgyzstan's attempts to revamp its language legislation illustrate the twists and turns of a painful process.

Kyrgyzstan's Legislative Assembly has ratified a new language law that currently awaits the signature of President Askar Akaev. The heart of the government-drafted law is Article 10, which would require state officials to know Kyrgyz well enough to perform their duties in the language of the country's titular ethnic group, as "Argumenty i Fakty Kyrgyzstan" reported on 18 February. (The law also includes provisions to boost the use of Kyrgyz in the country's educational system and mass media.)

Switching the business of government to Kyrgyz would represent a significant change. Kyrgyz and Russian both have official status under current law, but Russian has the edge in some key spheres. State Secretary Osmonakun Ibraimov recently told journalists that Russian is the de facto official language for meetings and documents at high levels of government, "Gazeta SNG" reported on 18 February. Moreover, while Russians are not numerous in government, they sometimes occupy high posts -- Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, for example, is an ethnic Russian who does not know Kyrgyz.

Understandably, the law is worrisome to Kyrgyzstan's remaining Russians, who still account for some 11.7 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population, according to the 2001 Kyrgyzstan Encyclopedia. Kyrgyz make up 65.7 percent of the population, and Uzbeks are now the largest minority, approximately 13 percent of Kyrgyzstan's roughly 5 million people. Observers have also noted that the law could abet corruption -- after all, someone will have to evaluate the language skills of Kyrgyz-speaking officials -- or serve to advance the interests of politically ambitious Kyrgyz from the country's south, where Russian has made fewer inroads than in the north. Meanwhile, the law's supporters claim that without legislative support, the Kyrgyz language will thrive only in kitchens, while Russian continues to dominate elite conclaves.

Though the president has yet to sign it, the law has already proved divisive. Confronted with a bill drafted in Russian, rather than Kyrgyz, a number of parliamentarians walked out of a Legislative Assembly session on 16 February, "RFE/RL's Newsline" reported the next day.

Whether or not President Akaev signs the language bill in its current form, the brouhaha underscores the fact that changes in language policy come at a cost. For now, the discussion in Kyrgyzstan has focused primarily on politics, where the cost has been a slight increase in animosity. When the time comes for the implementation of the bill's provisions for education, which is where language policies eventually live or die, the costs may be more tangible. In 1997, Joshua D. Angrist and Victory Lavy examined the effects of the gradual transition, effected between 1983 and 1990, from French to Arabic in Moroccan schools. After analyzing a significant amount of demographic and labor force data, the authors conclude: "Results...suggest that the switch from French to Arabic instruction in Moroccan secondary schools had a negative effect on the French language skills and earnings of young Moroccan men. The estimates suggest that Arabization reduced the economic premium to postprimary as much as one-half."

In other words, as Moroccans' French skills declined -- and particularly their proficiency in the written language -- they began to earn less.

French-Arabic bilingualism in North Africa and Russian-Kyrgyz bilingualism in Central Asia are not perfect-fit equivalents. The continued presence of an ethnic Russian minority in Kyrgyzstan, for example, is one of many differences. But the common ground in post-colonial language policy the world over is the cruel calculus of "something lost, something gained." Kyrgyzstan and its neighbors in the region may be confirming this as they take their separate paths to linguistic independence, but it will be some time before we have a clearer sense of just how much they have gained, and how much they have lost.