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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington -- The Politics Of Language

Washington, 4 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Turkmenistan's decision to require all officials there to speak Turkmen and charges by ethnic Russians that such a requirement is discriminatory calls attention to one of the most difficult balancing acts he and the leaders of the four other Central Asian countries now face.

On the one hand, all of them feel compelled not only to build up the national identities of their own nation but also to meet the demands of their increasingly numerous educated young people for access to positions typically occupied by Russians or other Slavs in Soviet times.

But on the other hand, all of them are concerned that any assertion of the special rights of their titular nationality languages could drive out specialists they still need and might create problems in their relationship with the Russian government in Moscow. As a result, most have moved cautiously, now advancing in one direction and then moving off in quite another.

But Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov appears to have taken a step that may call that balance into question. At the end of July, he announced that officials and students who do not speak Turkmen will lose their positions, a move that follows his declaration last spring that he wanted to see "the complete and universal introduction" of the national language in public life.

To underscore his seriousness on this point at least for the time being, Niyazov ten days ago sharply criticized his foreign minister for the latter's weak knowledge of Turkmen and then abruptly fired him. And he has lashed out at other officials who speak Russian or some other language better than they do the national tongue.

Given Niyazov's willful and sometimes inexplicable actions, it remains unclear just why he acted as he did. But there are three compelling reasons why a Central Asian leader would seek to promote the language of the titular nationality, just as there are three compelling reasons why such a leader would likely be extremely cautious in doing so.

First, in Central Asia perhaps more than anywhere else in the post-Soviet space, language is identity. Supporting the language of the dominant nationality thus helps to promote national identities and loyalty to the state. And in regimes which are anything but democratic, such national symbolism helps to build a bond between the leader and the indigenous population.

Second, pushing out Russians and others who have occupied specialist positions in government and elsewhere since Soviet times may be popular among the titular nationality not only because it represents a form of nationalist expression but also because it opens jobs for increasingly well-educated Central Asians who might otherwise take part in opposition movements.

And third, such an approach flows from a demographic revolution that has already taken place in Central Asia. Ethnic Russians have been leaving for more than a decade, and Central Asians continue to increase in number with each passing year. As a result, ethnic Russian communities are ever smaller components of the populations of these countries and hence have ever less political clout.

Between 1989 and 1998, the last year for which statistics are available, the percentage of ethnic Russians in the population of all these countries fell significantly: from 37 to 31 percent in Kazakhstan, from 21 to 14.6 percent in Kyrgyzstan, from 7.6 to 6 percent in Tajikistan, from 9.5 to 7 percent in Turkmenistan, and from 8.3 to 6.5 percent in Uzbekistan.

But as all of the Central Asian leaders are aware, there are three other reasons which point in the opposite direction.

First of all, their regimes still need many of the ethnic Russian specialists who have skills that few Central Asians have acquired and that the Central Asian leaders themselves cannot do without. Indeed, many of the officers in their armies and security forces speak only Russian, even if they are members of the local nationality.

Moreover, these leaders are all aware that such measures could have the effect of powering precisely the kind of populist and nationalist movements that they might not be able to contain, especially if the members of the titular nationality see such policies as giving them carte blanche to attack other groups.

And finally, the Central Asian regimes are not insensitive to the fact that Russian human rights groups have attacked them for these linguistic policies, and they certainly fear that the Russian government may become critical as well.

So far and in sharp contrast to Russian policy regarding the Baltic countries, where Moscow has regularly criticized Estonia and Latvia for their language laws, the Russian government has been extremely restrained in its criticism of Central Asian countries on this score.

But that could quickly change, and if it does, Niyazov's incautious approach could entail far greater risks than he apparently expects.