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Kyrgyzstan: Analysis From Washington -- The Politics Of Language, The Language Of Politics

Washington, 20 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The difficult challenges many post-Soviet states face in dealing with language policy was highlighted this week by a Kyrgyz opposition figure's refusal to submit to a language examination and official attacks on him for failing to do so.

Feliks Kulov on Monday refused to take an officially-administered test of his knowledge of the Kyrgyz language, a test required of all who seek to run for president there. He said he had done so not because of ignorance -- he acknowledged that Russian is his first language but that he is competent in Kyrgyz -- but rather because he said that officials were using this test to "knock undesirable candidates out" and thus guarantee President Askar Akaev's reelection.

Immediately after Kulov refused, Kyrgyz presidential spokesman Osmonakun Ibraimov said that this action demonstrated Kulov's contempt for the Kyrgyz language and the country's constitution. Moreover, Ibraimov suggested, that this attack on the country's language commission as politically biased constituted "very dangerous slander" and threatened ethnic harmony across Kyrgyzstan.

And at the same time, the members of the language commission pointed out that many of those who sought to run for office lacked a working knowledge of either Kyrgyz or Russian. The commission did rule last week, however, that the incumbent president does have the linguistic skills needed to run.

In this particular case, Kulov's suggestion that the Bishkek government is using a language test to prevent opposition figures like himself from running fits a pattern seen elsewhere. But at the same time, his case points to a far broader set of issues that many of the 12 former Soviet republics continue to face almost a decade after independence.

Many of these countries, like Kyrgyzstan, have sought to promote the use of the language of the titular nationality both to signal their separation from the old Soviet system and to promote loyalty to the new state institutions. But such actions have been criticized both by ethnic Russians living in these countries who did not learn the local languages in the past and view the requirement that they do so as an unacceptable burden.

Supported by Moscow, many Russian speakers have called for giving Russian the status of a second official language, arguing both that many non-Russians in fact know Russian better than their national language and that such a status for Russian will promote ethnic harmony and international integration.

Most non-Russian governments have resisted this demand. Sometimes they have done so out of concern that the maintenance of two languages will weaken their statehood and create the very problems that the advocates of official bilingualism say such a system would avoid: increasing separation of the two communities and ever greater political cleavages along ethnic lines.

Moreover, as the leaders of many of these countries note, the bilingualism Russian speakers often advocate is asymmetrical: ethnic Russians will continue to speak Russian, but non-Russians will speak both their own language and Russian. Many in the non-Russian countries find that politically unpalatable, especially since Moscow has taken few if any steps to support their languages among their co-nationals living in the Russian Federation.

But at the same time, any efforts by some of these governments to force people living on their territories to speak a particular language or face political exclusion can backfire. On the one hand, many in these countries probably share Kulov's view that the authorities are using these language requirements to promote their own ends rather than national consolidation.

And on the other hand, such requirements backed up by the power of the state can have the unintended consequence of politicizing language even more than it was before, of deepening cleavages among a country's ethnic communities rather than promoting national unity, and even of opening the door for challenges to the state's territorial integrity

To avoid restricting the opportunities of one or another group, governments around the world have had to devise a variety of measures to ensure that all the people living on their territories can find some kind of common language, but the experience of Kyrgyzstan and the other post-Soviet states suggests that the use of compulsion to promote that goal may become a cure worse than the disease.