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Central Asia: Russia's Image Rising -- Cultural Ties With Kyrgyzstan And Uzbekistan Still Strong (Part 2)

Many observers believe that there is more to Russia's reemerging influence in Central Asia than simple economics. While Russia's relative prosperity is a model for the struggling economies of Central Asia, there are also more subtle ties that bind the region's former Soviet republic to Moscow: notably, more than a century's worth of shared history and language. In the second of a three-part series on Russia's rebound in Central Asia, RFE/RL examines the strength of these long-standing cultural ties.

Prague, 13 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Many foreign observers looking at the question of Russia's waxing influence in Central Asia focus on Moscow's lingering political and military interest in the region.

But the long arm of Moscow's geopolitical influence -- often seen as a grim reminder of Central Asia's past as both a Soviet republic and a tsarist colony -- can hardly explain why, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's image is once again on the rise in the region.

Central Asian sociologists and analysts say the about-face lies not in politics or economics but in the cultural ties that still bind Moscow to the Central Asian states. In some cases, they say, ties appear to be even stronger now than they were during the Soviet era.

One of the closest ties is language. Marat Khadjimukhamedov, vice director of Ijtimoiy Fikr Public Opinion Center, said that Russian continues to serve as a lingua franca in Uzbekistan and throughout Central Asia. "Without a doubt, Russian is not regarded as a foreign language in Uzbekistan. A majority of the population, even in remote villages, speaks Russian. This means that there is no need to explain to them [what Russia is]. They know it well," Khadjimukhamedov said.

The widespread use of Russian is the legacy of Moscow's intensive Russification drive during the Soviet era. Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan became among the most highly Russified Soviet republics, with urban populations speaking Russian almost exclusively and local tongues relegated to so-called "kitchen" or "village" languages.

When the Central Asian republics announced their independence in 1991, compulsory Russian study was thrown out and local tongues resumed their place as official languages. But the nationalistic move ultimately failed. Within just a few years, many Central Asians resumed Russian lessons voluntarily and used the language for both domestic and outside communication.

The respected Kyrgyz author Solidjon Djigitov offers an explanation for this phenomenon. "To make a developed literary language out of your own language is very difficult. And then, putting all existing knowledge into your own language is almost impossible for small nations. That's why a representative of any small nation, if he wants to be an educated and civilized person, has to know a language that is rich with knowledge and culture," Djigitov said.

Djigitov said Central Asia's decade of independence has done little to alter Russia's status as the preeminent language in the region. He said education funding has dropped precipitously over the past 10 years, leaving Central Asians with little access to information in their native tongues.

Observers say the past decade, which began with pledges from the region's leaders to restore national pride and culture, has in fact brought Central Asia even closer to Russia as it continues to tap into Russia's vast resources. Khadjimukhamedov put it this way: "We are living in a single information field with Russia. Naturally, a majority of the population in Uzbekistan, especially in cities, is still intensively absorbing information from Russian mass media. This single information field, the fact that people here are getting information directly from Russia, creates closeness between our two nations."

Education is a key factor in Russia's renewed influence in Central Asia. During the Soviet era, education in the Central Asian republics underwent a massive revision, with private religious schools and madrasahs replaced by Russian-style institutions and a Russia-oriented curriculum. Better-funded and leading to better career opportunities, the schools in which Russian was the language of instruction gradually emerged as the preferred pedagogical option. It was a trend that regional leaders attempted to reverse over the past decade of independence, but this too failed. Djigitov described this period in Kyrgyzstan: "In the years of euphoria during the last years of perestroika, all Kyrgyz, at least, put their children in Kyrgyz schools. But since education and teaching are at a low level in Kyrgyz schools, and due to the shortage of books and textbooks, now all urban Kyrgyz are sending their kids back to Russian schools. There are few private English schools, but they are for the Kyrgyz new rich."

Gulnora is a devout Muslim living in Uzbekistan. She wears a hijab, the head covering worn by Muslim women, and strictly follows an Islamic lifestyle. But even her strong religious beliefs did not stop her from sending her only son to Russian school in Tashkent. She explained why: "Tomorrow, when he finishes secondary school, he may want to enter a university. Or even if he works somewhere, he will need Russian for communication. Despite the separation of the 15 [Soviet] republics, Russian is still the main communication language between them. That's why I put my son in a Russian school. And then, education even in ordinary Russian schools is much better than in Uzbek schools. Whichever field he chooses, I believe, there will be the need for Russian and English. This is only reason for my decision."

Gulnora said she would have put her son in an English-language school had she been able to afford it. But in a country where the average monthly salary is just some $10-15, few Uzbeks are able to afford the tuition for such private schools, which can run as high as $200 a month.

How long will the Russian language, mass media, and education system maintain their influence in Central Asia? Observers say the answer depends more on Russia than it does on regional governments. As long as Russia continues to enjoy relative economic prosperity and uses it to gain influence in the region, they say, there is every reason to expect relations to grow even warmer in the years to come.