A new political reality TV show launches today in Kyrgyzstan ahead of the July 23 presidential election. That's when the first of the 17 registered presidential candidates will take the required Kyrgyz-language exam, which will be broadcast live on nationwide television.
During the exam, a presidential candidate will have to pass three tests: first, he or she (there are two women among the 17 candidates) must explain -- in Kyrgyz, of course -- his or her presidential program within 15 minutes; the candidate then must listen to a three-page text that is read aloud, and afterwards explain what was understood from the text; and finally, he or she must write a three-page essay about their presidential program in 45 minutes.
A special state commission of nine well-known philologists will monitor the candidates during the exam. The Kyrgyz Central Election Commission has set a schedule of one candidate being tested each day -- starting May 21 and finishing June 6.
A candidate will be barred from the presidential race if five members of the commission decide he or she is not fluent in Kyrgyz.
But some observers think the test was invented not just to check the candidates’ language skills, but also their political views.
Feliks Kulov, seen as the most powerful contender in the 2005 presidential election, refused to take the language exam, arguing that Kyrgyz-language proficiency was imposed for political reasons and is not required by the constitution.
Kyrgyz officials claimed that Kulov was just showing his contempt for the Kyrgyz language, which he has failed to learn.
That's not uncommon. Five of the 12 candidates failed the language exam in 2000 -- even though they could speak fairly good Kyrgyz, they failed to give correct answers in the oral comprehension portion of the test.
Supporters of the test think the language exam is necessary to promote and develop the usage of the Kyrgyz language.
The status of Kyrgyz as an official state language has done little to cause a fundamental shift in society, where many people still speak Russian, and the country’s elite is still predominantly Russian speaking as it was during Soviet times.
Kadyraly Konkobaev, a prominent philologist and member of the State Linguistic Commission, underlines that the ability to speak and explain one’s thoughts in literary Kyrgyz is very limited among the country’s leaders.
He says that during the previous two election examinations he was satisfied with the native-language level of only one candidate, who was later eliminated from the race when he was accused of having Kazakh citizenship.
Incumbent President Kurmanbek Bakiev was among the candidates to pass in the last language exam (although the examiner said he was satisfied with only one candidate and it wasn't Bakiev). He spent an early part of his life in Russia and is married to an ethnic Russian.
Bakiev is running for reelection and the nation is watching to see how he fares this time around.