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Language A Sensitive Issue In Kyrgyzstan

A speech by Kyrgyzstan's President Roza Otunbaeva in favor of developing the Kyrgyz language has reignited an old debate in the country.
A speech by Kyrgyzstan's President Roza Otunbaeva in favor of developing the Kyrgyz language has reignited an old debate in the country.
Language is a sensitive topic in Kyrgyzstan, as the country's interim president Roza Otunbaeva found out recently when she publicly backed promoting the development of the state language, Kyrgyz.

Otunbaeva made her remarks in a speech that has reopened debate over the role of the Kyrgyz and Russian languages in the country.

"The Kyrgyz language has not yet properly established itself as the country's state language; today it has an inferior position," the president said in a gathering in Bishkek focusing on the rights of ethnic minorities.

"We still should know Russian, the official language. No one is belittling other languages, the language of our large ethnic minorities, but we have to reconsider the role of the Kyrgyz language," Otunbaeva said, in a none-too-subtle hint at the continued dominance of the Russian language in the country.

The younger generation of all ethnic minorities in Kyrgyzstan should eventually learn to speak Kyrgyz, Otunbaeva advised, pointing out the importance of teaching the language in non-Kyrgyz schools.

Otunbaeva asked that the issue not be politicized, but such remarks in Central Asia almost always take on a political hue.

The Kyrgyz edition of the Russian publication "Pravda" swiftly claimed that Otunbaeva "among other things, practically suggested [students] refuse education in the Russian language."

The publication said some of Otunbaeva's suggestions could mean that the "status of Russian -- currently an official language -- will eventually diminish, and Kyrgyz will become the only official language in the country."

To further explain Otunbaeva's position on Kyrgyz-language education, Mira Karybaeva, a high-ranking official from the president's office, said the authorities have no intention of closing down or reducing the number of non-Kyrgyz schools.

"The idea is to increase the number of lessons and subjects in the Kyrgyz language in non-Kyrgyz schools," Karybaeva told Kyrgyz media.

Kyrgyzstan's "Alibi" publication focused on some Kyrgyz officials' and parliamentarians' lack of command of the Kyrgyz language.

"Parliament sessions are only rarely conducted in Kyrgyz, in the majority of cases they take place in Russian," the publication wrote.

Debates over the role of the Russian and Kyrgyz languages has cost at least one top official his job.

Azimjan Ibraimov, head of the Presidential Commission for the Development of the State (Kyrgyz) Language, has allegedly been sacked over his plans to de-Russify the names of some villages, towns, and other sites in order to restore their historical Kyrgyz names.

Kyrgyz authorities reportedly thought Ibraimov's plans were complicating Bishkek's relationships with Moscow.

Ibraimov's dismissal in February came only weeks after the Kyrgyz government named a 4,500-meter peak in the Tian-Shan mountains after Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

This was presumably intended as a nice gesture to underline the Kyrgyz government's goodwill toward Russia, and to appease any concern or doubts anyone has over the role that the Russian language -- and Russia itself -- has to play in Kyrgyzstan.

-- Farangis Najibullah