Nelly Portnova, Doctor, professor at the Humanities Department of the Jewish University (Jerusalem, Israel)



Language is the most objective, democratic, and independent aspect of national culture. The fruit of multifaceted historical development, it is a symbol of the nation and its cultural uniqueness, but it is also cosmopolitan and available to anyone who wants to use it. Language both unites nations and people, and separates them. Linguistic processes are involved in one way or another in the collapse of empires: the main and dominant language of the metropolis, used in all the provinces and colonies of an empire as the state language, gradually gave up some of its functions in favor of local dialects and national languages. Decolonization combined two trends; it retained the language of the metropolis, while raising local languages to a higher level.

The collapse in the Soviet Union inevitably changed its linguistic space. An exception was Belarus, the authorities of which refused to conduct linguistic reform, which is not explained by their attitude toward Russia or the flexibility of the country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, but exclusively by objective linguistic circumstances: only 20% of the population has command of the titular language (and even fewer use it). In other sovereign states, the “peaceful divorce” was accompanied by arduous linguistic experiments, which were conducted essentially without the consent of the population itself. A decisive role was played by political factors and the cultural level of the ruling elite, which claimed an important role in international politics. Kyrgyzstan was distinguished in particular by the fact that it came after Belarus and Kazakhstan in terms of the number of Russian-speaking people among its total population. Before 1991, only half of the republic’s residents had command of the Kyrgyz language, and in terms of pressure from the local authorities, it was often not far behind the Baltic countries, but at times came close to moderate Armenia.

The ethnic consciousness of the Kyrgyz people took shape under unique historical conditions. The nomadic people did not resist annexation to the Russian empire, and for two centuries in a row did not create its own socioeconomic structure, adapting instead to whatever immigrants brought with them. This lack of independence led to a split in the national psychology: on the one hand, they had cattle breeding, which was their own, reliable, and understandable occupation, and on the other, they had what the Russians offered, which was alien and not very reliable.

Observers have noted an openness and secularity in the Kyrgyz mentality. In 1906, N.A. Lipskiy wrote: “the tribe is talented, free of the Muslim inertia and numbness, and capable of accepting the European culture.”1 The low level of Islamization of the indigenous people made it possible for a variety of confessions to flourish, whereby recently a perceptible role has been played by Christian missionaries. This was promoted by the ethnic composition: by 1989 only 52% of the republic’s population consisted of Kyrgyz, with 22% being Russian, and 13% Uzbek. Soviet power raised the level of the Kyrgyz ethnic community, first by creating an autonomous region (in 1924), and then a union republic (in 1936) with its multitude of ethnic groups and accidental borders. But although it gave the nomadic people the symbols of state identity, Moscow continued to conduct a colonial policy: Russification of the cultural sphere and repression of the national intelligentsia.

During the Soviet decades, the linguistic situation was defined as bilingualism: the Kyrgyz language carried out one function, that is, it was used for everyday communication, in primary and, to some degree, secondary and higher education, and to preserve the monuments of the national written language, and Russian was used for other functions, that is, for communication between different nationalities, education, and official and interstate representation. As in other republics of the Soviet Union, two cultures coexisted: the Russian-Soviet and the national. There were two types of schools, Russian and national. Until the 1990s, the Kyrgyz language was not taught at all in Russian schools. Such schools predominated in the cities and were considered more prestigious, while Kyrgyz schools functioned in rural areas. The monopoly of the Russian language, which was used exclusively in all the main spheres of communication, essentially did not prevent the languages of the indigenous population from developing. Explanatory dictionaries and encyclopedias of the Kyrgyz language were created, but only in a limited cultural space. There was a fragile, but perceptible “balance of power” in linguistic practice. Kyrgyz cinema and literature reached a high level precisely thanks to the Russian language. The works of Chinghiz Aitmatov had to be translated from Russian into Kyrgyz, but it was this that brought the writer world renown.

Linguistic reform began on 23 September, 1989, before anyone knew that the Soviet Union would soon cease to be, but it was already clear that the heretofore downtrodden national self-consciousness was in need of incarnation. The governments of the union republics acted in accordance with a common stereotype. The Supreme Soviet of the Kirghiz S.S.R. (just as the legislative structures of other union republics of Central Asia at that time) adopted a Law on the State Language, which was a claim to sovereignty before its actual declaration. As early as this stage it was obvious that the legislators knew little about the republic’s real geopolitical situation and ethnic composition, or its educational system.

The law on language looked ambiguous: one language, the Kyrgyz, was “appointed” as official. But in so doing, free functioning of the Russian language was declared (as of the other languages of the national minorities—Uighur and Uzbek); and an alternative was envisaged: “if necessary in Russian.” What is more, a “free choice of language of instruction” was allowed, and it was warned that “deliberate violation of citizen rights to choice of language and humiliation of citizens for linguistic reasons” was prohibited. An article was introduced into the law, according to which people could be brought to criminal account for violating these rights. The republic’s government acted in the same way as the authorities of Kazakhstan, where the population had an almost equal number of Russians and Kazakhs. Although the law on state language was approved, its introduction into regions where Russians constituted the majority of the population was postponed first for five years, and then until 2000.

The fate of linguistic reform depended on the new foreign and domestic policy launched in August 1991. The President and all the governments he repeatedly replaced primarily wanted to distance themselves from the former metropolis. President Askar Akaev promised to turn the mountainous country into a European democratic republic, a “second Switzerland,” in three years. All the main paragraphs of the law on language were deemed mandatory; the Kyrgyz language was to replace the Russian in all spheres of state and private life. Linguistic problems as such were ignored, and most important, no one took into account the fact that the language of the titular nation was not ready to fulfill the functions of the state language. Linguist Abdakadyr Orusbaev writes: “The Kyrgyz language is not suited to the in-depth study of contemporary natural sciences, it does not have the necessary vocabulary and stylistic expressions. However, natural science disciplines can be taught in Kyrgyz, although all the terms will have to be borrowed from the Russian, since the Kyrgyz language does not have even such commonly used words as ‘university,’ ‘president,’ ‘physics,’ and ‘economics.’ A few years ago, there was an attempt to replace all Russian names with Kyrgyz. For example, polyclinics were called ‘beitapkhana.’ ‘Beitap’ means ‘indisposition’ and ‘khana’—‘place.’ So a polyclinic was a place of indisposition. Semantics were translated very imprecisely, and such changes were doomed to failure.”2 The Kyrgyz language does not have any international and scientific terms, but on the other hand it contains an abundance of words and concepts expressing the vast experience of the people’s nomadic way of life. Documents issued by state institutions are still written in Russia and translated into Kyrgyz.

Nor were extra-linguistic factors, such as ethnic, social, and economic, taken into account when putting the law into effect. Kyrgyz society is just as traditionalistic as other Muslim societies, and the behavior of its ruling elite was in keeping with the general trends of such a society, i.e. regulation of human relations from above, and subordination of the complex phenomena of culture to political goals. The bugbear of one national language was called on to create privileged conditions for advancing representatives of the titular nation, ousting the Russian-speaking population, and demonstrating independence from Russia. Kyrgyz politicians thought that distancing themselves from it would make it possible for them to adopt the development models of such countries as Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, and establish new relations with Europe.

The authorities used linguistic policy quickly and “fruitfully” as a tool of political struggle. For example, a language barrier was erected in appointing people to state posts. Even ethnic Kyrgyz were often unable to pass the language exam at the level required by the Linguistics Commission. One candidate was asked to write an essay on the topic: “The Achievements of Political Independence of the Ancient Kyrgyz,” read excerpts from K. Zhusupov’s work The Kyrgyz, and interpret the meaning of the saying, “It is like trying to get blood from a stone” (as is said about a miserly inhospitable host). Felix Kulov, at one time state security minister, mayor of Bishkek, and vice president, who did much to ensure the appointment of President Askar Akaev, a previously little-known young academic, was not registered as a candidate for president during an election campaign for this very reason.

On the other hand, the language exam was supposed to demonstrate concern for national dignity, and the need for it was shown by Professor V. Shapovalov, a member of the Linguistics Commission. He noted in particular that in the constant battle to preserve ethnic identity, Kyrgyzstan should have a president with perfect command of his homeland’s state language and will use this language “as one of the state symbols and instruments of sovereignty.”

The Russian-speaking population had no particular objections to the reform itself. Such school subjects as “the Kyrgyz language,” “Kyrgyz history,” and “Kyrgyz literature” became mandatory for Russian schools. Kyrgyz schools quickly began opening, parents out of patriotic and national considerations believed it their duty to have their children taught in their native language. But the gap between word and deed in introducing the titular language proved very wide. For example, Aaly Moldokanov, deputy chairman of the State Language Commission, testified that the funds allotted by the state “were not used as designated and spent very inefficiently to organize Kyrgyz language lessons, which were totally pointless, and to furnish auditoriums with expensive simultaneous translation equipment in the hopes that all presentations would be conducted in the state language. The rest of the money was embezzled.”3

The impulsive introduction of one state language had regrettable consequences. Linguistic coercion became one of the reasons for mass emigration by citizens of the non-titular nations. The Russian-speaking population felt itself to be a national minority and was scared off by the indefiniteness and the destruction of the cultural environment. Kyrgyzstanians left for Germany, Uzbekistan, and Israel, and a small percentage went to Kazakhstan. The vacated “seats” were to have been occupied by representatives of the indigenous nation. And this is essentially what happened. In Issyk Kul they occupied entire villages abandoned by Russians (meanwhile, in 1993-1994, there was a mass influx of Chinese). De-Russification occurred rapidly in many cities, particularly in Bishkek and in the towns of the Chu Valley. In this way, the percentage of the indigenous population was artificially raised to 62%.

A so-called technological romanticism spread among the Kyrgyz. They cultivated the illusion of possessing the technological culture of the Russian-speaking population. The Kyrgyz daydreamers believed that they could skip the technological stage of development and go straight to the assimilation of automatics, robotics, and contemporary electronics. This euphoria was shared to a large extent by the republic’s president himself, despite the education he received in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Emigration of the Russian-speaking population dealt a severe blow to the country’s economic development. Composite branches of production, which require a corresponding level of education, qualification, and experience, ground to a halt. In Soviet times, immigrants cancelled out to some extent the clannish influence in the republic’s public climate, but now this clannishness reigned supreme. Whereby the domination of a particular clan, in Kyrgyzstan this is the Sarybagysh tribe, to which the president himself belongs, did not help to neutralize the conflicts. Various posts could also be occupied by representatives of the bugu (the Issyk Kul area), solto (the Chu Valley), kushchu and saruu (the Talas Region) tribes. Clan and kinship criteria, but not professional or business skills, determined personnel policy. And the court, public prosecutor’s office, and Interior Ministry worked exclusively to preserve the territorial and clan structure of society.

These “achievements” did not help the country to extricate itself from the severe economic crisis. Under the conditions of globalization and the information revolution, an attempt to replace the bilingual monopoly with a quasi-state language limited the republic’s few opportunities to make contact with the world even more. It became increasingly difficult to attract foreign capital, all the loans went to cover debts, and it proved impossible to create a competitive economy exclusively with national personnel. What is more, Russia’s reaction to the resulting migration of the Russian-speaking population was not what the republic’s government expected. In 2000, Vladimir Putin welcomed the return of Russians to their homeland.

The whims of linguistic, as of any other, state policy in Central Asian countries largely depend on their leaders. Askar Akaev, former head of the republic’s Academy of Sciences and doctor of physicomathematical sciences, attracted the attention of western sponsors precisely by his eruditeness, which promised the country’s rapid progress toward democracy. On the one hand, he was willing to make compromises, and on the other, he was obligated to protect the state’s eastern feudal structure. The country’s first person was elected (and re-elected) at virtually non-alternative elections. The praise, flattery, and elevation of the president are still akin to a social order. All the republic’s initiatives and even insignificant achievements are presented as his personal merits.

The gap between word and deed in the Central Asian republics inherent in Soviet power is heightened by the eastern mentality with its notorious reticence. When the president says: “The slogan: ‘Kyrgyzstan is our common home’ is not based on nothing, but on the cultural heritage of all the peoples living in this mountainous territory. Yes, we are going through economic difficulties. Yes, we have unemployment. But these are temporary phenomena,” his words do not sound like customary demagogy.

To a greater extent than other leaders of the region’s republics, Askar Akaev is capable of compromises and zigzags, but he does not own up to mistakes, invariably masking them with the “creativity of democracy.” In order to halt the drop in production, migration had to be stopped, and to do this, urgent measures had to be taken aimed at state support of the Russian language. On 25 May, 2000, the Legislative Assembly of the republic’s parliament adopted a law, pursuant to which Russian was declared the official language. In addition to the republic’s own interests, this step was supposed to be a political trump card in relations with Russia. Even before this, at the first stage of the reforms, the term “official” was used for the Russian language, then it was replaced with “state,” thus placing Russian on the same level as the language of the indigenous population. Nevertheless, the deadline for transferring to the Kyrgyz state language was postponed, first until 1998, then 2000, and ultimately 2005. These “retreats” are essentially a failure of the previous linguistic policy. It is interesting that the advocates of an ethnocratic regime saw a dangerous precedence in the return to the Russian language, which allowed representatives of the Uzbek opposition to demand precisely the same status for their language. Chairman of the National Security Council Kalyk Imankulov responded to this with the following: “Russian has been adopted as the official language not because there are a lot of Russians living in the country, but because all the nationalities of Kyrgyzstan communicate with each other in Russian.”4

There has always been a paternal aspect in Moscow’s relations with the Central Asian republics, on the one hand, and support of eastern duplicity and taking it on faith, on the other. But essentially, against the background of the current persecution of the Russian language in several CIS states, the initiative of the Kyrgyz leadership has given rise to hope, which was noted by the Russian president: “This means that the political leadership of Kirghizia views its relations with Russia as a top priority and is counting on them for the long term.” The leaders of the two countries signed the Declaration on Eternal Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership. The second document adopted was the Agreement between the Russian Federation and Kyrgyzstan on Economic Cooperation for 2000-2009. The Russian parliament (28 June, 2000) also warmly welcomed the decree on the official language: “The State Duma of the Russian Federation Federal Assembly sincerely appreciates the status of official language given to Russian by the Kirghiz Republic, as well as the additional measures to regulate migration processes in the Kirghiz Republic.” The deputies stated that “the creation by the state structures of the Kirghiz Republic of conditions for the functioning and development of the Russian language, Kirghiz-Russian bilingualism in the judicial system and in various spheres of state and public activity, and the presence of the Russian language in the list of disciplines included in the documents on education in all schools of different types and forms of ownership, as well as state higher educational institutions, will stabilize the migration processes, help to sustain the republic’s personnel potential, and possibly lead to a return of the Russian people who used to live in Kirghizia to their native homes and the graves of their ancestors.”

By means of partial compromises, the ruling elite tried to return to a more reasonable national structure. But in September 2000, the country’s president signed a decree On the Development Program for the State Language of the Kirghiz Republic for 2000-2010, where the matter concerned a gradual transfer of office work to the state, that is, Kyrgyz language. “This action is provoking even more social tension in society, and social migration”5 is how Apas Kubanychbek, an academic, well-known public figure, and recent candidate for the country’s president, evaluates the situation.

The Kyrgyz authorities have essentially taken advantage of traditional ties with Russia and implemented new joint projects in education and culture. This primarily applies to the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University (KRSU) founded in 1993 when the two presidents, Askar Akaev and Boris Yeltsin, signed a corresponding agreement. The Russian budget supplies the funds for the professors’ salaries and for student stipends, and Kyrgyzstan provides the facilities and pays the utilities. All the fields of specialization of a classical university are represented at the new university. Children of government representatives also study at this university; proximity to the authorities is emphasized here.

Graduates of KRSU receive two state diplomas—Russian and Kyrgyz, although courses are taught only in Russian. In addition, approximately ten branches of Russian nongovernmental educational institutions have opened in the republic: the Moscow International School of Business and Information Technology, the Derzhavin International Slavic University, the Russian Academy of Education, and so on. Local professors teach at these universities using Russian methods. Another project is the opening in Bishkek of a Center for Retraining Teachers of Russian Schools for the entire region. What is more, a large role in training specialists is played by the American University of Kyrgyzstan.

Support of the Russian language (and correspondingly of the Russian culture) is also related to purely political interests, in light of the emergence of threats to “sovereignty and national integrity.” For example, the punitive measures taken against the demonstrators in the Aksy District are actively supported by Russian politicians, and Kyrgyz pro-government mass media immediately began circulating expressions common to both states, saying that “political extremists,” “a bunch of demagogues, and finally, “international terrorism” are to blame for the unrest in the south of the republic. What is more, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Vladimir Rushailo stated that “the Russian services know the names of those who organized the unrest in the Aksy District.” With such enviable unity and merging of political interests, a common language is indispensable.

The inconsistent behavior of the Kyrgyz authorities is having an impact on all the linguistic and cultural spheres, including on reform of the written language and replacement of the Cyrillic with the Latin alphabet. The change in alphabet depends just as little on linguistic factors as the entire linguistic policy: the Latin alphabet is no closer to the Kyrgyz language than the Cyrillic. On the Internet site created to help in the transfer to the new script, the reasons for this initiative are explained as follows: the new (Latin, which is sometimes called “Turkish”) alphabet is used in full (all 29 letters) in historical Kyrgyz texts, whereas not all of the Cyrillic alphabet is used. But theses calculations are very narrow. The main stimulus for changing the alphabet is that Cyrillic is associated with Russia and a geopolitical impasse, while the Latin alphabet is associated with western-type prosperity, in particular, with the alternative of a non-orthodox Muslim state, i.e. with Turkey. Conservatism would be a reasonable line of conduct, since two alphabets have changed hands in the republic (the Arabic and Latin) within the span of one century.

An increase in the role of the Kyrgyz language is only possible in terms of changes in society: its democratization, liberalization, and economic and demographic stability. Now, according to current Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev, “the population is giving preference to independent mass media, and no one reads the government newspapers. The authorities should work intensively to rectify this situation. We have lost our information space.”6

It is characteristic that, since 2000, the project by Swiss linguists called “Bilingual Education” has been implemented in Kyrgyzstan, which the West considers the most tolerant country in the region. Under this project, children are taught two languages as being equally important as early as kindergarten.

So, today in Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyz has been declared the state language. It mainly serves as a symbol of national-state sovereignty, whereas Russian (the official language) is used in international and interstate relations, education, and science. But in order for the Kyrgyz language to really perform the function of state language, political and economic stability and a new generation of social linguists and researchers are required. But most important, real bilingualism must be preserved, regardless of the chaos of the reforms.

Compared with the other states of the region, the leadership, afflicted by Kyrgyzstan’s severe economic crisis, has manifested great willingness to reevaluate the language situation, but, unfortunately, much time has been wasted.

1 Quoted from: B. Startsev, “Aziatskie russkie,” Itogi, No. 44 (230), 4 July, 2002.
2 Ibidem.
3 Ch. Orozobekova, “Kirghizskie shkoly pusteiut,” Navigator, 5 December, 2001.
4 Navigator, 2 July, 2000.
5 Slavianskiy mir Information Agency, 27 June, 2001.
6 K. Otorbaev, “Krakh gosudarstvennykh SMI,” Navigator, 4 July, 2002.

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