Russian diplomats react to a new law on language in Kyrgyzstan, bringing back colonial past

Kyrgyzstan's flag in the process of being lifted at the ceremony in the capital Bishkek. Screenshot from Bizon KGZ YouTube channel. Fair use.

On July 17, Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov signed the Constitutional Law on the State Language. The parliament adopted the law on May 31, with its chairman congratulating his colleagues with “the historic bill.” The goal is to implement Article 13 of the constitution, according to which Kyrgyz is the state language, and the procedure for its use is determined by the constitutional law. The new law established the legal basis for the use of Kyrgyz, the implementation of the state language policy, and the obligations of state bodies, institutions, organizations and local government bodies to create conditions for its development.

Practically, it introduced significant changes to the use of Kyrgyz by making it a working language for state authorities, local government bodies, and state-owned enterprises. It is now obligatory for civil servants, deputies, teachers, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, medical workers and other groups to know the state language. The use of Kyrgyz is mandatory in geographical names, educational and scientific fields, as well as when signing international treaties. In addition, television and radio companies, including private stations, must broadcast at least 60 percent of their programs in Kyrgyz.

The new law has been making headlines for non-linguistic reasons, however. On June 2, immediately after its adoption, the spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, stated that “in its current form, it is capable of creating certain difficulties for citizens of the republic who do not speak the Kyrgyz language.” She added that Russia hopes that Kyrgyzstan will “pursue a balanced language policy aimed at both the development of the Kyrgyz language and the support and promotion of the Russian language.” The Russian diplomats’ meddling did not stop there.

On July 24, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov noted that Russian authorities warned their Kyrgyz colleagues “that this was not entirely democratic” when the first talk of this law appeared. What he found undemocratic was the requirement for civil servants and other categories of citizens to know Kyrgyz. Japarov was quick to refute this claim, saying that Lavrov “apparently did not read the law” and the law does not “discriminate against the Russian language.”

Japarov is right in his assessment of the Russian language being guarded against discrimination in Kyrgyzstan. It is one of the few countries whose constitution guarantees Russian official status and allows its wide use in public life and government structures — a sign of a colonial past and Soviet legacy. Ever since Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has been working towards developing Kyrgyz, restoring its prestige, and stimulating its wide use whilst also allowing the full-scale use of Russian.

The Soviet language policies undermined the development and prestige of Kyrgyz by turning it a “low” language used mainly at domestic and folklore purposes. For science, art, governance, and literature, the local elites used the “high” Russian language. It was only in 1989, in Perestroika years, that Kyrgyz was given the status of the state language. By 1989, 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan's population spoke Russian; in 2013, that number dropped to 50 percent. Since independence, the country has established the National Commission on State Language and adopted three national programs for developing Kyrgyz.

The Kyrgyz language is an integral part of national identity. It is vital for the survival of Kyrgyz people as a separate ethnic group and Kyrgyzstan as a nation. Its further development is necessary to break away from the country’s colonial past, celebrate its unique cultural heritage, and fully reclaim agency. In this regard, the new law is a step in the right direction.

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