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Kyrgyzstan: How To Find a Balance In Language Policy?

“Development of language  and its adaptation is a meticulous, consistent work with necessary resources that takes decades,” Ermek Baisalov, editor of CABAR.asia analytical materials, writes in his article.

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Brief review of the article:

  • By late 1980s, linguistic behaviour of the Kyrgyz establishment could be defined as diglossia, i.e. asymmetrical use of two languages in various functional spheres within a community;
  • The breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 gave yet another impetus to linguistic indigenisation;
  • Every new regime in Kyrgyzstan faced consistent attempts of national language development and reinforcement;
  • The main systematised work on legal regulation of the language sphere was started in early 2000s;
  • According to a certain part of the community, the role of the national language tends to enhance as a result of discrimination of the official Russian language.

In modern Kyrgyzstan, the language policy implementation remains a rather critical issue. Photo: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP 2019.

In early 2019, public figure, former Prosecutor-General of the Kyrgyz Republic, Azimbek Beknazarov, called for bringing civil servants to responsibility for their ignorance of national language. Beknazarov suggested a fine in the amount of five and a half thousand soms (nearly 80 dollars), equal to the then new but notorious fine for spitting in public [1]. Later on, the politician said the media twisted his “sarcastic” words he said at the meeting following the results of the qurultay of political and social powers, “Kyrgyzstan: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow” [2]. The participants of the meeting expressed their concern about the status and development of the Kyrgyz language, which, in their opinion, was in a deplorable state.

By results of the qurultay, one of suggestions was to divest the Russian language of its constitutional status of “official” language of Kyrgyzstan. However, the activists suggested not rejecting Russian language entirely, but to grant a status of a language of international significance to it and start teaching it from nursery as a foreign language, together with English. Nevertheless, all public speeches of officials and state events, paperwork and document control must be made and maintained in the national language [3]. The public, media and prominent public persons have disapproved of such suggestions and hailed criticism on the initiators of such changes by calling their action a populist point scoring in advance of the parliamentary election of 2020 [4].

In modern Kyrgyzstan, the language policy implementation remains a rather critical issue. Initiatives on national language development are raised from time to time for many years. At times, the community splits into two camps regarding the status of the Russian language, adaptation of the Kyrgyz language in civil service, education, science, arts, etc. Therefore, reasonable questions arise as to why the development of the national language is often linked with and influencing the status of the official language in the country. What measures does the country’s leadership take in the sphere of language policy implementation? What is the role of the Russian language as an official language? How to find a balance in separation of the spheres of use of national and official languages?

Waking up from hibernation

The law on national language adopted by the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz SSR is celebrating its 30th anniversary in September 2019 [5]. This law granted the official status of a national language to the Kyrgyz language in 1989. During the perestroika, this law contributed significantly to the future development of the Kyrgyz language, boosted the national identity and was a meaningful step towards the formation of a sovereign state.

Some Soviet states adopted similar laws on national language in 1989-1990s. Language laws in these countries, compared to almost identical constitutions in Soviet republics, differed in terms of national language status, strength of movement towards sovereignty, various cultural traditions and democratic processes [6].

It should be noted that by late 1980s, linguistic behaviour of the Kyrgyz establishment could be defined as diglossia, i.e. asymmetrical use of two languages in various functional spheres within a community [7]. For example, important issues are discussed using a “high-level” Russian language, and private, domestic matters are solved in “low-level” Kyrgyz language.

The situation of those years shows that only 3 of 69 high schools of former Frunze used Kyrgyz language as the main language of instruction. Only 17 percent of students were taught in the Kyrgyz language at the universities of Kyrgyz SSR. Russian language prevailed in the distribution of culture. Only four per cent of books in the national library were in published in Kyrgyz. Only four opera performances out of 50 were prepared in the Kyrgyz by the national opera house, and only nine per cent of films, dubbed or subtitled in Kyrgyz, were distributed by the state agency for cinematography [8].

In response to the active national language policy in Soviet republics, the status of Russian language was legislated in 1990 as an official language of international communication throughout the territory of the USSR [9]. The Supreme Soviet of USSR adopted this law in an attempt to formulate the principles of state regulation of relations between the languages of the nations of USSR and the official language. However, the Parade of Sovereignties that followed and the collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to the totally different trajectories of national languages development and the status of the Russian language.

The breakup of the USSR at the end of 1991 gave yet another impetus to linguistic indigenisation. Kyrgyzstan began to form its symbols of independence and national identity, one of which was the national language. Those times could hardly be referred to as undoubtedly favourable for the language reform. The Osh events of 1990, a massive outflow of Russian-speaking population from the country, the formidable budget deficit and aggravation of social and economic issues didn’t bring optimism to the language policy implementation. The then leader of the country, Askar Akayev, had a difficult task to perform: to pursue a language reform so that to meet the desire of the Kyrgyz for language revival, and at the same time to convince the remaining Russian-speaking minority of their continued dignity, safety, as well as educational, cultural and other opportunities [10].

 

A series of laws, orders and decrees were adopted in the early independence period in order to further develop and reinforce the national and official languages, where each of them was given specific significance. If we recall the most important landmarks in the language policy of Kyrgyzstan, we should mention the constitution adopted in 1993, which granted the Kyrgyz language a status of the national language in the independent state.

A status of the Russian language was granted by the law on official language of the Kyrgyz Republic in 2000. The law defines the Russian language as a tool of international communication and language of access to education, culture, information and technologies in Russia and CIS states. Three factors caused the efforts to reinforce the official status of the Russian language. First of all, there was a massive outflow of the Russian population from Kyrgyzstan. Second, friendly relations needed to be maintained with Moscow. Third, it was a way of ensuring political support of the significant non-ethnic part of the country (Russians, Uzbeks and others).

The 2004 law on national language of the Kyrgyz Republic duplicated the status of both languages with more detailed provisions regulating the use of national and official languages. According to the law, the Kyrgyz, as a national language, must be used as a working language by all state authorities. Nevertheless, the law provides for the use of the Russian language (due to its status of “official” language), whenever necessary. The law requires that written documents in state authorities be in Kyrgyz, and translated into Russian, if necessary.

Kyrgyzstan is one of the few former Soviet states that officially secures the status of the Russian language in the constitution and other national laws. Article 10 of the current 2010 Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic still secures a specific legal status of both languages. This article contains a norm that guarantees linguistic rights to all ethnicities living in the country and forming the people of Kyrgyzstan. The novelty in this constitution is a shift from bilingualism to multilingualism, where the state is obliged to teach third, international language to its citizens [11].

Thus, it should be noted that national and official languages do have a legal basis and should have some sharply defined harmony. However, why the use of the two constitutional languages is still causing serious battles from time to time?

C for Consistency

Despite the political turbulence in Kyrgyzstan since the early 2000s, the analysis of the legislative activity in language policy shows that every new regime has faced consistent attempts of national language development and reinforcement.

For example, the authorities were always striving to regulate the language of paperwork and document control at civil service. During the early independence period, the leadership of the country tried to convert all paperwork and document control to the national language in a rush. Thus, the government decree as of January 1993 specified the detailed schedule of shift to the Kyrgyz language in paperwork for government bodies and national enterprises. The deadline for such shift varied from 1996 to 1997 in such major cities as Bishkek and Osh. However, the attempt seemed vain and the authorities extended the deadline of the decree to 2000 [12].

Events proved that in the 1990s all paperwork in the capital city and other major Russian-speaking towns and districts, except for the traditionally Kyrgyz-speaking regions like Naryn, was done in Russian by inertia. The problem of ineffective use of the national language in the country’s agencies and organisations, in local executive agencies was explained by a shortage of funds and lack of precise, planned coordination between the authorities of the republic.

In 1998, the National Commission for State Language was established at the president of the Kyrgyz Republic. Its duties are similar to a standard state agency, whose mission is to implement the national language development policy. The Commission was widely known as “examiner”, “additional obstacle” to presidential candidates during all presidential elections since 2000.

Based on the not-so-rosy results of national language adaptation in the first decade of independence, the leadership of Kyrgyzstan adopted the Programme for Development of the National Language of the Kyrgyz Republic for 2000-2010 in early 2001. The Programme was divided into several stages of implementation and was designed for a rather long period. The main targets of the programme were development of advanced technologies and methodologies of national language teaching, and respective textbooks; shift to the use of the national language in paperwork and document control in all regions of the country; harmonisation of all official forms and documentation; improved translation, etc.

No breakthrough in the use of the Kyrgyz language was observed.
Upon completion of the stage-by-stage implementation of the programme in 2010, we can mention the establishment of a few Kyrgyz language training centres in Bishkek; establishment and carrying out of the day and weeks of the national language with respective events and competitions; development of Kyrgyz-Russian electronic dictionary; publication of industry-specific dictionaries with more relevant, precise terms, etc. [13]. It must be emphasised that the national language development programme for 2000-2010 did a great job in standardisation, modernisation and teaching of the Kyrgyz language, yet no breakthrough in the use of the Kyrgyz language in all of the spheres of social life was observed [14].

Linguistic swings

Special role in legal and organisational support of the use of national language is assigned to the current National Programme for Development of the National Language and Improvement of the Language Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic for 2014-2020 adopted in 2013. This programme is known for its drastic measures to bring the national language into the community of official and civil servants, as well as to the area of education, which has caused mixed response of the society.

As envisioned by the authors, the purpose of the programme is to achieve full-scale functioning of the national language in all spheres of life as a consolidating factor for the country’s citizens, while securing and developing the languages of other ethnic groups.  Among more specific tasks is a set of measures to improve teaching guides on national language teaching; to create a network of accredited centres [15]. The programme implementation has three stages, two years each. In addition to specific dates, we need to mention specific amounts required for implementation, nearly half a billion soms, and a relatively staunch stance and political will of the former leader of the country, Almazbek Atambaev.

In the first preparation stage, 2014-2016, a Kyrgyztest system was developed according to international standards and launched to determine the level of national language proficiency [16]; specific fixed and mobile testing centres were opened; few industry-specific dictionaries and textbooks were published, training courses and workshops in paperwork in the Kyrgyz language, etc. were carried out [17]. Also, we should mention the amendment in the civil service law as of 2015, where article 17 introduces the new requirement obliging civil servants to know national language to the extent necessary to perform their duties [18].

About 17 thousand civil servants and over 9.6 thousand community workers had to pass national language proficiency test according to a special schedule. Photo: kabar.kg

During the next main stage, 2017-2018, civil servants and community workers took active and massive national language proficiency tests under the Kyrgyztest system. In general, about 17 thousand civil servants and over 9.6 thousand community workers had to pass national language proficiency test according to a special schedule. In addition to field testing groups, the state language commission could test up to 200 people a day [19]. During the final stage, 2019-2020, all civil servants need to pass tests, necessary adjustments will be made and the results will be finalised.

According to the expected programme outcomes, in 2018 civil servants whose mother tongue was Kyrgyz must have a proficient knowledge of it (A1),  and intermediate, advanced knowledge of Russian (B2). The second category of officials, whose mother tongue is other than Kyrgyz, must have a basic proficiency of it (B1), while they should have beginner to advanced level of proficiency in Russian (B2). It is worth mentioning that all workers of civil and municipal services, regardless of their ethnic background, must know one of international languages (possibly, one of official languages of the UN) at an elementary, pre-intermediate level (A2) [20].

 

The authors have set rather ambitious goals to reach by the end of the programme in 2020: all civil servants and municipal workers, regardless of ethnic background, must have an operational proficiency in Kyrgyz and Russian (C1), and also have an upper intermediate level of any international language (B2). Also, the authors of the programme in their analytical document emphasised that the majority of middle-ranking civil servants must have a threshold and upper intermediate levels of language, whereas the executives must have an operational proficiency level. It remains to be seen how civil servants and municipal workers will improve their national and official language proficiency for two-three years from a basic level to mastery level. Civil servants and municipal workers could be held liable for the failure to prove national language proficiency, and even dismissed.[21] 

It should be noted that by 2020 the initial expected result of the programme is the operational proficiency in the Russian language among civil servants.[22] However, the news sphere [23] and public authority reports [24] often declare the measures to adapt and test the national Kyrgyz language proficiency.

The authors of the programme believe they have managed to keep the balance between the spheres of functioning of the national and official languages[25].  However, this opinion doesn’t seem to be universally shared. Some experts, journalists and public figures have expressed their concern about the mandatory paperwork and national language knowledge at an operational proficiency level.[26] In their opinion, the role of the national language tends to enhance as a result of discrimination of the official Russian language. Linguistic discrimination in civil service may cause yet another cycle of migration from the country and marginalisation of Russian-speaking specialists. Among other flaws of the current programme, the funding and short implementation period raised special concern [27]. For avoidance of conflicts of law, we need to admit there’s an existing demand for harmonisation of law regarding the equal status of national and official languages so that they harmoniously complement each other.

Despite the quite reasonable fears, we should admit that the maintenance of the Russian language in the country is highly popular and significant. Labour migration to Russia, high demand for the Russian language in the educational, scientific and cultural spheres, as well as an opportunity to take part in large-scale integration projects make the Russian language very attractive and necessary means of communication. Moreover, unlike the majority of neighbours in the region, which make active efforts to Latinise their alphabets, Kyrgyzstan does not have the change of alphabet, except some sporadic statements, on the agenda.

Findings and recommendations

The analysis of the language policy implementation makes us claim that the Kyrgyz language was poorly developed in its own country in the late Soviet age, while the intelligentsia and establishment preferred to deliver their high ideas in Russian, and to discuss domestic issues in the Kyrgyz. The sovereignty that “dumped on us” has given the impetus to the development of the Kyrgyz language, making it one of the symbols of national identity and sovereignty. However, economic and social hardships faced by the new state it its early period have prevented it from implementing the language policy in full. The authorities of the country have granted the official status to the Russian language in order to gather support of Moscow and Russian-speaking minorities in Kyrgyzstan.

It should be emphasised that the main systematised work on legal regulation of the language sphere was started in early 2000s. Despite the political environment, the changing leadership of Kyrgyzstan has gradually tried to develop and reinforce the national language.  Also, the following shift from bilingualism to multilingualism should be emphasised. One of the measures to adapt the national language is the mandatory requirement of national language proficiency for officials, which has caused certain disapproval and concern. Some representatives of minorities have seen the reinforcement of the national language to the detriment of the official language, as well as possible linguistic discrimination.

However, if we look at the national language-adaptation experience of neighbours in the region and some CIS countries, we will see that Kyrgyzstan has been left behind and started similar reforms late. We should admit that Kyrgyz language can be learned at a threshold level if one aspires to become a civil servant. Today there is some material and technical basis for language learning, various educational courses, developed national language testing system, dictionaries are being developed and published. Officials and legislators from ethnic minorities who had proficient knowledge of the national language have been in the history of modern Kyrgyzstan, which caused sympathy and respect among the majority of people.

The current national language development programme comes to its logical end in 2021. Taking into account the ambitious plans and short implementation period, as well as the recurrence of these programmes, we may presume that current goals and tasks will be partially transferred to the next language development programme for 2020-2030.

Language development and adaptation is a meticulous, consistent work with necessary resources that takes decades. The next language development programme could reflect the following aspects:

  • Language proficiency should be encouraged, not forced. For example, by a system of rewards, fringe benefits, bonuses for knowledge of extra languages.
  • Simultaneous work over harmonization of law should be carried out regarding the status and use of the national and official languages.
  • We should avoid the practice of adoption of purely declarative documents, when the perfect scenario differs much from the real performance;
  • If the state sets a goal to make officers of government authorities master the national language within a short time, the methodology of quick Kyrgyz language learning should be improved;
  • In general, the strategy should be changed from enforcement of the national language to more time-consuming and long-term, but effective popularisation via publishing of books, dictionaries, films, games, etc. In this case, this issue will lose its extra political nature.

This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.


References:

[1] Beknazarov suggests fining officials for not knowing national language. Azattyk. 

[2] Russian language won’t lose its official status, Azimbek Beknazarov said. 24.kg. 

[3] Beknazarov suggested depriving the Russian language of official status . NTS. 

[4] What is behind the deprivation of the Russian language of official status. Kabar news agency. 

[5] Day of national language in Kyrgyzstan. Calend.ru. 

[6] Status and functions of the Russian language in last Soviet language laws. Jstor.org.

[7] Diglossia. Linguistic encyclopaedic dictionary. 

[8] The politics of language in Kyrgyzstan. Eugene Huskey. Stetson University. Page 4. 

[9] Law “On languages of the USSR peoples”. Legislation of the USSR. 

[10] The politics of language in Kyrgyzstan. Eugene Huskey. Stetson University. Page 4. 

[11] Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic.Government of the Kyrgyz Republic. 

[12] The politics of language in Kyrgyzstan. Eugene Huskey. Stetson University. Page 12. 

[13] National language of the Kyrgyz Republic: constitutional and legal analysis. G.K. Tologonova KRSU. Page 103. 

[14] National Programme for Development of the National Language and Improvement of the Language Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic for 2014-2020. Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic

[15] National Programme for Development of the National Language and Improvement of the Language Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic for 2014-2020. Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic

[16] Civil servants can test their knowledge of the Kyrgyz language. Sputnik Kyrgyzstan.

[17] Civil servants of the Kyrgyz Republic will be obliged to know three languages. Sputnik Kyrgyzstan. 

[18] Knowledge of Kyrgyz language by civil servants will be tested. Sputnik Kyrgyzstan.  

[19] Nearly 27 thousand municipal workers and civil servants need to take a national language test – State Personnel Service. Kabar news agency. 

[20] National Programme for Development of the National Language and Improvement of the Language Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic for 2014-2020. Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic

[21] What will happen to civil servants who fail Kyrgyz language test? Yntymak Media. 

[22] National Programme for Development of the National Language and Improvement of the Language Policy in the Kyrgyz Republic for 2014-2020. Ministry of Justice of the Kyrgyz Republic

[23] Nearly 27 thousand municipal workers and civil servants need to take a national language test – State Personnel Service. Kabar news agency. 

[24] A training workshop on the national language was held for employees of city administrations. Official website of the Bishkek city mayor’s office. 

[25] Zamira Derbisheva: It’s prestigious to know the national language in Kyrgyzstan today. Knews. 

[26] What will follow after a shift to Kyrgyz-language paperwork? Vecherny Bishkek.

[27] Kyrgyzstan. Language policy may not be short-term. Stanradar.com