Language Politics in Kyrgyzstan

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 16 16:06:30 UTC 2005

Language Politics in Kyrgyzstan

Opposition leader Felix Kulov must pass a Kyrgyz-language exam many
believe was originally invented to thwart him.

By Sultan Kanazarov and Ainagul Abdrakhmanova in Bishkek

The Kyrgyz presidential race gained pace this week with the news that
former security chief and key opposition leader Felix Kulov would run for
office. Kulov, recently released from prison after serving almost five
years on corruption charges widely thought to be politically motivated, is
seen as one of the front-runners. The other is Kurmanbek Bakiev, currently
is acting prime minister and president.

But Kulov, who speaks mostly Russian although he is Kyrgyz, faces a major
hurdle before campaigning even begins. According to the election code, he
must pass a Kyrgyz language exam. The constitution also requires that the
president speak the language, though as former state secretary Ishenbay
Abdrazakov points out it, does not mean that the candidate should know it
perfectly. I will pass this exam, vowed Kulov at a press conference
announcing his intention to run, adding he can converse in basic Kyrgyz,
read newspapers and listen to the radio skills he honed during his

Kulov was freed after the ousting of Askar Akaev in March, and has since
been acquitted of all charges. Observers, however, are doubtful, that
Kulov has enough linguistic skills to pass the exam, saying that his
recent media interviews suggest it is at best basic. To test their
knowledge, presidential candidates must describe their election programme
in writing, verbally discuss the main points of their platform, and read a
printed text out loud.

Kulov has promised to ensure stability in Kyrgyzstan and to protect the
rights of Russian-speaking citizens. In the early Soviet years, everyone
learned Kyrgyz, but in the Sixties it stopped being used as the main
teaching medium in city schools, meaning many urban youths like Kulov
studied only in Russian and grew up without a formal knowledge of their
native language.

Only in 1989 was Kyrgyz revived as the state language, but by then just
one school in the capital Bishkek used it as the teaching medium. The
language exam for presidential hopefuls was introduced in 2000.
Ironically, many believe this was done specifically to thwart Kulovs
attempt to run against Askar Akaev.

Kulov refused to sit the exam, a difficult test that required candidates,
for example, to discuss 18th century Kyrgyz poetry. Akaev, who went to a
rural school and speaks the language well, sailed through with ease,
though his success was somewhat marred by the national news agency Kabar,
which reported that he had passed a day before he actually sat the test.

Kyrgyz are divided on whether presidential candidates should speak the
language, with some saying it is discriminatory and others arguing it is a
basic requirement if the president is to communicate with the bulk of the
electorate. Discrimination against citizens for language knowledge is a
direct violation of international pacts on human rights signed by
Kyrgyzstan, said Tolekan Ismailova, the head of the non-government group
Civil Society Against Corruption.

Language is a political tool used to remove certain candidates from the
race. Asiya Sasykbaeva, head of the Interbilim organisation which works on
education and human rights, believes the president ought to know Kyrgyz
but does not think that should be checked by some commission.

It is a humiliating procedure. If he get bring the country out of crisis,
why is this commission needed? By having this linguistic commission, we
make it possible to discriminate against people who dont speak Kyrgyz,
Sasykbaeva told IWPR. Lawyer Shamaral Maichiev said it should be up to
voters not commissioners or language examiners to decide whether the
candidates speak adequate Kyrgyz.

Knowledge of Kyrgyz should be determined by the voters themselves. That is
to say, the extent to which they understand the president, he said. I am
in favour of the president knowing the language well enough to talk to
voters. But they should not be tested, as the voters should decide which
president they need. Others, however, say that without fluent Kyrgyz, the
president will never be accepted as a serious politician.

Nazgul Turdubekova, a human rights activist, maintains the head of state
must be able to speak to his own people - in both Kyrgyz and Russian. The
requirements made in the election code are realistic, and can be studied
for if desired. If we do not give importance to the state language, we
will disappear as a nation, said Turdubekova. Political scientist Nur
Omarov, agreed, but said it was important to administer the test fairly,
Knowledge of Kyrgyz is compulsory. How can the president of the country
not know his native language?

The linguistic commission must set the exams without bias and not set
itself the goal of failing one candidate or another. Ainagul Abdrakhmanova
is IWPR programme coordinator in Kyrgyzstan. Sultan Kanazarov is a
correspondent for RFE/RL.

Source: IWPR, 29 April 2005

Copyright  2005     Journal of Turkish Weekly

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