Uzbekistan's Rusian-Language Conundrum

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Sep 20 13:07:33 UTC 2006

Eurasia Insight:


Yunus Khalikov: 9/19/06

President Islam Karimov's administration spent much of the post-Soviet era
trying to insulate Uzbekistan against Russias hegemonic influence. For
example, in the late 1990's and early 2000's, the burning of
Russian-language books was a relatively common occurrence. Now that
Uzbekistan and Russia are once again the closest of allies, the Uzbek
governments past language policies have suddenly developed into a problem,
as many Uzbeks now have difficulty communicating in Russian. Karimov's
rapprochement with Russia began around 2003, at about the time the Uzbek
leader began to grow disenchanted with Tashkent's strategic partnership
with the United States. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Uzbek-Russian ties have been rapidly growing ever since the May 2005
Andijan events. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A
bilateral agreement signed in November 2005 expanded economic and
educational options for Uzbeks. Most Uzbeks, however, are having trouble
taking advantage of the new opportunities because they lack the language

Russian, of course, was the state language of the Soviet Union. But after
Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, Karimov deemphasized the
instruction of Russian in schools -- largely out of a desire to render
Uzbeks less susceptible to Moscows influence. Under a 1995 law on
language, Russian lost its official status in Uzbekistan. The number of
Russian-language, or mixed Russian-Uzbek-language, schools dropped from
1,147 in 1992 to 813 in 2000. The situation in Andijan, scene of the
government massacre in 2005, is illustrative of conditions all across the
country. School ? 1 in the city is currently the only one teaching
exclusively in Russian, whereas at the time of the Soviet collapse there
were five such Russian-only schools. Not only the number of schools, but
also the number of Russian-language classes has been cut in recent years.

In 2003, the official Russian news agency RIA-Novosti reported that 57
percent of Uzbekistan's population could speak at least some Russian. That
figure included ethnic Russians, who comprised at the time about 4 percent
of the population. Today, most estimates show ethnic Russians still
comprising around 4 percent of Uzbekistan's 26 million inhabitants. Despite
the state policy of discouraging Russian, the desire of Uzbeks --
especially residents of the countrys larger cities, such as Tashkent,
Samarkand and Namangan to learn the language has remained strong. Now that
bilateral political ties have been restored, Uzbekistan's capacity cant
keep up with the demand for Russian-language instruction.

You can see a revival of interest in Russian language and Russian culture,
said Yuri Podporenko, a journalist who covers cultural affairs for several
Russia-based publications. People [Uzbeks] guided by an interest in
[personal] development, gaining a wider knowledge of the world, in
self-perfection, are moving toward Russian culture and language. One such
ambitious Uzbek is Diana Bayisheva. When she completes secondary school,
she aspires to go to the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics in Moscow.
She stands a good chance under the present circumstances, but as she tells
it, gaining the required Russian language skills wasn't easy. The problem
is that the higher education institutions do not have sufficient number of
the Russian language departments, she said, adding that most students find
themselves shut out of the language classes needed to pursue study
opportunities in Russia. More faculties with Russian language instruction
and Russian teachers are needed. A shortage of Russian teachers, that's
the problem, she said.

In recent years, Russian has faced competition from English in Uzbekistan
as the most desirable foreign language to study. According to informal
estimates, there currently exists a rough parity in the number of
applicants to English and Russian programs at Uzbek universities. In the
realm of employment, Russia is the primary destination for unskilled
workers who migrate in search of jobs. Over a million Uzbek citizens work
at least part of the year in the Russian Federation, most of them
illegally, sending a portion of their earnings home to support their
families. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Many of these
migrant workers, who generally come from poorer rural communities in
Uzbekistan, possess only rudimentary Russian. This lack of language
mastery places restraints on their earning potential, as well as increases
their vulnerability to abuse, bribery and discrimination, some experts

Even for Uzbeks harboring no intention of going abroad, the lack of
Russian-language skills limits domestic job opportunities. You open any
newspaper with want ads, and you find without fail, that practically every
organization looks for a specialist knowing both Uzbek and Russian, said
Irina, a university student who declined to give her last name. Some
prominent members of Uzbekistan's academic establishment, however, do not
see a need to restore Russias official status. Uzbek became official
language in 1989, and that was a right thing to do, said Ozod
Sharafutdinov, a Tashkent State University professor. Every nation, if it
is independent, has the right to give its own language an official status.

Podporenko characterized the current condition involving Russian as no
rights, high demand. While he doesn't dispute the Uzbek governments right
to establish language policy, he argues that it is in Uzbekistan's best
interests to do more to promote Russian. You should not live in isolation
from other cultures, he said. Russian remains the best channel of

Editors Note: Yunus Khalikov is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist
based in Uzbekistan.


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