Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jan 29 14:54:38 UTC 2008

Richard Weitz 1/28/08

 Print this article    Email this article

Political shifts and economic factors are exerting considerable
influence over language policies in Central Asia. Some nations,
especially Uzbekistan, that just a short time ago were vigorously
striving to reduce Russia's cultural influence, are now experiencing a
modest revival in the use of the Russian language, some regional
experts say. The shifting cultural landscape was the subject of panel
discussion, titled "Directions in Language Policy and Practices in
Central Asia and South Caucasus," held January 22 in Washington, DC.
The primary speaker, William Fierman, a Central Asia expert at Indiana
University, said language continues to rank among the most sensitive
political topics in the region.

Fierman frequently touched on Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous
state. For much of the post-Soviet era, Tashkent tried to distance
itself from Russia politically and culturally, and by the early 2000s,
the country seemed solidly oriented toward the West. But the Andijan
events of May 2005 prompted an abrupt geopolitical u-turn back toward
Russia. For much of post-Soviet era, Uzbek language policy was
synonymous for de-Russification. Most notably, President Islam
Karimov's administration introduced Latin script to replace Cyrillic.
"In Uzbek, even before it shifted to the Latin script, there was the
decision for example in many Russian words to get rid of the soft
sounds," Fierman said. "So you would see the names of the months
written without the soft sounds at the end of the word." These
differences were designed to reaffirm a distinct Uzbek ethnic identity
by breaking with Soviet and Russian practice, said Fierman, who is the
director of the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center at
Indiana's Department of Central Eurasian Studies.

Several factors continue to influence language policies throughout
Central Asia and the Caucasus. One of the most important variables,
according to Fierman, is "the status of the [titular] language during
the late Soviet era." In the Caucasus republics, Georgian, Armenian,
and Azerbaijani "were used for virtually all domains," including
higher education and public discourse, he noted. But "jump across the
Caspian and the situation was quite a bit different," he added. "There
was, for example, in Uzbekistan, a fair amount of higher education
[conducted in Uzbek] even in the Soviet era," Fierman continued. "But
if you go to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the amount of higher education
that was in Kazak or Kyrgyz was very little. There were [a] very
limited number of subjects, the quality generally was poorer, there
were not many textbooks for higher education, and the vocabulary was
not as fully developed."

Geopolitics is another major factor. And in the wake of changes in
diplomatic orientation, language policies have proven somewhat
reversible, "as reflected by the fact that Russian is starting
something of a comeback today in Uzbekistan," Fierman said during the
panel discussion, which was sponsored by the Central Asia-Caucasus
Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The same holds true for
Turkmenistan, where Russian is being reintroduced into the curriculum
of educational institutions, Fierman said. This policy shift coincides
with efforts by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to widen
Turkmenistan's economic contacts with the outside world.

The authoritarian nature of the Uzbek and Turkmen regimes enabled the
relatively rapid shifts in language policy. In an extreme case,
Fierman cited a decision made by Turkmenistan's former ruler,
Saparmurat Niyazov, who in late December 1999 mandated the official
introduction of Latin script within a few days. Newspapers published
January 2, 2000, duly contained articles in Latin script. "That kind
of thing was possible in Turkmenistan … but [such a sudden shift]
would not have been possible in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan," Fierman

Economics are also heavily influencing cultural developments --
underscored by the language-policy difference in Kyrgyzstan and
Kazakhstan. "In terms of language status at the end of the Soviet era
… Kyrgyz was in better shape than Kazakh," Fierman explained. But
Kazakhstan's wealth in natural resources has allowed it to move
forward rapidly with promoting the Kazakh language, whereas
Kyrgyzstan, which lacks natural resources, has faced problems in
spreading the use of Kyrgyz. "It's expensive to print new textbooks,
to teach people to learn a new language," said Fierman. Ultimately,
demographics may be the weightiest factor in determining language
policy. In Kazakhstan, for example, Russian remains an important
language. Yet population trends suggest that its significance will
decline over time. "For most purposes, if you only have one language
in Kazakhstan, Russian is still your best bet, but it's changing, and
it's changing substantially," Fierman said.

Editor's Note: Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson
Institute in Washington, DC.


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who
disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list