Several days before Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev presented the draft law “On the Introduction of Changes and Additions to the Constitution of the Kyrgyz Republic” for public discussion, a number of local national movements raised the question of elevating the status of the Kyrgyz language vis-a-vis Russian, currently the country’s second official language. Several political figures and non-governmental organizations are in favor of stripping the Russian language of its official standing and converting all state documentation into Kyrgyz starting from 2006.
Russia’s recent agreement to introduce dual citizenship with Kyrgyzstan represents one of the major achievements of the new Kyrgyz government. It is aimed at facilitating the movement of Kyrgyz labor migrants in Russia and expanding Russian businesses in Kyrgyzstan. But the issue of dual citizenship and the status of the Russian language are particularly challenged by the recent burst of local nationalist movements. Several NGOs formed a bloc to promote the Kyrgyz language as the sole official language in Kyrgyzstan in order to increase its popularity. They oppose the dual citizenship regime with Russia, fearing an exodus of ethnic Kyrgyz.
After former Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev granted the Russian language the status of a second state language in 2000, Kyrgyz language failed to become the dominant language in the country. An overwhelming majority of state institutions and mass media continued to communicate in Russian. Akayev said his decision was an attempt to prevent an out-migration of ethnic Russians. But the law was aimed more at efforts to secure good relations with the Russian government than to placate the local Russian minority, which had experienced little discrimination for not knowing the Kyrgyz language.
Members of Kyrgyz nationalist movements point to the fact that the education system is heavily influenced by the Russian language and the most prestigious schools and universities offer training only in Russian. On November 10, advocates of the Kyrgyz language assembled at the national “House of Friendship” and declared that the Russian language’s official status hinders the development of the Kyrgyz language (Obshchestvenny reiting, November 14). The Kyrgyz example is often contrasted with neighboring Kazakhstan, where the Russian minority is larger, yet the share of Kazakh-language schools is 50%, significantly higher than in Kyrgyzstan (Akipress, November 14).
The enduring popularity of the Russian language in Kyrgyzstan can be explained by economics. Russian schools are becoming more prestigious in rural areas because Russia is the most common destination for Kyrgyz seasonal labor migrants. According to various estimates, there are 500,000-800,000 Kyrgyz citizens currently working abroad. The majority of these migrants are located in Russia, with Kazakhstan a distant second. The Kyrgyz Institute of Economics and Politics recently estimated that the average annual remittance of migrants totals about $1,400 per household. In total, labor migrants send home $520 million, a figure that is 27% of Kyrgyzstan’s GNP and 158% of the state budget (Akipress, November 13).
With the diminishing popularity of the Kyrgyz language, the number of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan seems to have declined in recent years as well. According to reports from the U.S. Department of State, the percentage of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan in 2001 was 84%, whereas by 2004 the number had reduced to 79.3% (Kyrgyz Weekly, November 14). This trend is observed despite the out-migration of the Slavic population. The shift likely relates to Bishkek’s liberal policy regarding religious pluralism: there are more than 2,000 religious organizations registered in the country. After Muslims, Christian Orthodox organizations comprise the second major religious group. There are also Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Buddhist communities. Thousands of ethnic Kyrgyz have converted to Christianity.
Some Kyrgyz experts believe that Bakiyev’s government will inevitably broaden the use of the Kyrgyz language over Russian in state affairs due to its numerous members from southern Kyrgyzstan. The population in southern regions of the country is ethnically homogenous; therefore the Russian language is not as popular as Kyrgyz or Uzbek there.
According to Radio Azattyk, the Uighur ethnic community also supports the idea of upgrading the status of the Kyrgyz language (November 14). As one Kyrgyz expert from the non-governmental sector argues, strong nationalist feelings have always existed among some social groups and political factions, but they did not receive the level of public attention that they do now.
As Kyrgyzstan begins the process of constitutional reform, the Kyrgyz versus Russian language debate promises to be a central issue.