The new law on state language continues to be debated in Kyrgyzstan, the only Central Asian state with Russian as an "official" language.
"I am concerned about it, because it will force older Russian speaking state employees to look for non-governmental job opportunities", Irina Bondarenko, a 40-year-old ethnic Russian resident of the capital, Bishkek, told IRIN. "I left a governmental institution five years ago because of the requirement to know Kyrgyz."
Azamat is an ethnic Kyrgyz resident of Bishkek and endorses the new law. "I support this legislation, but understand that it violates the human rights of Russians and Russian-speaking citizens," the 22-year-old told IRIN. "Eventually this law ought to be accepted. Still, I would like our country to remain bilingual."
The new law on state language was approved by the country's parliament in February this year, replacing the previous one adopted in 1989. The constitution of Kyrgyzstan says that the state language is Kyrgyz, while Russian is used as an official language. The abridgement of the rights and freedoms of the citizens on account of ignorance of the state or official languages is not allowed.
However, according to the new law, a number of senior government officials, including the president, the prime minister, the heads of the constitutional and supreme courts, will have to have a good command of Kyrgyz, while all state employees will have to know the state (Kyrgyz) language to a level required to do their jobs. The law also envisages that Russian retains its status acquired in May 2000. To become effective, it must be signed by President Askar Akaev.
But the proposed law remains a concern for the ex-Soviet republic's Russian minority, the second largest in the country, accounting for some 12 percent of the country's 5 million plus inhabitants. "The act passed by the parliament contradicts the constitution. First of all, nobody should be discriminated against over a lack of knowledge of the language. Moreover, [some of] my compatriots, Kyrgyz-speaking people, complain about it, because they do not know the [Kyrgyz] language well either", Valeriy Vishnevskiy, head of the Slavic Fund of Kyrgyzstan, a civil body of ethnic Russians in the country, told IRIN.
Vishnevskiy, who is also Akaev's adviser on international issues, believes that the law will not work, citing a lack of conditions necessary to learn Kyrgyz. "Nobody denies that the state language is Kyrgyz. But the problem is that it is necessary to emphasize learning it at schools and educational institutions."
However, Azimjan Ibraimov, deputy head of the state commission on the promotion of state language, involved in drafting the new law on state language, rejected claims that the new law violated the Russian-speaking community's rights.
"It is written [in the new law] that 'violation of human rights over lack of knowledge of the state language should not be allowed'. Moreover, legislators included the proposal that languages of all ethnic groups in Kyrgyzstan shall be protected and conditions for their development created," he told IRIN.
Concurring, Edil Baisalov, head of Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a local NGO, said: "We do not see any regulations that violate human rights."
The creation of a multi-ethnic society in the country had been clearly stated, he maintained. "And it is absolutely natural that official correspondence is done in the state language. Alongside that, official language, Russian, is working. Thus, there are no violations of this law," Baisalov said.
Knowledge of Kyrgyz, as well as other professional skills such as computer literacy and English, was demanded only from state employees, Ibraimov added. "It is vital, because the majority of the country's population are Kyrgyz-speaking and nearly 80 percent are Turkic. Thus, state employees ought to know the state language."
As for the private sector, businesses remain less concerned about the new law's impact. "The decree has not yet affected our business activity nor our relations with the government. Besides, we are waiting for instructions regarding the state language from the National Bank of Kyrgyzstan," Ivanna, a bank official, told IRIN.
Meanwhile, in an effort to tackle the issue, Russian community leaders are emphasizing the need to provide the necessary conditions for learning Kyrgyz. "Despite an obligation to learn Kyrgyz, it is necessary to create a suitable environment for learning. This is why the new law does not meet the needs of society now," Vishnevskiy said.
IRIN, March 23, 2004