Kyrgyzstan ends Uzbek-language university entrance exams

As graduates prep for the crucial tests, those from the country’s largest minority wonder if there is any point in taking them.

Nasiba, a 17-year-old Uzbek student at a secondary school in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, wanted to study law after graduation this spring. Now it looks as though she will not attend college at all, thanks to a government decision preventing her and several thousand other ethnic Uzbeks from taking national university entrance exams in their mother tongue.

Until this year members of Kyrgyzstan’s largest minority, the Uzbeks, could take the exams in Kyrgyz, Russian, or Uzbek. But in September the government announced that this year’s exams on 20-21 May would be given only in Kyrgyz and Russian.

Nasiba has been attending an Uzbek school for 11 years, and when she told her parents she couldn’t do well on an entrance exam in Kyrgyz or Russian, the family opted for her not to pursue higher education, her English teacher, Feruza G., said.  

Several Uzbek students approached for this story declined to comment.

Some ethnic Uzbek commentators say the test cancellation is the latest step in a calculated campaign by hard-line Kyrgyz nationalists against their almost 1 million strong community.

National leaders are not unanimous on the issue. The education minister opposed the cancellation of Uzbek tests last year. More recently, on 25 April President Almazbek Atambaev told officials, “Don’t be nationalists. Look at what happened in Ukraine, where the Russian language was deprived of its official status and excluded from public life. This should be an example for us.”

Atambaev went on to directly challenge the Kyrgyz hard-liners who have spearheaded the anti-Uzbek sentiment in the country since the June 2010 violence in which several hundred people, mostly Uzbeks, were killed and tens of thousands fled for their lives.

An international observer mission concluded that the 2010 violence in Uzbek-populated areas of southern Kyrgyzstan was planned and systematic, and directed primarily at Uzbeks.

“Many nationalists now call for speaking only Kyrgyz. We must support the state language, but … development of the state language should not lead to nationalism,” Atambaev said.


Since national university entrance exams were introduced in 2002, students have had the option to take them in Kyrgyz, Russian, or Uzbek. Until 2010, higher education in Uzbek was available at two schools in southern Kyrgyzstan, where most of the country’s Uzbek speakers live. Neither is still operating.

Lack of opportunity to attend an Uzbek-language college is one reason the cancellation of Uzbek-language exams will not seriously harm young Uzbeks’ prospects, according to Eugenia Chubukova, a senior specialist from the Education Ministry.

She said officials opted to cancel the Uzbek language option partly because relatively few Uzbek high-school graduates –around 2,000 – wanted to take advantage of it.

The cancellation discriminates against the country’s non-Kyrgyz community, said consultant Gulshaiyr Abdirasulova from the Bishkek-based Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) human rights organization.

“How can a student who studied 11 years in Uzbek take the national examination in Kyrgyz or Russian? What will the position of the government be if they don’t pass the exam and thus can’t get into universities and then get decent jobs?”

Two UN committees have asked the government to reconsider its stance on Uzbek-language education.

Russian is still widely used in higher education in Kyrgyzstan a quarter-century after the Soviet Union imploded, even though the proportion of ethnic Russians in the population went into a steep decline when the country declared independence in the early 1990s, and now stands at 6.6 percent of the 5.7 million population.

Government statistics count more than twice as many Uzbeks than Russians, and some unofficial sources claim the number is much higher. Uzbek remains the mother tongue for many in three southern provinces of Kyrgyzstan that border Uzbekistan.

Nationalist members of parliament began questioning the Uzbek-language university exams after the 2010 events. The debate reached a new level early in 2013, when several members of parliament demanded the test be canceled and ethnic Kyrgyz youth organizations staged rallies against the test. In February 2013 the government announced the cancellation of that spring’s Uzbek test, only to reverse its decision two months later following pressure from human rights groups and heavy criticism from the media. Education Minister Kanat Sadykov also waded into the dispute, saying the constitution guaranteed members of all nationalities in the country the right to an education in their own language. “Otherwise it would be a violation of human rights,” he said.

Last year the test was given in all three languages: 1,784 students took the test in Uzbek, 18,035 in Russian, and 32,958 in Kyrgyz.

In September, the government again canceled the Uzbek test without public debate.

Chubukova said that as the decision was made nine months in advance of this year’s exams, students from Uzbek schools were given enough time to prepare for the test in either Kyrgyz or Russian.

Some teachers at Uzbek schools do not share her optimism.

“One year is not enough, as there are special scientific and technical terms in Kyrgyz and Russian that our students don’t learn while taking Kyrgyz and Russian language classes,” said Rakhima T., a teacher from Batken province. “Many students have already decided not to take the exam, as they believe they’ll fail if they take it in Russian or Kyrgyz.”

Uzbek speakers lost access to higher education in their mother tongue just before and during the 2010 violence. On 16 June 2010, six days after the ethnic clashes broke out, the public Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh was renamed Kyrgyz State Social University, and teaching in the Uzbek language was abolished.

Even before the June clashes broke out, the Uzbek-language University of Friendship of Peoples in Jalal-Abad temporarily shut down after being damaged in an arson attack. The school, owned by now-exiled Uzbek business leader Kadyrzhan Batyrov, was later closed by government order.

In addition, the government is gradually converting Uzbek schools into schools with Russian or Kyrgyz as the language of instruction, or mixed schools. According to the State Statistics Committee, the number of Uzbek schools for grades 1 through 9 fell from 141 in 2002 to 91 in 2012.

This process is most apparent in Osh, southern Kyrgyzstan’s largest city and center of Uzbek life. In 2010, there were 20 Uzbek schools in the city, but by 2013 all but six had been converted to Kyrgyz or Russian schools.


Abdirasulova, the human-rights activist, said the cancellation of Uzbek-language university exams violates the country’s constitution and laws.

“The State Language Law guarantees all nationalities forming the people of Kyrgyzstan to preserve their native languages and create conditions for study and development of their languages. The law does not permit infringement of the rights and freedoms of citizens on the basis of knowledge of the state [Kyrgyz] or official [Russian] languages,” she wrote in an email.

“The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has recognized the introduction of the national examination only in Kyrgyz or Russian for graduates from Uzbek schools as discriminatory,” Abdirasulova wrote. 

In its 2013 report on Kyrgyzstan, the committee urged the authorities to reconsider the cancellation of the Uzbek language university exam and ensure that children belonging to minorities could pass the examination in the language they use in school.

In March the UN Human Rights Committee urged that Kyrgyzstan boost efforts to ensure representation of minorities in political and public bodies at all levels, facilitate education in minority languages, and promote the use of minority languages in the media, including through restoration of Uzbek-language TV stations, which were closed or seized after the 2010 violence. The committee also said it was concerned at reports that schools have stopped teaching in minority languages.

The human rights committee also cited reports that Kyrgyzstani authorities have not fully investigated human rights violations committed during and after the June 2010 ethnic conflict, adding that it was “also concerned that the causes of this conflict were not fully addressed by the state party and may … persist.”

In this atmosphere of lingering tension, the Uzbek community in general has remained silent about what it sees as a consistent pattern of discrimination, including violence and torture.

One organization that has challenged the test ban is the Uzbek Ethnic-Cultural Center in Osh.

However, the group has had no response to its appeal for a reversal of the ban, the center’s acting head, Bakhtiyar Fattakhov, said.

Fattakhov rejects the notion that reducing the number of minority-language tests will help unify the nation.

On the contrary, the decision “cools” national unity, he said.

“When we talk about diversity, we should also talk about inter-ethnic accord, patriotism, about being a citizen of Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, if we want competitiveness for an Uzbek school graduate, it is necessary to restore the opportunity to take the exam in Uzbek.”

Chingiz Toloev is a pseudonym for a journalist in Bishkek. This article was initially published by Transitions Online.


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