Tough Talk on Kyrgyz Schools

An ethnically mixed group of children studies at a Russian-language school in Osh.

An ethnically mixed group of children studies at a Russian-language school in Osh.

OSH | When Kyrgyz Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov addressed the issue of language in the country’s classrooms last month, his message seemed clear enough.

“Education services at schools should be delivered either in Kyrgyz or Russian, and no other language should be applied,” Babanov said at a 17 July cabinet meeting. “English, Spanish, Chinese, etc. may be used as a second language.” Noticeably absent from even the list of “second languages” were Uzbek and Tajik, the tongues of two of Kyrgyzstan’s ethnic minorities.

It was only the latest comment from high-level Kyrgyz officials and lawmakers that seemed to foreshadow an end to schooling in minority languages. In June 2011, one year afterviolent ethnic clashes killed hundreds, most of them Uzbeks, in southern Kyrgyzstan, then-President Roza Otunbaeva was quoted by news agency as saying that “all teaching processes [in the country] must be switched into the Kyrgyz language.” And in April, several members of parliament demanded that the Education Ministry stop administering an Uzbek-language version of the National Scholarship Test, a set of written exams taken by students after they finish high school that is necessary to get into college.

“In Kyrgyzstan, there are state and official languages​​” – Kyrgyz and Russian, respectively – “so why is national testing conducted in Uzbek?” lawmaker Jyldyzkan Dzholdoshova asked in parliament on 18 April, according to the Vecherniy Bishkek national newspaper. “Perhaps we should become part of Uzbekistan and submit to Islam Karimov.”

Such talk is convincing many in Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek and Tajik communities that the government aims to effectively abolish minority-language education.

“In the wake of such statements, ethnic Tajik parents believe that only new Russian and Kyrgyz schools will be opened, and Tajik-language schools will start having problems,” said Rano Tursunalieva, the director of a Russian-language public school that serves ethnic Tajik and Uzbek students in the southern Kadamjay district.

A Kyrgyz government source said such fears are exaggerated. Babanov’s statement, the source said, was not about eliminating minority-language schools but referred to “an alternative plan to encourage ethnic minorities to learn the Kyrgyz language.”

“The government is not going to change the position and the tradition that has existed for many years, whereby ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, as citizens of Kyrgyzstan, are able to access education in their native language, supported by the government,” the source continued. “But children from Uzbek- and Tajik-language schools where the number of ethnic minority children is decreasing will be educated in Kyrgyz or Russian.”

Regarding the national test, the government refused the lawmakers’ entreaty. Education Minister Kanat Sydykov said canceling the Uzbek-language exam would violate the country’s constitution. Tursunbek Akun, the government’s ombudsman, said it would also be contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rouse ethnic hostility, and be an “infringement against a certain diaspora community.”

But even Akun’s comments – referring to Uzbeks as part of a diaspora even though they are indigenous to parts of what is now Kyrgyzstan and have lived in those areas for centuries – seemed to send a mixed message about their place in Kyrgyz society. Amid the harsher talk from some Kyrgyz leaders, it does little to ease minority parents’ anxieties about the future of their children’s education.

“Three of my kids go to an Uzbek-language school, and if the authorities switch it into a Kyrgyz-language school, I am at a loss,” said Rozakhon Khakimova, a mother of eight in Osh, which has a large ethnic Uzbek population.


Uzbek-language instruction was dropped at the former Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh when it was renamed Osh State Social University last year.

“My kids can’t go to a Russian-language school since they don’t speak it well. The only option for them is to go to a Kyrgyz school, but I want my kids to speak, write, and read in Uzbek. It’s our language, it’s a big part of our culture, and we want to keep it.”

Aliyma Sharipova, head of the Osh-based nonprofit group Culture Plus, contended the prime minister and other politicians are making a rhetorical play for nationalist-minded voters.

“Key leaders of the country should not make such hasty statements and artificially divide the society based on language differences,” she said. “The situation in the country, particularly in southern Kyrgyzstan, is still tense after the June 2010 ethnic bloodshed.”

Kyrgyzstan is home to some 786,000 ethnic Uzbeks – more than 14 percent of the overall population of 5.5 million – as well as 47,000 ethnic Tajiks. Throughout the Soviet era children in both groups had access to mother-tongue education at public schools.

The Kyrgyz constitution approved by voters in June 2010 stipulates a universal right to education, and the right of the country’s ethnic groups to preserve their language. Under Article 6 of the national education law, “education services can be delivered in any other language given appropriate conditions,” said Kerez Zhukeeva, the spokeswoman for the Education and Science Ministry.

“Nobody is going to close schools for ethnic minorities,” Zhukeeva said. “Subjects in the mother tongue at Uzbek- and Tajik-language schools will not be scaled back.”

But if a retrenchment in native-language schooling is not official policy, it seems to be a fact on the ground, at least for ethnic Uzbeks. According to the National Statistics Department, there were 141 Uzbek-language primary and secondary schools in Kyrgyzstan in 2003, and 129 in 2008. This year, according to Education Ministry figures, there are 91. (The number of Tajik-language schools has not changed in this period: there were and are three, all in southern Kyrgyzstan.)

Uzbek-language higher education has also suffered. Before the June 2010 violence there were two Kyrgyz universities offering instruction in Uzbek: Kyrgyz-Uzbek University in Osh and Friendship University in Jalal-Abad. The former was transformed into Osh State Social University, offering classes in only Kyrgyz and Russian; the latter has been shut down.

According to government officials, such changes have been driven not by policy but by the wishes of ethnic communities, who want their children to be educated in Kyrgyz to brighten their prospects for higher education and employment.

“Parents ask for Kyrgyz-language classes so their children can easily pass the national test after they leave high school,” said Almagul Tilekmanova, a representative of the Kyrgyz Development Fund attached to the Osh governor’s office. “After they graduate from universities, they can get hired by government bodies, as those who do not speak Kyrgyz cannot. This will facilitate the integration of ethnic Uzbeks into Kyrgyz society.”

Such sentiments are not heard only in government offices. Tavakkalkhan Kamilova, a secondary-school teacher in Osh, said parents there “don’t want their children to go to Uzbek-language schools, because graduates from such schools have no future.”

But Kamilova also said that given the country’s ethnic divisions, many minorities think little of their prospects even if they master the state language.

“Ethnic Uzbek teenagers are not interested in going to high school as they do not want to continue their education,” the teacher said. “They, and their parents, say they don’t have any future in this country, even if they speak Kyrgyz well and get proper higher education.”

The former director of an Uzbek-language school, who spoke on condition of anonymity for safety reasons, claimed to have seen firsthand evidence of government indifference or hostility toward native-tongue education, citing one Uzbek school that was never rebuilt after being burned in June 2010 and another that was disbanded and its students sent to other institutions. When it does not close Uzbek-language schools, this educator said, the government “does not provide them with textbooks and training facilities.”

“The number of Uzbek-language schools goes down. In addition, they closed the two Uzbek-language universities. What does this mean?” the former director said.

Valentina Gritsenko, head of Spravedlivost (Justice), a Jalal-Abad civic organization, said Kyrgyz officials need to take responsibility for their rhetoric and uphold the country’s law.

“Did we adopt the constitution only to please the Venice Commission?” Gritsenko said, referring to the body that advises the Council of Europe on constitutional matters. “Reduction of hours or subjects at Uzbek- and Tajik-language schools may lead to loss of national identity of ethnic minorities, which contradicts international practice.”

Bakyt Ibraimov is a freelance journalist in Osh. Temir Akmatov is the pseudonym of a reporter in Bishkek. Photos by Bakyt Ibraimov.


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