“Хуш келибсизлар” and “Кош келипсиздер” look very similar. For an uninformed foreigner, it might even suggest that one is a misspelling of the other. The foreigner would be very close to reality—both phrases equally extend a welcome. However, there is no misspelling here with the former formulation being Uzbek and the latter—Kyrgyz.
The two ways of spelling were always posted at entries to bilingual schools—Uzbek-Kyrgyz, Tajik-Kyrgyz and Russian-Kyrgyz—in Kyrgyzstan. But the trend has drastically changed following what was dubbed “an interethnic clash” in the country’s south in June 2010. A number of schools with the Uzbek language of instruction have been either closed for “lack of students” or have reportedly “voluntarily chosen” to shift to the Kyrgyz language as medium for instruction. While the “lacking students” argument could hold some water, given the massive exodus of Uzbeks from lawlessness that ensued following the June 2010 events, the “choice” argument was explained by the lack of textbooks and “better prospects for graduates.”
The latest of such occurrences has taken place in the town of Naukat in Southern Kyrgyzstan where seven Uzbek-language schools chose Kyrgyz-language instruction. According to the Akipress news agency, “local residents requested” the move. Over the last two years, authorities in such cases advanced similar claims. But, for some mysterious reason, there was no single case when a parent would object such decision. At least, none was reported. It is quite understandable that even if one does not want to give up his constitutionally guaranteed right to obtain education in his native language, he better not voice that opinion (which is, too, guaranteed by the constitution). Many ethnic Uzbeks were convicted to very long and/or life-long imprisonment terms for alleged participation in the bloody events in Osh. In most cases defendants’ lawyers reported torture, money extortion and illegal/ungrounded accusations, which were ignored by judges who sent them behind bars.
The rise of nationalism has not only pushed many Uzbeks into prison, but has also pushed titles off the names of various institutions. An article carried by Eurasianet reports on a number of ethnic Uzbeks’ privately-owned cafes and businesses changing Uzbek or Russian names into Kyrgyz names. According to the article, the name change is the façade of the underlying processes: change of ownership, increased pressure on Uzbek owners from “young Kyrgyz men in tracksuits.” The name changing affected the only higher education institution in whole Kyrgyzstan, which carried the word “Uzbek”—the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University was renamed Osh Social University. In a most bizarre move, either bowing to the nationalists’ pressure or fulfilling someone’s long-wished desire, a central mosque was too altered: Imam al-Bukhari became Imam al-Bukhari-Alay. Alay is mountainous region in Southern Kyrgyzstan known for its residents’ “disapproval,” mildly speaking, of ethnic Uzbeks’ presence in Kyrgyzstan. The latter, by the way, make up between 750,000 and 1,000,000 residents among 5.5m Kyrgyz citizens.
There was no single party—neither Uzbeks themselves nor anyone on their behalf—has voiced a critical opinion regarding name changes. Well, there are plenty of reasons to “discourage” one to do so, as is seen above. Therefore, the transition of Uzbek-language school to the Kyrgyz language is going smoothly and, apparently, as planned. According to the National Statistics Committee and the Ministry of Education, there are 226 Uzbek-language schools in combination with other languages, including 91 where Uzbek is the sole language of instruction. But the latter number is decreasing due to massive emigration of Uzbeks to mainly Russia and other countries. Another major reason is the lack of books and other academic material. But then a question arises: if the right for education in one’s native language is guaranteed by the constitution, should not the government be responsible for providing those schools with necessary items, including textbooks?
The question may be legitimate, but the current atmosphere in Kyrgyzstan does not allow one to pose it. Let’s taken an example of the mayor of Osh, Melis Myrzakmatov. According to the Kyrgyz Inquiry Commission’s (KIC) report into the bloody events in Osh, “As a self-avowed nationalist politician, Myrzakmatov has publicly asserted his love of “my people” and his preparedness to use all means to fight for their well-being. In an interview after the June events he stated “the Uzbeks attacked the sovereignty of the Kyrgyz Republic, but we rebuffed them.” In a meeting with the KIC, he warned of the dangers of an Uzbek separatist agenda being spearheaded by Islamic fundamentalists within the Uzbek community. No evidence of this agenda was presented, but the Mayor made clear that he considered the threat to be very real and to require a strong response on his part” (emphasis mine). The mayor’s influence extends far beyond the tasks of a public servant: for example, he has shunned the central authorities decrees to relieve of him of his post. No sound Uzbek would voice a critical opinion when his/her “ethnic rights” are violated. Not in a self-declared nationalist mayor’s watch.
Uzbeks, therefore, either ignored or silently criticized the fact that a peace bell installed in Osh has writings calling for peace in the world in three languages: Kyrgyz, Russian and… English. The bell was erected in memory of those who suffered and died in the bloody events in Osh in June 2010. According to the KIC, some 75% of those victims and convicts were ethnic Uzbeks. One would obviously want to ask: Why no Uzbek? Those supporting erection of the bell would respond: Kyrgyz is the state language, Russian is the official language, and English is meant for foreigners.
By imprisoning Uzbeks, allowing illegal take overs of Uzbek-owned businesses, covertly banning or at least failing to act to stop the disappearance of the Uzbek language in education, local authorities might be gaining whatever they think they are gaining. However, they are losing the most valuable asset any public servant needs: some of the citizens’ trust and loyalty.