In an article for CABAR.asia, an Uzbek researcher Eldar Asanov discusses identity, nationalism, and historical memory in the realm of a rather vexed language issue in today’s Uzbekistan.
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On April 25, 2020, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Justice had released for public review a draft bill, which, among other things, “stipulates to fine the country’s officials from 2 to 5 reference calculation value (from 446 thousand to 1.115 million UZS or 44-110 USD) for violating the law on State Language. In other words, the bill obliges government agencies to use the state language. A casual observer unfamiliar with the background of the issue would not be interested in the controversial bill. After all, there is a good reason it’s called ‘the state’ language – it caters the state affairs.
However, that news galvanized the Russian-speaking social media users, evoking strong emotions, and heated debates. This case has once again underscored the delicate balance between Uzbek and Russian languages in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek controversy, Russian media
The overwhelming majority of Russian-speaking journalists, bloggers, experts in Uzbekistan went past the bill. It was mainly average social media users who responded to the proposed legislation.
Russian media have been the loudest of all; it has had the opposite effect stirring the conversation on Russia’s interference in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs and bids to turn the Russian-speaking citizens of the country into agents of influence for the Kremlin.
Varying ambiguous headlines were splashed across the Russian newspapers, giving the bill an ominous appearance. Authors of these materials insinuated that the bill is rather nationalistic and aims to “erase the traces of Russian culture”.
Things have turned gloomy when it came to social media, descending into mutual nationalism and chauvinism accusations. The language issue, which had been Karimov-hibernating for decades, turned out to be so painful that some academic researchers were unable to retain impartiality. For instance, an expert of the Uzbek agency “Repost.uz” had said (without any justification whatsoever, in my opinion) that with the proposed bill the Justice Ministry is “rocking the boat of linguistic nationalism”.
The conflict culminated when Russian and Uzbek government officials had stepped in. The Russian Foreign Ministry representative Maria Zakharova commented on the bill. The Uzbek Foreign Ministry had made a comeback. The conflict had been exhausted at that point, though had neither been addressed nor resolved.
One path and two identities across it
What echoes today’s confusion is an event that took place more than 30 years ago, in October 1989: a crowd of thousands gathered in the central square of Tashkent, demanding that the Uzbek be given the status of the state language. Overby, there was a crowd of onlookers, Russian-speaking residents of the capital. They had silently watched the “nationalists” and could not understand their demands. What’s wrong with the Russian language? When Uzbek has not been an official language?. These two groups stood and lived nearby, but did not communicate, didn’t understand, and didn’t want to understand each other. They lived in their own worlds and judged everything according to their beliefs.
Archival footage of the 1989 rally in Tashkent.
The dispute over Justice Ministry’s bill essentially reiterates the same misunderstanding: the published materials over the bill are not polemical discussions, but, in fact, angry rebukes. Refusing to listen to the opponent’s view will neither build a constructive dialogue nor work out a compromise. Not only these groups speak different languages, but they also often use different conceptual frameworks.
Back in the second half of the 19th century, Uzbekistan’s future capital Tashkent had been divided into “old” and “new”. During the imperial years, mainly Russians and Russian-speaking people – civil servants, intelligentsia, speculators, capitalists, their employees, teachers, and workers – lived in the “new” part of the city. Under the USSR, the ethnic composition of the “new” city was diluted both by the “titular” ethnic group and by people from various parts of the vast country. The avenue with the rather symbolic name “Peoples’ Friendship ” had been dividing the city into “old” and “new” parts. Today, the avenue, renamed to “Bunyodkor”, has become a purely symbolic divide, for the city has grown greatly and has experienced a number of demographic changes. But the effects of longstanding dispersed coexistence last for years.
In the 20th century, the “new” Tashkent was the centerpiece of the political and cultural life of Uzbekistan. It housed government agencies, the core cultural, sports and leisure facilities; much more was invested in the layout and the associated landscaping of the district than in addressing the “old” city problems. The highest levels of the entire Soviet bureaucracy, the intelligentsia, had lived here; the major political, social, and cultural processes took place in the new city; and the decisions taken here would have an impact on the country’s future. Russian was the language of politics, bureaucracy, culture, and science. The “New City” Russian-speaking elite competed with the “regional” bureaucracy and the Uzbek-speaking intelligentsia, but the latter, too, would join the “metropolitan” elite if successful.
Although the social hierarchy and the balance of power have changed significantly following the collapse of the USSR, arrangements for the governance and cultural transformation of independent Uzbekistan would comprise the Soviet heritage. The use of the Russian language in politics, governance, culture, science, and now in business has become a “historical memory”. The identity of the “new” city, as opposed to of the “old”, endures and aspires to a prominent voice in shaping the image of young Uzbekistan. This occasionally leads to a confrontation between the “old” and the “new”, which in turn is entwined with the “national” by the use of language.
The language that became a part of national identity in the Soviet model of nationalism plays an essential role in shaping the way Uzbek society is seen. I am convinced that even if the Uzbek language was primary in the “new” city, there would still be disagreements between “new” and the “old”, although they would not be translated into the national level.
So, who is he then, this nationalist?
The language debate is not complete without accusations of nationalism. Russian-speaking authors are convinced that the Ministry’s initiative will please Uzbek nationalists, first of all, leading to the marginalization of the Russian language and discrimination against linguistic minorities. The Uzbek side, on the contrary, sees this repudiation as manifested Russian chauvinism; Kremlin’s efforts to keep Uzbekistan under its influence, to hinder the development of the Uzbek national identity, deeming it “spiritual aggression”.
There is neither institutionalized nationalism nor nationalistic movements in Uzbekistan whatsoever, just as there are no ideologists and ideology. There is a “historical memory” that provokes heavy repetition of “historical enmity”. National discourse, nonetheless, is almost always present in Uzbekistan’s public space, which is associated with the Soviet model of nation-building.
If we to speak in social anthropology terms, both sides are to some extent nationalists. They interpret the situation based on national categories, relying on the nation as the central notion to social construction. I’ve never met an author who would use cosmopolitan tenets in his/her analysis, whilst refuting ethnic divides and trying to bring a different perspective. They all believe that there are two ethnicities that associate themselves with the Uzbek and Russian languages, respectively.
The set of arguments on both sides correspond nicely with the characteristics of the nationalisms that have emerged in the post-Soviet space. This theoretical model was suggested by Rogers Brubaker:
- nationalizing nationalisms of the newly emerged independent states;
- nationalisms of national minorities;
- the nationalism of the historical homeland.
Below I will try to distinguish between the Uzbek and Russian nationalisms in Uzbekistan using this model.
Uzbek nationalism: take what’s ours
The Uzbek nationalizing nationalism is characterized by the failure to fulfill the pronounced ambitions: the country gained independence, but never truly became Uzbek, free from the influence of the former metropolis; the Uzbek language became de jure state language, but never became de facto, losing in some areas to the language of the former metropolis. This fact is a major area of concern for the Uzbek writers among intelligentsia since the Russian language is associated with 70 years of Soviet rule.
This failure pushes towards more drastic remedies and more intense criticism. It also impedes a sober evaluation of the situation and a reconsideration of Uzbek identity.
During the Soviet era, ethnicity was institutionalized and turned into an important set of institutions and practices. Russian anthropologist Sergei Abashin notes that “this was never a personal matter; things were reflected in the existence of autonomous republics, … whereas the nation-states themselves were understood as states of certain ethnic groups”.
Anti-Soviet nationalisms that emerged or transformed by the end of the communist giant’s life, in fact, operated from the same categories on which Soviet nationalisms were built. Language has always been considered an important symbolic capital of the nation, and in the second half of the 1980s, the Uzbek intelligentsia raised the language issue, only bolstering the national element of the language.
Following the collapse of the Union, the independent republics retained their former institutions, the old understanding of the national, whereas the language remains the pride and sacred attribute of national identity. Therefore, Uzbek nationalism is very sensitive to the failure to develop the Uzbek language.
The sacred meaning severely hinders the development of the Uzbek language and efforts to adapt it to current realities. All that is holy, as we know, is eternal and immutable, so the Uzbek changing very reluctantly, therefore poorly reflects the present. There is a degree of regression in education, culture, and some other areas of Uzbek language dominance (limitations of the education system, poor teaching standards in schools and universities also provoke controversy in Uzbek society), which, although driven by a number of other factors, hurts the language’s image.
Russian nationalism: preserve what’s left
Russian nationalism demonstrates classic signs of nationalism of national minorities, aiming to minimize its dependence on the language and nationalism of the “titular” nation. It appeals to the Soviet period when there was “friendship of peoples”, and de facto – the dominance of the Russian language and the administrative marginalization of other languages. It seeks to preserve this status within its political geography, which, on the one hand, allows the Russian language to remain relevant in certain areas, and on the other hand, leads to “ghettoization” and alienation from the “titular” space.
The Russian-speaking population of Uzbekistan is very comfortable in the “new” Tashkent and in a number of large cities, where Russian-speaking communities still exist; there are schools, universities with Russian as the language of instruction, Russian-language media, most government agencies are happy to hire Russian-speaking experts; The Russian language helps to network across embassies, NGOs, international businesses, in a word, to do business or build a career as an expert. The Russian-speaking population can live in the luxury of a “new” city, basically with no exposure to the monolingual “peripheral” space. This luxury is highly questionable amidst booming post-Soviet Baku, Astana, or Moscow, but still allows Russian-speaking and bilingual residents of the Tashkent’s center to think of themselves as a more successful and “cultured” stratum of Uzbek society.
Russian identity is strongly tied to Soviet nostalgia – the memory of the USSR, “friendship of peoples”, Stalin, Victory Day, and other attributes of historical memory compound into the complexity of minority nationalism. It’s annoying for Uzbek nationalism, which views the USSR as a colonizer. Soviet nostalgia also links the identity of Uzbekistan’s Russians with “maternal” nationalism – Kremlin’s vision to build a new nation around Stalin and Victory Day. This connection is interpreted by Uzbek nationalism as a generalized Russian imperialism dreaming of re-colonization (or unification, depending on beliefs).
Uzbek nationalism is critical of the self-sufficiency of the Russian language in the country. In turn, Russian nationalism is very sensitive to any attempts to raise the status of the Uzbek language, taking it as an attack to its realm of existence.
Russian nationalism in Uzbekistan cultivates views on the vital cultural role of the Russian language. You can often hear statements that the Russian language connects Uzbekistan with the world, provides a wider range of knowledge, easy learning of European languages; on the other hand, it is argued that Uzbek is poorly adapted to science, to new areas and concepts, education in the Uzbek language is of extremely low quality, among other things. One Russian-speaking blogger, mentioned in the article of controversial magazine AsiaTerra, even said that “Russian-speaking Uzbek has higher IQ than an Uzbek-speaking Uzbek ”. It is noteworthy that an ethnic Uzbek, a Russian-speaking resident of the “new” city, is an adherent of Russian nationalism.
I wish to recognize that these views are to a greater extent stereotypical. Deteriorating education quality is a common problem in Uzbekistan; it also affects education in the Russian language, which is gradually but surely stagnating. The number of the Russian-speaking group of the population is declining, whilst the number of professionals with good knowledge of Russian grows smaller due to migration and collapsed education system. The overall balance is generally not in favor of the Russian language.
Stormy discussions and the forceful comments made by Russian media had no significant effect on the language policy in Uzbekistan. The course towards the elevation of the Uzbek language’s status has been continued.
On April 10, 2020, the country’s President has signed a bill “On establishing the day of the Uzbek language”, and on October 20, the President has signed a decree on developing the Uzbek language and enhancing language policy.
One of the most important provisions of this document is the introduction of certificates on the level of state language proficiency for persons appointed to senior posts.
It provides, among other things, establishing new language faculties at universities and creating a national corps of the Uzbek language in digital format.
During the Soviet era, Uzbekistan had seen an evolution of two approaches to the country’s cultural image, two ways of interpreting the hierarchies and systems of Uzbek society, claiming to be traditional and modern. The contrasting views had been constantly competing for supremacy; loosely we can attribute them to the identities of the “old” and “new” parts of Tashkent, although geographically they had covered the entire country – the first had encompassed suburban and traditionalist regions, whereas the second had encompassed the centers of the largest cities. The “old” city’s vision appealed to customs and historical heritage, whilst the “new”, claiming to be international, had been reinforcing modern ideas, though at the same time serving to unify and integrate into the Russian-speaking world.
These systems of public perception have few interactions with Uzbek and Russian nationalisms and are intertwined with them (but not in all – sometimes they act as separate from ethnicity). They connect with the “national” through the means of language. It is the language that adds national connotations to the competition between them. If it were not for the Soviet nationalism model, knotted to ethnicity and the language, today they could have been perceived as two faces of the same identity.
The new Uzbekistan is built on the Soviet legacy, including the inherited understanding of the national, the understanding of language as a national capital. Problems associated with nationality and the language in modern Uzbekistan have been accrued back in the USSR.
Tradition and modernity in the Soviet sense withdrew from their roles; they do not anymore reflect what their representatives want to see in them. I think it is essential to reconsider their substance and offer society more recent alternatives.
Today, a status quo has been restored, which postulates heavy predominance of the Uzbek language, but Russian at the same time retains a strong position in public administration, business, and science. One of the groups occasionally tries to change this status, which inescapably leads to conflicts. Before the controversy surrounding the bill of the Justice Ministry, there was a case when a group of intelligentsias proposed to give the Russian language an official status. This was an attempt to take a step back – to the restoration of the Soviet hierarchy.
The bill of the Justice Ministry is not a legal act against the Russian language. I am convinced that the gist of the bill was simply misinterpreted by the Russian media and some Uzbekistan-based Russian-speaking authors. As the lawyer Ubaydulla Khodzhaev proved in his analysis, the project only envisages enhanced oversight of the state language legislation; there are no provisions in the document that would prohibit citizens from contacting government agencies and receiving a reply in their native language. It is only about the internal document flow. However, even such an initiative was able to upset the delicate balance.
The Russian language often becomes an instrument of Russian foreign policy, which has the opposite effect and often leads to the advent of phobias against the Russian-speaking population of post-Soviet countries. Articles in Russian media, distorting the gist of the bill, have triggered Uzbek journalists to speak up on a foreign power’s meddling in the country’s internal affairs, and to perceive their Uzbekistan-based Russian-speaking opponents Russia’s “fifth column”.
Nevertheless, the mutual alienation of the Russian and Uzbek segments of Uzbekistan’s society is a visible tendency. To integrate them into a single civil nation both sides need to make reciprocal concessions.
Uzbek nationalism must reconsider its attitude towards the language as “pride” and something sacred. This inhibits liberalization and modernization of the language, without which it would be unfeasible to adapt it to modern realities. Language generally should be perceived as a cultural or even social element. This will thwart the ethnicization of such conflicts, as well as discrimination against other languages.
Russian nationalism in Uzbekistan also needs to be revised to become part of the country’s political and social mosaic. Forging of an Uzbek (or Uzbekistani thereof) identity with the Russian language, without looking back at the USSR and Russia, without prejudice towards the Uzbek language, will avert the isolation of the Russian-speaking community within Uzbekistan. For this, Russian nationalism will have to scrutinize the ambitions of the Russian language, which claims to be the language of interethnic communication, the language of “outing into the world”, a cultural agent, etc.
There is a growing need for statistical and academic research to provide precise facts and figures, as well as to identify sociolinguistic problems specific to Uzbek society. Today, the Uzbek intelligentsia and political elite only know what lies on the surface and have a very vague idea of the real reasons, root causes of the problems. Explicit knowledge and a better understanding of the problems will enable targeting and addressing them.
This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.
Cover photo: Ernest Kurtveliev
 Ўзбекистон Республикаси қонуни. Ўзбекистон Республикасининг Маъмурий жавобгарлик тўғрисидаги кодексининг 42-моддасига қўшимча киритиш тўғрисида / Портал обсуждения проектов нормативно-правовых актов: https://regulation.gov.uz/ru/document/17095.
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