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Language Balance in Uzbekistan: an Acceptable Status Quo

«It is incorrect to speak about the competition between the Uzbek and Russian languages in Uzbekistan. They both occupy a certain niche in public and state life, neither of them can threaten the positions of the other, since they develop in parallel and isolation from each other,» – notes an international relations specialist from Tashkent and a participant in the cabar.asia school of analytics, Yuri Sarukhanyan.


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“A group of intelligentsia members of Uzbekistan has taken the initiative to give official status to the Russian language.”

Last week, this phrase put the public into a flutter after the publication of the appeal of several representatives of art, culture and civil society on the Vesti.uz website. The news caused quite a serious resonance. The enthusiastic nationalists recalled that national minorities did not respect the state language and refused to learn it. Those who are nostalgic for the USSR and waiting for the second coming of the “Russian world” were inspired, remembering the famous cliche that all the progress in the region happened thanks to the conquest by the Russian Empire. Officials of Uzbekistan joined the discussion. Their common opinion has come to the need to respect the state language, ensure its development. Giving the official status to other languages could harm the Uzbek language and national identity.

One of the signatories, Sayora Khojaeva, director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, was even forced to find excuses by stating that she had not signed any appeal. On one hand, the explanations were overdue, on the other hand, one should not be surprised if this appeal was not really signed by anyone, but is only the subject of one of the backstage conversations presented to the pro-Russian media as a collective appeal.

In early May 2019, part of Tashkent youth responded with a public rally “Uzbek language is the state language” as a response to a request to give official status to the Russian language. Photo: facebook.com

Frankly speaking, both sides look strange in this discussion. The so-called appeal of the intelligentsia about the need to provide the Russian language with an official status caused big bewilderment. The attempts to consider it as a threat to the Uzbek language and national identity were perceived more surprisingly.

 Language is, of course, one of the nationhood foundations. At the same time, Uzbekistan, indeed, has a special way of development in the field of language policy. Possessing the status of the only state language, the Uzbek language nevertheless experiences serious difficulties in its formation as such. The main problem was the incomplete transition from Cyrillic to Latinic. The development of the Uzbek language during the independence period is a classic example of how vague reforms do more harm than their absence.

The Uzbek-speaking part of the population itself, in fact, was split into those who use the Cyrillic alphabet (mostly people who received education in the Soviet times) and those who have adapted or have already studied in Latinic (to a greater extent, the generation of independence). At the same time, the transition to the Latinic alphabet did not take place at the state level. Government newspapers and news sites continue to use mostly Cyrillic. The post on the social network Facebook of the Minister of Public Education Sherzod Shermatov who called for providing conditions for the development of the Uzbek language was written in Cyrillic. If we refer to the website of the national legislation database lex.uz, then we will easily notice that all documents in Uzbek are published in Cyrillic. Such coexistence, of course, has a negative impact on the development of the Uzbek language.

Related article: Why Uzbek Language Has Not Become a Language of Politics and Science?

Meanwhile, the Russian language is de facto an official, even without statutory status. International correspondence, departmental analytics, decrees and resolutions, strategies – everything is made up in Russian. A number of factors contribute to this. First, the mechanisms of state administration were formed in the 90s, when the political elites were more accustomed to working in Russian. Secondly, being one of the six international languages, Russian is more convenient for building relations with the outside world. The fact that there are not enough qualified Uzbek-speaking translators in the country should be also taken to account. Thirdly, the Russian language is not perceived as foreign by the population. For one part of the population, it is native, for the bilingual Uzbek population – if not native, then the language of everyday life. And even people who do not speak Russian, and those who consider it as the language of colonialism, treat it as they like, but not as a foreign language.

In my opinion, it is incorrect to speak about the competition between the Uzbek and Russian languages in Uzbekistan. Due to the demand and peculiarities of the country’s development over the past 27 years, they both occupy a certain niche in public and state life. Neither of them can threaten the positions of the other since they develop in parallel and kind of isolated from each other. For example, the Russian language cannot directly threaten the development of Uzbek. As it was noted, the problems of the latter are connected with the reform of the 1990s that was not properly thought to the end. Nor can the Russian language harm the national identity, since language policy is only one of the directions in its formation process. Moreover, the Russian language and the Russian-speaking population of Uzbekistan have long been part of this identity.

Taking into account the role that the Russian language plays in modern Uzbekistan, the initiators and performers of the message idea made a rather meaningless action. Such steps by the pro-Russian structures and their sympathizers can artificially create a confrontation between the Uzbek and Russian languages, not saying of the tension between the Uzbek-speaking and Russian-speaking population.

The Russian-speaking population also does not need unnecessary care, especially from the outside. In addition, the ultimate goal of the appeal is not clear. The idea of ​​officially securing the Russian language with the status of international communication language seems illogical because it is not clear why it should be driven into the bureaucratic framework if it works perfectly well without them. If it was an attempt to test the ground for more ambitious goals, then it was rather unsuccessful. The reaction of Tashkent, although it was devoid of emotions, made it clear that the issue of the new status of the Russian language is not on the agenda.

The Russian language perfectly feels in the status quo and hardly needs any extra bureaucratization.
Uzbekistan does not currently need to change the language status quo. However, there are a number of trends that allow saying that the influence of the Russian language may grow in the medium term.

First, the Russian media, especially television channels, tenably occupied the information field. National media do not yet have content that can compete with them (with rare exceptions, when MatchTV forgets to buy the rights to broadcast Spanish LaLiga). Secondly, the Uzbek-Russian relations are going through a period of intensification. The record investment package, signed in October 2018, the expansion of the Russian business presence in the oil and gas sector and, finally, the planned construction of a nuclear power plant – all this will help expand the presence of Moscow. Thirdly, according to official data, about two million labor migrants work in Russia, for whom knowledge of the Russian language is compulsory to obtain a patent. The fact that Tashkent and Moscow started cooperation in the field of labor migration in order to minimize the flow of illegal migrants suggests that the need for learning Russian will grow. Finally, Tashkent and Moscow are negotiating the opening of four more branches of Russian universities in Uzbekistan, which will fairly lead to the strengthening of Russian soft power in the country.

If we hypothetically consider the issue of the prospects of granting the Russian language any official status, then, in my opinion, this should be accompanied by several factors.

The first. To date, the topic of the Russian language, unfortunately, is extremely politicized in the territory of the post-Soviet space. The Russian political elite considers the Russian-speaking population as a kind of continuation of the Russian Federation’s territory and uses this social stratum as a pressure tool. Attempts are being made to form such an information field in which the Russian-speaking population identifies itself with Russia, and not with the countries in which it lives. In this regard, changing the status of the Russian language and disrupting the language balance perfectly functioning in the country is illogical until the Russian leadership stops dreaming of reuniting the territories of the former USSR, whether under the CIS auspices or a new foreign-policy toy in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

The second. Before expanding the number of official languages, one should deal with the state one. As already mentioned, the Uzbek language developed somewhat spontaneously during the independence period and today it exists in the mode of two alphabets, which, in principle, cannot be called a normal condition. The plans announced by the government to reform the existing alphabet based on the Latinic may further complicate the situation. The new reform will form the third generation of the Uzbek-speaking population, which will be trained in the new alphabet and will further confuse the situation with the study of the national minorities’ language. If successful, a positive result will be observed only in the medium term.

The third. Any decision on such a complex issue as a language policy should be made not by an order from above, but only after extensive public discussions in which all interested parties will be given the floor. The final decision should be made only on the basis of the referendum.

In general, what happened last week is not the first and, unfortunately, not the last informational dump that Uzbekistan will face. The reaction to it showed that the public of the country should be more restrained to perceive such phenomena, without creating artificial conflicts, especially between the titular ethnic groups and the national minorities. In this regard, a great responsibility falls on local officials, who should provide an official position of the state, devoid of emotions, as quickly and pragmatically as possible, prevent any nationalist attacks and the growth of social tension.

The materials published in the section “Opinion” present only the personal opinion of the authors and do not reflect the position of the editorial board.

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