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Osh Mulls Ban on Uzbek-Language Schools

Critics call it discrimination, but city officials say the idea came from Uzbeks themselves.

русская версия

by Bakyt Ibraimov and Temir Akmatov 8 December 2011

OSH | Saida K. is a 15-year-old ethnic Uzbek who lives in Osh. She studies in a school that uses the Uzbek language. But if local officials have their way, she might have to change schools or leave the country altogether.

 

That’s because the city’s administration has proposed that schools teaching in Uzbek should switch to Kyrgyz instead.

 

“I speak Russian well, but my Kyrgyz isn’t good enough for reading and writing, though I can easily communicate with Kyrgyz people in Uzbek or Kyrgyz,” said Saida, who didn’t want to giver her full name for safety reasons. She said if Uzbek-language instruction ended, she would have to move to a Russian-language institution or try to attend school in Russia.

 

The proposal would affect about 140 schools in Kyrgyzstan and would rub salt in wounds that remain open after the ethnic violence that gripped the southern part of the country in June 2010 and left hundreds dead, most of them Uzbek.

 

Uzbek is the mother tongue for more than 700,000 of Kyrgyzstan’s citizens, 14 percent of the population.

 

Local officials say the change was actually the Uzbeks’ idea.

 

Dastan Kodzhaev
“There’s no need to politicize the matter,” Dastan Khodzhaev, the Osh deputy mayor in charge of education issues, said in an interview.

 

“We must take into account suggestions made by our citizens, and we cannot ignore proposals of the Uzbek community when they ask us to convert Uzbek-language schools into Kyrgyz,” Khodzhaev said. He said Uzbek parents complain that their schools do not have enough teachers and textbooks, thus “their desire to be educated in Kyrgyz is a priority for them.”

 

The city government has set up a commission to consider what Khodzhaev said would be a “gradual transition” to Kyrgyz for Uzbek-language schools. The commission will send a proposal to the Education Ministry, which will have the final say.

 

A SETBACK FOR RECONCILIATION?

 

Measuring local Uzbek opinion on the matter is difficult. Many former leaders of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek community went into exile after last year’s violence and have been reluctant to speak out on such matters for fear of making life more difficult for those left behind.

 

The Uzbek community, scarred by the June 2010 events and the ensuing harassment and discrimination, has become more reticent about using their language in public and demanding a place for it in officialdom. Some ethnic Uzbeks say that if Uzbeks did make the suggestion, it was under duress.

 

“We want our children to have access to mother-tongue education. Even the Communists didn’t deprive us of education in Uzbek,” said a trader in the town of Karasuu in Osh province. “Look which Uzbeks make such statements – only those who work for the government.”

 

Local observers say authorities in southern Kyrgyzstan well noted a clear signal sent by interim President Roza Otunbaeva in June, a year after the 2010 mayhem.

 

“In the course of time, education in Kyrgyzstan must be converted into Kyrgyz,” Otunbaeva said, according to the independent 24.kg news agency.

 

Of Kyrgyzstan’s 2,191 public schools, 63 percent teach in Kyrgyz, 7 percent in Russian, 6 percent in Uzbek, less than 1 percent in Tajik, and 23 percent are multilingual, according to the Education Ministry.

 

The Kyrgyz constitution guarantees all ethnic groups the right to use and develop their native language through, for example, book publishing, education, cultural pursuits, and native-language media.

 

Irina Karamushkina, a member of the Kyrgyz parliament, warned the school conversion would contravene that right, sow ill will, and set back post-2010 reconciliation efforts.

 

“Making a decision about switching Uzbek schools into Kyrgyz without consent of the Uzbek minority could be interpreted as a violation of their rights to freedom of choice to access education in their native language,” said Karamushkina, who belongs to the same party as Otunbaeva and Almazbek Atambaev, the newly elected president.

 

“Parents also have the right to decide what school their children go to,” she added. “The authorities must understand the consequences when we talk about the human rights of the Uzbek minority.”

 

Teachers in Uzbek schools worry that efforts to ban education in Uzbek will exacerbate the alienation of the Uzbek community in Kyrgyzstan – not to mention eliminate jobs for many of them.

 

“I’ve been teaching mathematics for 22 years at an Uzbek school, and if education in Uzbek is banned, I’ll lose my job since I can’t teach in Kyrgyz,” said Zamira A., a school teacher from the Karasuu district.

But Gulgaky Mamasalieva, director of the independent, Osh-based Interbilim (International Knowledge) organization, which focuses on education and human rights, said graduates from Uzbek schools who want to pursue higher education must speak Kyrgyz or Russian.

 

“There are not enough funds in our government’s budget to publish school textbooks in Uzbek,” Mamasalieva said. “The instruction languages at universities are either Kyrgyz or Russian, not Uzbek.

 

“If ethnic Uzbeks want their children to get higher education in the future so that they can enjoy employment like others and take good positions, they need to know the Kyrgyz language and integrate into Kyrgyz society.”

 

ALIENS IN THEIR HOMELAND

 

A major reason higher education is available only in Kyrgyz and Russian, however, is that last year the government closed the country’s only two universities that offered instruction in Uzbek.

 

Before the June 2010 ethnic clashes, Kyrgyz authorities closed the multilingual University of People’s Friendship in Jalalabad, owned by Uzbek businessman Kadyrzhan Batyrov. A few months after the violence, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek University, which provided education in both languages, was also shut down; it was later reopened as the Social University, offering instruction solely in Kyrgyz. In addition, the Uzbek Language Institute at Osh State University was downgraded to the Uzbek Language Chair in the Kyrgyz Language Department. 

 

“[Kyrgyz authorities] force the administration of Uzbek-language schools to open Kyrgyz classes there, and then they claim this is a mixed school,” said Khakim B., a 16-year-old student in Osh. That maneuver gives officials room to break with a tradition that has lasted since the Soviet era of putting Uzbek administrators in charge of Uzbek-language schools. Once the institution becomes mixed, it is easier to install ethnic Kyrgyz administrators.

 

“They remove signs in Uzbek at Uzbek-language schools,” Khakim said. “This is pure discrimination against ethnic Uzbeks or whatever you call it.”

An international inquiry into last year’s violence, the findings of which were rejected by Bishkek, estimated that of the 470 people killed, 74 percent were ethnic Uzbeks. The investigative commission also found that the violence was planned and directed primarily at Uzbeks, and that the persecution of Uzbeks did not stop after the rioting ended.

 

The commission recommended that the Uzbek language be given “special status” in regional and municipal governments in the south, where nearly all of the country’s ethnic Uzbeks live, and that the University of People’s Friendship be reopened. It also urged that “school curricula should be inclusive of various cultural, language and historical traditions and perspectives.”

 

Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF’s representative in Kyrgyzstan, told a 28 November conference on education that “development of the state language should not be an obstacle to development of other languages,” 24.kg reported.

 

Meanwhile, officials in Osh have announced that in December they will erect a peace bell, the ringing of which, according to the local authorities, will symbolize reconciliation of the local populations.

 

The inscription on the bell, “Peace All over the World,” is written in three languages – Kyrgyz, Russian, and English.

Bakyt Ibraimov is a freelance journalist in Osh. Temir Akmatov is a pseudonym for a journalist in Bishkek.

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