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Watch your language How Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan resist Russia’s linguistic influence

Source: Meduza

Watch your language How Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan resist Russia’s linguistic influence

Source: Meduza
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Eurasian Economic Union summit in Bishkek. December 9, 2022.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Eurasian Economic Union summit in Bishkek. December 9, 2022.
Getty Images

Story by Bektour Iskender for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Since President Sadyr Japarov’s inauguration in 2021, open confrontations between Bishkek and Moscow have been exceedingly rare. In fact, Kyrgyzstan has often mirrored the path of its former colonial ruler, adopting many of its authoritarian practices (like the recently enacted “foreign agents” law). But in July 2023, Japarov found himself in a public spat with none other than Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Lavrov had critiqued Kyrgyzstan’s new state language law, which mandated proficiency in Kyrgyz for all government employees. “When this idea first appeared, we warned our Kyrgyz friends that this was not entirely democratic,” Lavrov said at a meeting in Moscow. “We warned them several times, but another policy prevailed.”

In response, Japarov suggested that Lavrov had cast judgment without reading the law itself. “We want to develop our language fully,” Japarov clarified in an interview with the state-owned Kabar news agency. “As we have seen, state employees and members of parliament speak half in Russian and half in Kyrgyz. No one speaks fluent Russian or fluent Kyrgyz; [the two languages are] always jumbled up. Therefore, we need to master both languages equally.”

This wasn’t the first time a Russian official had objected to Kyrgyzstan’s language policy. Nationalist politicians and public figures in Russia are often quick to weigh in on perceived slights to the Russian language in Central Asia. And given Moscow’s influence in the region, these comments are difficult to ignore. 

Japarov’s rebuttal reflected a familiar pattern of how officials in Kyrgyzstan — and its neighbor Kazakhstan — have reacted to such criticism. The scenario is almost always similar: a Central Asian country undertakes to strengthen its native language, Russian officials voice dissatisfaction, and Bishkek (or Astana) reassures Moscow that the Russian language isn’t being sidelined, all while still moving ahead with its language agenda. Indeed, language policy is a unique area where Kyrgyz and Kazakh authorities are unafraid to push back against Russia. 

‘Coming back naturally’

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan stand out among the five Central Asian countries for having the highest share of both Russian language speakers and ethnic Russians. These two groups don’t fully intersect: many ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz use Russian as their primary language, a legacy of more than a century of colonial policies under the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union.

Russian often functions as a convenient lingua franca, facilitating communication among the diverse array of ethnic groups residing in each country. In major urban centers and economic hubs, fluency in Russian often translates to better job opportunities. At the same time, both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been actively working to revive their national languages since gaining independence in 1991. 

These efforts have coincided with remarkable demographic transformations. According to the last Soviet census, Kazakhstan had a notably low proportion of ethnic Kazakhs, accounting for just over 39 percent of the population in 1989. Similarly, ethnic Kyrgyz constituted slightly more than 52 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population.

Fast-forward three decades, and Kazakhs now represent a dominant majority in Kazakhstan, comprising 70 percent of the population. In Kyrgyzstan, the proportion of ethnic Kyrgyz is even higher, at 77 percent

A bilingual billboard in Kurchatov, Kazakhstan. Founded in 1947 as a closed city adjoining the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site, Kurchatov’s population has declined significantly since the Soviet period, but it has also welcomed many Kazakh repatriates.
John van Hasselt / Corbis / Getty Images

These changes have profoundly impacted local language usage in both countries, with their prevalence increasing significantly while the use of Russian has declined. However, these linguistic trends can’t be attributed to demographics alone, nor are they purely the result of state policies. 

“Kazakh language is coming back naturally in Kazakhstan in ways that were unimaginable when I was growing up during the 1980s,” said Azamat Junisbai, a sociology professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Raised in the Russian-language environment of Kazakhstan’s former capital, Almaty, Junisbai recently underwent a self-exploration journey brought on by Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Junisbai recounted this transformative experience in a Twitter thread that garnered substantial attention in August 2022, with the lead tweet accumulating more than 1,000 likes. “I have been increasingly circling back to the uncomfortable memory of contempt for most things Kazakh that I had felt growing up. I associated Kazakh language and culture with being rural and uncultured. Low status,” he wrote. “I suppose this is precisely what a thorough colonization is supposed to accomplish.”

The thread quickly gained popularity as other Central Asians actively shared and commented on Junisbai’s posts, often echoing his sentiments. This highlighted a broader trend: not only are younger generations in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan becoming more proficient in their native languages, but older generations are also reassessing their views on language and identity.


Bloody 2022 How Kazakhstani journalists went from covering a national uprising to reporting on Russia’s war against Ukraine


Bloody 2022 How Kazakhstani journalists went from covering a national uprising to reporting on Russia’s war against Ukraine

Kazakhstan’s politicians are, by all appearances, no exception. “Kazakh language is gaining prominence, and I think that the Kazakh politicians have to reflect that somehow with their actions,” Junisbai told The Beet.

‘Decolonization must start with language’

The revival of national languages in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan long predates Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In 1989, when the Soviet Union’s Perestroika policy was at its peak, both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan adopted laws designating Kyrgyz and Kazakh as their respective “state languages.” After the USSR’s collapse, this proved to be a crucial step in the nation-building process, paving the way for more intensive language and education reform in the 1990s and 2000s. 

By the 2010s, organic demand for news coverage in local languages led to the emergence of popular independent media outlets. One notable example is Politklinika in Kyrgyzstan, an investigative media outlet initially launched in the Kyrgyz language. This was a rare occurrence even a decade ago when most media outlets aiming for nationwide readership typically started with a Russian-language edition.

Politklinika now finds itself among the publications the Kyrgyz authorities have targeted in their onslaught against the country’s independent media. Nevertheless, the new state language law stands out as one of the few government initiatives that Politklinika founder Dilbar Alimova supports.

“Decolonization must start with language,” Alimova said. However, she does not believe such measures reflect a genuine attempt to shed Russian influence. “Our state is repeating the same actions as Russia in relation to non-governmental organizations and independent journalists,” she pointed out, referring to the recently adopted “foreign agents” law. “If the government had attempted to break away from Russia’s influence, it wouldn’t have repeated their experience.”

As Junisbai argued in the case of Kazakhstan, Alimova maintains that the Kyrgyz government feels compelled to react to the increasing popularity of the Kyrgyz language. In terms of media consumption, this is a generational shift. According to a 2023 study conducted by M-Vector, a prominent media monitoring company in Kyrgyzstan, Russian state media channels tend to attract older audiences.

An anti-war demonstration in Bishkek following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. March 26, 2022.
Vladimir Voronin / AP / Scanpix / LETA
A man holds a sign that says (in Russian), “We are for Russia! We are for Putin!” at a pro-war rally in Bishkek. March 22, 2022.
Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Indeed, widespread knowledge of Russian in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has enabled Moscow to disseminate its propaganda more effectively. According to M-Vector’s findings, the two most popular foreign TV channels in Kyrgyzstan are Russian state-owned networks Rossiya-24 and Pervyi Kanal (Channel One).

In Bishkek, Channel One is more popular than all Kyrgyz TV channels in terms of both average daily and average weekly viewership. There’s a similar situation in Kazakhstan, where the most-watched TV channel is Pervyi Kanal Evraziya (Channel One Eurasia), 20 percent of which belongs to Russia’s Channel One.

Russia’s state-sponsored propaganda primarily targets Russian-speaking audiences in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; only Channel One Eurasia produces some content in Kazakh. This trend also extends to the digital realm: Russia’s principal online propaganda platform, Sputnik, boasts a significantly larger social media following for its Russian-language editions in both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Kazakhstan-based think tank PaperLab has found that Russia’s state-sponsored content has a palpable impact on Russian speakers in Central Asia, shaping popular attitudes towards Russia’s war against Ukraine, for example. According to PaperLab’s research, support for the Kremlin and its narratives among Russian-speaking communities in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan outweighs that among people who speak Kazakh or Kyrgyz.

“Language choice significantly influences perceptions of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. In both countries, respondents who speak Russian are more likely to blame Ukraine for the hostilities,” the study concludes.

A delicate balance

Throughout the post-Soviet era, and especially under Vladimir Putin, Moscow has actively promoted the Russian language in Central Asia while simultaneously exploiting its enduring prominence. Russian state universities have emerged as the most accessible avenues for Central Asian youth seeking opportunities to study abroad, and the Kremlin has implemented programs to bolster Russian language education in the region.

Russia’s dependence on migration from Central Asia

Migration and discrimination in Putin’s Russia

This is such a priority for Moscow that Putin and Japarov held a joint video call in September 2023 to launch the construction of three new Russian-language schools in Kyrgyzstan, all funded by Russia.

When Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan take steps to promote their native languages, however, the response from Russian politicians ranges from urging caution to expressing fury.

When Astana announced plans to transition the Kazakh language to the Latin script in 2017, Russian State Duma member Alexey Zhuravlev called on his fellow parliamentarians to engage with their Kazakh counterparts on this issue. “This is clearly an unfriendly step against the Russian Federation,” he said.

Four years later, when Kazakhstan enacted a new advertising law mandating the use of Kazakh on signs and billboards, the response from Russian politicians was not only aggressive but also veered into racism and threats. “I am well acquainted with the Asian mentality and, unfortunately, in Asia, only the language of force is truly understood,” said State Duma deputy Alexander Borodai, who previously led the Russian proxy government in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk region. “This force doesn’t necessarily need to be showcased, but the ability to wield it must be demonstrated. The weak are not respected.”

In this context, Kazakh and Kyrgyz officials find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, striking a delicate balance between meeting popular demand and navigating the aggression and tangible threats from Russian politicians and propagandists.

“I don’t necessarily agree that authorities in Kazakhstan are pro-Russian,” said Junisbai, who compared being Russia’s neighbor to “being in a room with a crazy person who has a gun.” (“You try to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible and hope he doesn’t notice you,” he explained.)

Nevertheless, these two Central Asian countries have continued to assert themselves quietly when it comes to language policy. Last summer’s public altercation between Japarov and Lavrov is not the sole instance of a Central Asian leader taking actions that risked provoking Russia’s ire.

In November 2023, while hosting a Russian delegation led by Putin himself, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev broke from tradition and began his speech in Kazakh before switching to Russian. The move surprised the Russian officials, leaving them scrambling to don headphones for simultaneous translation.

“It was a gesture that can hardly be overestimated,” Russian political analyst Arkady Dubnov commented on Telegram. “[Tokayev] immediately made it clear that Kazakhstan intends to pursue an independent language policy, where the Russian language is honored and respected, but the primary focus remains on the development of the Kazakh language.”

These gestures from the leaders of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may be directed towards their own citizens — and they appear to resonate widely: some YouTube videos of Tokayev’s speech have amassed millions of views. However, these actions can also be interpreted as a deliberate signal to officials in Moscow.

“It’s a small gesture; it was just a few sentences. But I think it is important for them to say, ‘Look, we are not a Russian colony anymore,’” said Junisbai. “But, honestly, it’s an incredibly hard balance. They have very little wiggle room when Russia is a full-on fascist state at this point.”

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Story by Bektour Iskender for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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