Russian interference in Uzbekistan has led for a push to adopt Russian as an official language, but the move is having the opposite effect.
The debate over the status of the Russian language continues in post-Soviet Central Asia. That debate heated up last year in Uzbekistan, a major Turkic speaking states, over whether Russian should be made an official language along with Uzbek.
Twenty prominent Russian-speaking influencers and artists called on the Uzbek government to give the Russian language official status, coinciding with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Taskhent visit in 2019.
While giving their statement through Vesti – a Russian state media outlet – the prominent personalities claimed that the declaration of Russian as an official language can be a sign of gratitude to the Russian nation and if ‘we do not do it, God will punish us’.
Bernara Kaiyeva, a famous retired ballerina and long-time member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, who made the controversial statement, went on to say that she cannot bother to learn a new language after the age of eighty. Her argument rests on her difficulty understanding medical descriptions in Uzbek, despite the artist being born and raised in Tashkent as an ethnic Uzbek.
These statements can mostly be chalked up to Soviet nostalgia, a sentiment more common among the older generation who lived most of their life in the USSR and miss the “glory” days.
The artists who defend the Russian language more than their own mother tongue are usually just missing the dizzying heights of their career where they were precious “mascots” in the mass gatherings of the communist regime.
It seems that the colonial mindset hasn’t yet left the region, and Russophiles are still trying to court the Kremlin.
The Russian language was an important tool of assimilation coordinated by Moscow against indigenous cultures since its imperial days.
Where the cultural assimilation process hit stronger in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan because of the mass immigration of Russians to these countries during Russia’s reign – Uzbekistan was notably less affected from Russification.
Uzbekistan along with Turkmenistan are the only two Turkic speaking countries in Central Asia where Russian is not an official language. On the other hand, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the other two Turkic states of the region, still hold Russian as an official state language because of a significant Russian presence.
Not only did Russian not become an official language in Uzbekistan after last year’s attempt by the “elders”, but to the contrary a debate on empowering the Uzbek language has instead emerged.
The government prepared a new law which will impose a fine (approximately $44-108) on state officials and civil servants who avoid using Uzbek as a primary working language.
Maria Zakharova, the official spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, immediately reacted to this proposal by noting how much opposition existed to the bill and stating Russia’s importance in official government business.
This year, the Russian government changed its tactics and while avoiding using former Uzbek “nomenklatura” like last year, they directly stated that all Russian-language related activities will be supported such as sending Russian books to the country, opening new Russian teaching facilities, and extending quotas for Uzbek students in philology faculties in Russia.
Russian officials have generally not interfered in Uzbekistan’s business to this extent since the country’s independence. The timing is interesting considering the declaration of the country’s observer status to the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union.
It is important to recognise that Russia and Uzbekistan have major bilateral economic interests and more than 2 million Uzbeks work and study in Russia – and send much-needed remittances home.
As one of the major challenges of the post-Karimov era is to solve things like unemployment, it is natural to expect Uzbeks’ caution regarding Russia.
However, this does not mean that the sovereignty of Uzbekistan can be violated or direct Russian interference on domestic issues is acceptable.
Younger MPs in the Uzbek parliament also propose increasing the prestige of the Uzbek language by preparing bills in the native language rather than Russian and then translating it.
For a country which has increased its activity in the Turkic Council and plans to support more cultural and educational activities in the Turkic speaking community, it should be expected that the Russian language will take a backseat.
To be precise, the Uzbek heritage along with its strong Turkic background carry enough cultural weight for an educational renaissance in the region’s most populous country.
Both the new generation and defenders of the country’s sovereignty understand that without the freedom of their native language, there can be no freedom of thought.
Economic projects, memberships in Russian-led organisations nor migrants should be used as blackmail to intervene in Uzbekistan’s domestic affairs.