As expected, Tajikistan has adopted legislation to downgrade the official status of the Russian language in a move that has reportedly had the country’s minorities up in arms.

Theories abound as to what might have provoked this reform; most of them pointing to malicious anti-Russian intent on Dushanbe’s part. Proponents of the modified law insist, however, that there is no chauvinism implicit in the measure and that the use of Russian remain enshrined in the constitution.

So what exactly is it that changed as of Wednesday, when the law came into effect.

Most notably, Tajik citizens are now legally bound to know Tajik, although how this will be policed is anyone’e guess.

Russian news agency Interfax explains further:

The bill also compels to use the official language when writing law, managing paperwork, conducting social events, research, posting announcements and advertisements, in official correspondence between country’s citizens, and in naming all companies and institutions regardless of the form of ownership. The current law (ed: old law) allows to use Russian at trials, in letters to authorities and governmental agencies, and to use Uzbek in the areas populated mainly by ethnic Uzbeks.

On the face of it, there seems to be substantial grounds for believing that this is an intended slight at Moscow, whose relations with Tajikistan have been strained amid disagreement over an array of issues.

Among these is the matter of reported Tajik demands for payment to host Russia’s 201st military base. Dushanbe routinely attempts to scotch such speculation, but the stubbornness with which this question lingers makes it clear that Moscow will have to settle this expectation at some date. Apart from financial considerations, however, Russia evidently feels that President Emomali Rakhmon should be grateful for the presence of the 201st, which saved his bacon on more than one occasion in the more turbulent times.

"What did you say?"

"What did you say?"

And it all seemed so rosy and promising last year. In August 2008, ahead of the annual SCO summit, hosted in Dushanbe, Russian President Medvedev and Rakhmon pledged to boost their strategic partnership, jointly explore for gas in Tajikistan and make the development of the hydropower industry a priority. Russia’s commitment was put into action in July, when Medvedev inaugurated the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant, which could eventually provide power-starved Tajikistan with up to 12 percent of its annual electricity production.

As bright the prospects for Sangtuda might be, the Tajiks had set their aims higher. Until the Russians went and spoiled things, that is.

During a visit to Uzbekistan in January, Medvedev cautioned unnamed Central Asian states _ implicitly upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan _ against exploiting their water resources without consulting regional neighbors.

This is important for Tajikistan, since it will struggle to complete its ambitious hydropower station on the Rogun river without Moscow’s financial backing. Russia had pledged to stump up the cash for the project, but those promises appear to have run aground amid disagreement over commercial terms and Moscow’s keenness to keep Uzbekistan sweet.

But is it likely that this is what lies behind the language law, or could Dushanbe be serious about this one.

The respected Prof. Lutz Rzehak

The respected Prof. Lutz Rzehak

Speaking to Deutsche Welle’s Russian service, Tajik language expert Lutz Rzehak from Berlin’s Humboldt State broadly supports an initiative that he thinks only meets the requirements of the mostly non-Russian speaking population.

As he also notes, since the adoption of the original language law back in 1989, the demographic make-up of the country has changed radically, so the re-evaluation of the Tajik language simply reflects the real situation in the country.

But what then of the million or so ethnic Uzbeks that live in Tajikistan, which easily outnumber the 50,000-odd Slavs? Granted, Uzbek could not be endowed with the status of a language of “inter-ethnic communication,” the unwieldy term preferred by Tajik officials. As the presumed tongue of choice of a sizeable minority, however, it certainly deserves greater formal acknowledgement than it receives.

And we should not forget the Pamiris peoples of the Gorno-Badakshan autonomous region, who constitute yet more distinct ethnic and linguistic entities.

Like all hasty legislation, this Tajik law has quite blithely overlooked the concerns over whole swathes of the country, and perhaps that is no mistake.

Even if this is nothing more than a belated assay at manufacturing a consolidated pan-Tajik, which is perhaps a questionable project when conducted in this fashion, there remains a distinct impression that horse has been put before the cart.

As if the country’s higher education institutes were not already in a state of utter shambles, those same universities will now presumably be compelled to conduct instruction exclusively in Tajik. Most advanced textbooks are in Russian, and that there is little prospect that will change any time soon.

The only tangible outcome this law seems likely to wreak is that of accelerating the process of transforming Tajikistan into a nation of monolingual semi-literates.

Unless the Tajik government has a trick up its sleeve, which seems highly unlikely, the outlook looks grim.