Writing a New Future: Kazakhstan’s Language Reforms
Sep 24, 2021
When countries become independent, they often establish the language of the majority ethnic group as the lingua francain an effort to assert a sense of national identity. For many Central Asian states, Russian was imposed as both the state language and the lingua franca under Soviet rule. Central Asian schoolchildren were subjected to five hours of compulsory Russian-language studies each day, and foreign movies and television networks were dubbed into Russian instead of the local language. About 80 percent of the Soviet Union spoke Russian in 1989, including those in Central Asia. However, the retention of Russian and the use of the Cyrillic alphabet for the region’s local languages remains a point of contention for Kazakhstan. While many hope to strengthen the usage of the Kazakh language, others are concerned that dropping Russian as the lingua franca too quickly could harm national unity.
The use of Russian in Central Asia has steadily declined since the fall of the Soviet Union. In every Central Asian state but Kazakhstan, less than half of the population can speak Russian. The diminished status of Russian is attributed to concerted efforts by Central Asian governments. In 1993, Uzbekistan adopted the Latin alphabet, although both the Latin and Cyrillic scripts have been used concurrently since its implementation. Official correspondence is written in Cyrillic while many educational institutions primarily favor Latin, meaning 30 percent of Uzbekistan’s total population received schooling with the Latin alphabet. The wide use of the Latin alphabet in Uzbekistan has prompted Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to expedite the full transition of Uzbek from Cyrillic to Latin by 2023. In addition, the decree aims to increase the hours of Uzbek language teaching to ensure that 80 percent of kindergartners can speak Uzbek by 2030. The Uzbek government aims to align itself closer with other Turkic-speaking countries that have Latinized their writing systems, a similar argument often echoed in Kazakhstan.
Turkmenistan has implemented the most stringent restrictions on the Russian language. The country was the first in the region to switch from a Cyrillic script to Latin in 1993. In 2005, Turkmenistan shuttered all Russian-language schools, claiming that only two percent of the Turkmen population were native Russian speakers. The decision to close schools dedicated to Russian-language instruction followed a previous ruling that forced ethnic Russians in Turkmenistan with dual citizenship (both Russia and Turkmenistan) to choose between the two countries. Furthermore, ethnic Russians were dismissed from their workplaces and Turkmen with degrees earned in post-Soviet regions outside Turkmenistan were fired. The limitations on the rights of ethnic Russians following language reform in Turkmenistan fuels concerns that a similar path could ensue for ethnic Russians residing in Kazakhstan.
Nevertheless, Kazakhstan’s situation is somewhat different from its regional counterparts. Russian remains the lingua franca of the country, and only 66 percent of the country reports fluency in the national Kazakh language. The considerable ethnic Russian population still residing in Kazakhstan contributes to the longevity of the Russian language in the country. About 25.9 percent of Kazakhstan’s population is ethnic Russian, a remnant of the country’s former Soviet days. In addition to a large ethnic Russian population, Kazakhstan also possesses significant communities of ethnic Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Tatars, and Germans. Kazakhstan has registered more than 100 ethnic groups living within its borders. The diverse ethnic make-up of the country and substantial ethnic Russian population complicate its ability to enact effective language reform.
Kazakhstan sharing a long border with Russia has also preserved the close bilateral relationship between the two countries. Even so, Moscow pushed back against discourse on “Kazakhification” by First President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev himself was hesitant to switch to the Latin alphabet to avoid antagonizing Russia and alienating Kazakhstan’s Slavic population. However, recently Kazakhstan has announced that it would fully switch from the Cyrillic script to the Latin alphabet starting in 2023 and ending in 2031, with a majority of Kazakhs expressing approval for the move. Residents revealed that the rising popularity of Kazakh has allowed younger generations a “high level of ethnic self-identification.” Moreover, the move could have positive geopolitical impacts. Kazakhstan’s adoption of the Latin alphabet would simplify communications with other Turkic-speaking nations that have degrees of mutual intelligibility. The adoption of the Latin alphabet and the promotion of the Kazakh language over Russian will likely enhance Kazakhstan’s identity internationally and empower its population to take further ownership of an identity that had been closely regulated for decades by the Soviet Union.