Experts fear Kazakhstan’s switch to Latin alphabet contradicts Eurasian integration


April 14, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

Sergey Aksenov, Svobodnaya Pressa – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has instructed the government to urgently draw up a chart for translating the Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic into Latin.

“By the end of 2017, following consultations with scholars and representatives of the public, a uniform standard for a new Kazakh alphabet and Latin chart should be developed,” the Kazakh leader urged his subordinates. Earlier, it was assumed that any translation of the Kazakh language into the Latin script would be done in 2025. Nazarbayev did not clarify what has urged such a rush.

The Kazakh President added: “Starting in 2018, experts should be prepared for teaching the new alphabet and publishing textbooks for secondary schools. In the next two years, we must carry out organizational and methodological work.” Moreover, he promised for the first time that the Latin would be used alongside the Cyrillic.

In giving these instructions, Nazarbayev referred to the Soviet experience when for several years before the Great Patriotic War, the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic used the Latin alphabet. The “three languages doctrine” is currently in effect in Kazakhstan, where English is actively promoted alongside Kazakh and Russian.

According to the director of the Risk Assessment Group, Dosym Satpaev, Kazakhstan needs to transition to the Western script in order to “more quickly adapt to the international information space, where Latin is more often and more actively used.” 

Meanwhile, Kazakh authorities have denied suspicions of political reasons behind this change. As explained by the Minister of Internal Affairs of Kazakhstan, Erlan Idrisov, the matter at hand is “routine work.” In Moscow in 2013, the minister promised: “The President spoke about this five to ten years ago. This is an absolutely normal process, and I want to ask you to help us dispel the myths about alleged geopolitical shifts. This is not even close.”

The linguist, Turkologist, and correspondent member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Anna Dybo, believes that transitioning the Kazakh alphabet to the Latin script could be harmful: “Generally speaking, any writing reform to preserve a language and cultural tradition is a definite evil because it results in functional illiteracy for a significant part of the population which was literate before. It must be understood that the Kazakh government will have to quickly re-publish all literature, including scientific works which were published in the Kazakh language in the Soviet period, such as the essays on Kazakh dialectology by Sarsen Amonzholov…There is quite a lot of such literature. Such hardly needs to be ‘thrown off the bandwagon of modernity.”…

When asked whether the Latin script would supply Kazakh culture with any potential for modernization, Dybo explained: “Only ideologically. They’ll now be oriented towards the Western world. Hurrah! They’ll write with the same alphabet as the English and Americans, except not at all because they can’t get on without additional characters. It is clear that there are no real grounds to write in English style. Such is negligible. But ideologically, this shows a turn towards Western civilization away from Soviet civilization. This is an orientation away from Russia, which can now serve as an example of modernization unlike the Soviet Union before. In fact, the whole of Soviet socio-linguistics with the rights of minority languages still today impresses Europeans. Our law on languages is better than the European Charter.”

The general director of the Eurasian Economic Union Institute, Vladimir Lepekhin, sees far-reaching, negative consequences in Kazakhstan’s rapprochement with the West to the detriment of Eurasian integration. “From my point of view, this is a mistake on the part of Kazakhstan’s leadership. I myself take a pro-Eurasian position and, as follows, a pro-Kazakhstan position as well. In my view, it is completely normal for any state to strengthen its national patterns. Language and writing script are such patterns. Therefore, if the leadership of Kazakhstan were to introduce some kind of national script by digging deep into its history, its Turkic basis, instead of Cyrillic, then I would welcome this, because it strengthens national identity, and Slavo-Turkic cooperation is entirely organic in the framework of Eurasian cooperation. But this is an orientation towards the Latin script, which has nothing to do with Eurasianism.”

Lepekhin continued: “Apparently, Kazakhstan’s leadership has considered this some kind of cosmetic measure associated with the general trend towards globalization. But in the end this destroys national identity, splitting the nation into those who support a unique national path and those who favor a cosmopolitan approach. This is noticeable even now as Kazakh youth travel to the West to study or work and, upon returning home, start to negatively – with disdain even – treat their peers because they’re ‘not like Europe.’ This reinforces divisions within Kazakhstan. To succeed in the world, it is better to reinforce one’s own cultural uniqueness, and not try to reformat it – you can’t reformat. You can only destroy. Civilizational foundations cannot be reformatted.”

When asked why, then, this is being done, Lepekhin replied: “I think that some advisors, who are making sure that Kazakhstan cooperates with the West with some kind of argumentation or perhaps proposals of a commercial or political nature, are pushing the leadership of Kazakhstan towards this step. I do not think that this is conscious destruction of the Eurasian trend. This is a mistake.”

The economist and politician Mikhail Delyagin believes that “This is terrible news for Russia, since an alphabet is directly involved in forming cultural codes, and translating a language into the Latin script means a cultural departure towards the West. And this is being done not in the heat of nationalism and Russophobia as was done, for example, in Moldova or some of the countries of former Yugoslavia, but ‘in sound mind and memory’ as part of systematic state policy.”

Delyagin explained further: “Strictly speaking, this is a very clear expressions of the current leadership of Kazakhstan’s attitude towards the Eurasian Economic Union and integration with Russia overall. They want to profit from cooperation with us, but the future of Kazakhstan and the Kazakh people (as well as that of all the other peoples who have a future in this country) are being latched to the West. Blaming Nazarbayev for this is ridiculous. He cares about his country and his people, and as a representative of the steppe and Soviet cultures, he clearly sees the inadequacy and weakness of the modern Russian state in which urges for reason and insisting on national interests in foreign policy are undermined by a comprador ‘offshore aristocracy’ wanting to see Russia become a colony of the West and destroy it with the merciless liberal socio-economic policies of the 1990’s.”

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“Such a Russia,” in Delyagin’s opinion, “has no future either for itself or for others. The only proper response Russia and its people can have towards this step by Kazakhstan is improving and normalizing the state, setting it on track to serve the people of Russia, finish the 30-year-era of national betrayal, and transition from looting to building the country. Only once we create a Russian project for ourselves can it be proposed to others as a political choice.” 

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