Kazakh language reform is only the tip of the iceberg – Popov

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April 15, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

By Eduard Popov – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev has instructed his government to urgently draw up a chart for transitioning the Kazakh alphabet to the Latin script. “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 president ordered the government. Earlier it was assumed that any switch to the Latin alphabet would happen in 2025, but plans for Latinization have apparently been accelerated by several years.

Following Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan has also talked of switching to the Latin script. A deputy from the Ata Meken fraction in Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament, Kanaybek Imanaliev, during a parliamentary session proposed to switch from Cyrillic to Latin. According to Imanaliev, Kyrgyz linguists should already start being prepared in order to painlessly transition to the Latin alphabet.

If in Kyrgyzstan transitioning to the Latin alphabet has only foggy outlines, then in Kazakhstan it has already become a part of state policy. What does this position of President Nazarbayev suggest? Does this threaten the Russian World and Eurasian integration?

Allow me to categorically state that yes, undoubtedly. Nazarbayev’s decision is directed against Russia, against the Russian World, and against Eurasian integration. Like the behavior of another “ally” of Russia in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Belorussian President Lukashenko, his loyalty to Russia is rather conditional. The decision to transition to the Latin alphabet symbolically reflects the swinging pendulum of the Kazakh government’s policy.

First and foremost, this move is aimed at ousting the Russian language from the cultural, public, and political space of Kazakhstan. In so doing, this reduces the political and social weight of the Russian and Russian-speaking population, whose share in the population of the country has declined over the 25 years of Kazakhstan’s state independence. But even in the best times for Russians, they were still denied government posts. It is sufficient to observe the look of the composition of Kazakhstan’s state delegations to be assured that there is not a single Russian among them. This reflects the real position of the Russian population in this Central Asian state which is in words seeking Eurasian integration.

For now I will purposefully not address the issue of economic integration within the CIS, where Kazakhstan (like Russia’s “union partner” Belorussia) is an active participant in such integration projects proposed by Moscow as the Eurasian Economic Union. I hope to prepare a separate article on this topic. Here we’ll limit ourselves to a brief summary: Eurasian integration brings tangible economic benefits to Russia’s allies (including Kazakhstan) by opening up the vast Russian market for their producers. A number of very senior leaders of a number of Russian state agencies responsible for economic policy in the CIS believe so. 

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But let us return to cultural-linguistic policy and its potential impact on Kazakhstan’s domestic and foreign policy.

President Nazarbayev has led his country since 1991 (and even before from 1989 he  headed the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic) and is rather old (76). Attempts to hand over power via inheritance, as was done in another Turkic state on the post-Soviet space, Azerbaijan, was not successful in Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev, unlike Aliev, has no son. This has prevented a transfer of power within the Nazarbayev clan (in one scenario his eldest daughter, Dariga, was probably considered, but was eventually eliminated). Given the advanced age of the Kazakh President, the question of succession will arise quite soon. Or rather, already now. 

Kazakhstan has long since been gripped by a split in the elite, which is still hampered by the harsh hand of Nursultan Nazarbayev. But what will happen after his death or in the case of his incapacity? Kazakhstan is relatively prosperous  compared to other Central Asian countries, but too many domestic and external problems have accumulated. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that in the North of the country live indigenous Russians, including Cossacks. So-called Northern Kazakhstan is primordial Cossack land that was transferred to the Kazakh SSR by the communists in Moscow as part of the fight against “Russian influence.” 

Just like East and Southern Ukraine, Northern Kazakhstan is historically Russian (Cossack) land. Will the Russian population of Kazakhstan maintain its loyalty to a new leader of Kazakhstan, especially if there is a split in the elite? This largely depends on what position Moscow will take. Russia could decide that ethnocracy in Kazakhstan has gone too far, or it could close its eyes to the Russian population’s discontent. It is worth recalling that Moscow suppressed the growing protest of Kazakhstan’s Russian and Cossack population, as when the prominent politician and intellectual Eduard Limonov (the only Russian politician of European standards) was arrested in 2001 on charges of possessing weapons and secretly aiding Cossacks in Northern Kazakhstan. 

Obviously, translating the Kazakh language into Latin will be perceived by Moscow as an unfriendly step. While Kazakhstan’s officers are being trained in NATO military academies, Latinization is but one side of Astana’s anti-Russian policy vector. Kazakh authorities should not think that Moscow will be satisfied by naive explanations, as Russia’s irritation by the deceit of its CIS allies is only accumulating. The Belorussian experience here is worth recalling. 

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And yet another aspect: before becoming part of Russia (which 3 Kazakh zhuz requested upon fleeing from the fury of the Dzhungar Khanate, i.e., Russia saved the ancestors of the modern Kazakhs), the Kazakhs did not have their own writing or literature. All of this appeared under and thanks to Russians. Therefore, attempts at Latinization among other things are a manifestation of ingratitude to Kazakhstan’s great Northern neighbor. Azerbaijan also went down this path, acquiring its writing thanks to Russian linguists, but it is Kazakhstan that at the same time claims a higher status of relations with Russia, whereas Azerbaijan is closer to Turkey than Russia. On the symbolic level, official Astana is itself reducing its status from being Russia’s ally to Russia’s neighbor. 

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