Nazarbayev’s Call for Latin Alphabet for Kazakh Worries Russia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 54

(Source: sputniknews)

Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev authored an article, on April 12, in the government-owned newspaper Egemen Kazakhstan (in Kazakh: Independent Kazakhstan) under the intriguing title “Looking Into the Future: Modernization of Public Conscience.” The phrase “public conscience” actually stands for the way Kazakhstani citizens view themselves in the world and identify with their country. Nazarbayev has long called for a change of outlook given the effects of globalization, Eurasian integration and Kazakhstan’s increased role in regional affairs. While his article is, as could be expected, full of grandiloquent promises to strengthen Kazakh cultural identity while pursuing modernization in all notable spheres, Nazarbayev also touches upon a particularly sensitive linguistic issue. Specifically, the president suggests changing the current Kazakh alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin. The whole process, he declares, needs to be finalized by 2025, but an active propagation of the new script will commence with the state’s backing as early as 2018. The government’s policy input is due by then (,, April 12).

The Latin alphabet was used in Kazakhstan between 1929 and 1940, when Soviet authorities decided it was time to switch back to Cyrillic. In fact, a special, so-called “missionary” version of Cyrillic had been developed in the 19th century by learned Russian immigrants settled in Kazakh lands as part of the geographic expansion of the Russian Empire into Central Asia. A prominent Kazakh educator, Ybray Altynsarin, had greatly contributed to the mass introduction of Cyrillic among native Kazakh speakers. It was in use until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Prior to that, Kazakhs had been using a 29-character Arabic script with a few modifications to reflect phonetic specificities. Written Arabic had been present throughout Kazakhstan since the tenth century. For Nazarbayev, the 1940 decision to return to Cyrillic was purely “political” and did not reflect the cultural reality of Kazakhstan nor its linguistic history (, April 14;, April 12).

The domestic debate about a transition to Latin has been underway since 2007, when then–culture minister, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, publicly voiced Nazarbayev’s thoughts. Since then, this issue has regularly reappeared in the official discourse, only to be quickly forgotten again due to a lack of concrete follow-through proposals. In 2013, a group of linguists and well-known individuals from the arts and academia published an open letter criticizing any change of script, citing the unintended consequences of such a move. Among them, the letter authors suggested, a change to the Latin alphabet would generate additional difficulties that ordinary Kazakhs would encounter in trying to master their own tongue. Under the 1995 Constitution (revised in 1997, 2007, 2010 and 2017), which is currently in force, Kazakh is the official language, while Russian has the status of a “language of inte-rethnic communication” (, April 5, 2017;, February 13, 2013;, February 3, 2007).

In reality, Russian is still widely used today in the media, education, healthcare and science. While Kazakh is massively spoken in rural areas, Russian remains dominant in the urban setting. Many young people are unable to speak Kazakh fluently, because their parents either do not know the language themselves or made a voluntary decision to not teach it at a time when it did not seem to serve any particular purpose. A special phrase even exists in Kazakhstan to designate those not using their language in daily life—“shala Kazakh” (“shala” means “raw” or “incomplete”), in contrast with “nagyz” or “true” Kazakhs. It is also not uncommon for Kazakhs to recognize each other’s regional provenance by the level of proficiency in the official language. Natives of western and southern provinces are usually confident Kazakh speakers, whereas those who come from northern and eastern Kazakhstan, where Russia’s cultural influence has been strongest, prefer Russian instead (, April 20, 2012).

The most important question today is what is driving President Nazarbayev’s thinking. To many, it mirrors his desire to wean Kazakhstan away from Russia, even though the two countries are founding members of several high-profile regional organizations, such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The Russian government has so far abstained from commenting on the story. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special representative for cultural affairs, former culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoy, only said that abandoning Cyrillic in favor of Latin could further detach many Kazakhs from the Russian language. Meanwhile, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a pro-government newspaper, published an article entitled “Kazakhstan’s Transition to Latin is a Signal for Russia.” Others went further, such as Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular Russian daily. It released an interview with Daniil Kislov, the editor-in-chief of the Fergana News Agency, whom it identified as its own “expert”; Kislov said that Kazakhstan would eventually find itself in a state of cultural and economic “backwardness” (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 18; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 13; Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 12).

In contrast, some Kazakh experts believe that the move is well-calculated and will result in “de-colonization,” meaning a radical departure from the former master, Russia. “This is a symbolic decision that will accompany Kazakhstan’s exit from the Russian orbit known as Russkiy Mir [the ‘Russian World’],” Almaty-based political scientist Aydos Sarym told the media. While this may be true to a certain extent, Nazarbayev’s main motive is probably concerned more with reaching out to Turkey than escaping from Russia. In 2009, Turkey, Kazakhstan and a number of fellow countries from Central Asia and the South Caucasus founded the Turkic Cooperation Council. Kazakhstan has long been associating itself with the Turkic world and counts Turkey among its closest friends and trade partners (, April 13;, April 12).

Although Turkey has a troubled relationship with Europe, it stands on the doorstep to the West; hence, the country is seen as the ultimate role model in Kazakhstan. Making the transition from Cyrillic to Latin could potentially help Kazakh become more accessible to foreigners and better integrate Kazakhs into the global information space. It is a tall order, and the road will be bumpy. Azerbaijan successfully implemented its own transition in the early 1990s, followed by a less fortunate Turkmenistan where a new, slightly adjusted script was introduced in 2000. Uzbekistan has been experimenting with Cyrillic and Latin for almost 20 years and only recently started printing new banknotes with Latin characters. It bears noting that all the above post-Soviet countries have—to a greater or lesser extent—exited the Russian orbit of influence, drifting toward Turkey or into neutrality. Only time will show where Kazakhstan’s journey will end (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, April 13;, April 12).