Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Sep 14 12:30:03 UTC 2007

Paul Bartlett: 9/04/07

Even as Kazakhstan maintains close economic and political ties with
Russia, Astana is moving ahead with plans to replace Cyrillic script
with the Latin alphabet. A feasibility study prepared over the summer
proposes that the alphabet change be phased in over a 12-to-15-year

President Nursultan Nazarbayev revived the possibility of an alphabet
switch last fall, requesting that the Ministry of Education and
Science examine the experiences of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan
and Uzbekistan, which have all changed to Latin letters. The
ministry's proposed action plan is based primarily on the model used
in Uzbekistan. It calls for a six-step program, outlining cost
estimates for retraining the country's workforce to read Latin script,
and changing signs on streets and public buildings. The overall cost
of switching is estimated at $300 million.

Some experts believe the final cost could be much higher. The ministry
report, for example, provided no estimate for the cost of changing
official documents and re-printing official forms and materials. The
publishing sector could also assume substantial costs connected with
changing equipment. Along with the usual arguments for alphabet
change, in particular promoting the country's integration into the
global economy, officials have argued that a Latin alphabet could help
Kazakhstan forge a more cohesive national identity, moving it out from
under Russia's shadow.

"Switching the Kazakh alphabet to Latin means for Kazakhs changing the
Soviet (colonial) identity, which still largely dominates the national
consciousness, to a sovereign (Kazakh) identity," the report stated.
"Among the many arguments in favor of switching the Kazakh alphabet to
Latin, boosting the national identity of the Kazakh people is the main
and decisive one."

This explicit statement marks a break with Kazakhstan's earlier,
low-key approach to discussing the switch to Latin. While Azerbaijan,
Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan acted quickly after the 1991 Soviet
collapse to embrace Latin script, Kazakhstan took a more cautious
route: it did not want to alienate its large Russian-speaking
population. In addition, officials felt that with the country in the
grip of economic crisis in the early 1990s, changing the alphabet at
that time was not a fiscally justifiable move.

The report pulls no punches in identifying the Cyrillic alphabet as
being a major barrier to developing a Kazakh national identity: "It
[Cyrillic] facilitated and facilitates the orientation of the Kazakh
national consciousness towards the Russian language and Russian
culture. As a result, Kazakh identity as such remains largely
undefined. On this level, moving to Latin will make it possible to
form a clearer national identity for Kazakhs."

Another reason for the switch is linked to the representation of the
sounds of the Kazakh language. "In many cases the phonetic nature of
Kazakh is not shown according to Cyrillic script," Professor Kobey
Khusayn, director of the Academy of Sciences' Institute of
Linguistics, told EurasiaNet in an interview. As a result, he said,
certain Kazakh sounds are not properly represented and this leads to
difficulties with correct pronunciation. The introduction of Cyrillic
in 1940 was "imposed from above" for ideological reasons, he added,
with no consideration of how this alphabet suited the Kazakh language.

The plan for switching to Latin will have a five-year preparatory
stage, during which the practicalities will be worked out. The next
step will see publications being printed using the new alphabet,
alongside the existing one for the initial changeover period, and the
working-age population will be trained in using the new script.
Teaching materials using Latin will be introduced into the country's
school system. The final phase will be the consolidation of Latin as
the Kazakh language in Cyrillic fades from public use.

Kazinform, the state news agency, has already set a precedent for the
use of Latin for Kazakh: it offers a newswire using both the Latin and
Cyrillic alphabets for the Kazakh language, with the Latin version
aimed at non-Russian-speaking ethnic Kazakhs in countries such as
China, Mongolia and Iran.

The switch to Latin is unlikely to be a problem for the younger
generation in Kazakhstan. Many school children already study foreign
languages, such as English and German, and are thus familiar with
Latin letters. However, older members of society may need to be
targeted in order to ensure that they do not get left behind in the

With the country awash with petrodollars from its booming energy
sector, financing the switch should not be a problem. It remains to be
seen, however, whether officials will retain the political will to
press ahead, given that the measure could cause disruption at home,
and seems likely to vex one of Kazakhstan's key allies, Russia. [For
background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Editor's Note: Paul Bartlett is an Almaty-based freelance writer
specialising in education issues.


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