[lg policy] Kazakhstan: Astana Faces Unsettling Language Debate
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Thu Sep 15 13:41:44 UTC 2011
Kazakhstan: Astana Faces Unsettling Language Debate
September 14, 2011 - 1:40pm, by Joanna Lillis
One third of residents in Kazakhstan do not speak Kazakh. (Photo: Dean C.K. Cox)
Russian-language newspapers and magazines are displayed at a newsstand
in the Kazakh capital Astana in mid 2006. One third of residents do
not speak Kazakh in a country where Russian is constitutionally
protected as being equal with Kazakh in government institutions.
(Photo: Dean C.K. Cox)
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has staked his political
reputation largely on his ability to foster domestic stability amid
regional turbulence. That sense of tranquility is coming under growing
pressure in Kazakhstan, with the latest challenge generated by an
impassioned debate over language policy.
This past summer saw Kazakhstani authorities grapple with labor unrest
and extremist activity in western regions. The language debate
threatens to unsettle northern Kazakhstan, an area that is home to
large concentrations of Russian speakers.
The language row erupted on August 29, when 138 public figures
including politicians, writers and intellectuals published an open
letter to President Nazarbayev and other top officials, calling on the
government to be more aggressive about promoting the Kazakh language.
Most controversially, the letter called for the removal of a clause in
the constitution stating that “the Russian language is officially used
equally with Kazakh in state bodies.” The bid to abolish the
Russian-language provision caused an outcry, with vocal accusations of
language discrimination and dire warnings of a brain drain to Russia.
Some signatories to the letter distanced themselves from the call to
change the constitution, while others insisted that an effort to
promote Kazakh does not imply infringing on the rights of other
“We have never spoken out against other languages,” Mukhtar Shakhanov,
head of the Memlekettik Til (State Language) organization and one of
the signatories, told the Vremya tabloid on September 6. “The people
should also know Kazakh. … Surely we can stand up for that?”
Shakhanov offset his conciliatory stance with the barbed comment that
some in Kazakhstan “do not understand that the Kazakh people are also
a people, and this people has a language.”
His remarks revealed deep-seated resentments over the position of
Kazakh among some sections of society in Kazakhstan, where Russian
continues to dominate in the public discourse two decades after the
country gained independence.
Some Kazakh speakers bridle at what they see as insufficient state
efforts to redress the situation, and as unwillingness among some
citizens to learn Kazakh.
The letter should be viewed in the context of this simmering rancor,
suggests Amirzhan Kosanov, deputy leader of the opposition OSDP Azat
party. “This, I would say, is a cry from the heart, an attempt to
attract the authorities’ attention, by radical means, to the true
position of the Kazakh language in society,” he told the Guljan news
website on September 9. Kosanov suggested that the crux of the problem
is that Kazakh’s de facto position in Kazakhstan does not match its
legal status as the state language.
Signatories from his party were among those to distance themselves
from the controversial letter. The names of OSDP Azat co-leaders
Zharmakhan Tuyakbay and Bolat Abilov appeared on the document, but the
party said it had never agreed to a draft of the letter containing the
inflammatory call to change the constitution. Some other signatories
offered similar explanations.
The only reaction from the president’s office to date has come from
Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, Nazarbayev’s high-profile adviser, who
described the letter as “anti-constitutional,” “illegal,” and liable
to provoke a “split.”
He also accused politicians of “politicking” ahead of parliamentary
elections scheduled for next summer. This suggests that, as
Kazakh-language lobbyists grow more vocal, Astana is anxious to avoid
any nationalist-related discourse as the vote approaches.
Astana is conscious that language is a potent electoral issue in a
situation where Russian remains for Kazakhstan a lingua franca of
necessity. According to data from the 2009 census, only 64 percent of
Kazakhstan’s 16.5-million population speak Kazakh, against 94 percent
who understand Russian. This ratio is largely a legacy of the Soviet
strategy of promoting Russian at the expense of other languages of
formerly Soviet peoples.
The census also revealed that only 14 percent of people are trying to
learn Kazakh. By implication that suggests nearly a quarter of the
population is making no effort to study the state language. Kazakh is
an obligatory subject in all schools, but – with children still
leaving school unable to communicate in Kazakh a generation after
independence – the quality of language instruction is open to
“School leavers have a very weak level of Kazakh, and it is not
improving with every year, unfortunately,” Layla Yermenbayeva, a
Kazakh-language lecturer at Almaty’s Kazakhstan Institute of
Management, Economics and Strategic Research (KIMEP), told
Astana has spent large sums on promoting Kazakh-language learning,
financing hi-tech study materials and opening free learning centers
around the country. This year it adopted a strategy containing
ambitious targets to raise the number of adults speaking Kazakh to 80
percent by 2017 and 95 percent by 2020.
Nazarbayev presents the Kazakh language as a unifying factor for
society – although any discussion of language issues tends to provoke
The latest trouble over language came on the heels of another dispute
that erupted earlier in the summer, when a draft of planned amendments
to language legislation was leaked to the press, sparking concerns
that the use of Russian in official bodies would be banned starting in
2013. The leak caused rancorous Internet exchanges, forcing Gaziz
Telebayev, a deputy culture minister in charge of drafting the
legislation, to step in to ease concerns.
Denying the existence of plans to limit the use of Russian, he pointed
out that the debate itself was revealing. “It is upsetting that public
opinion evaluates the transition to the state language negatively,”
Telebayev told the Megapolis newspaper. “What does the polemic that
erupted on the Internet show? That unfortunately there are quite a few
of our fellow citizens who believe that they don’t need the Kazakh
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