[lg policy] Why Nazarbayev Wants Kazakhs to Speak English
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Sat Jun 6 14:20:14 UTC 2015
Why Nazarbayev Wants Kazakhs to Speak English
Published by Dmitry Shlapentokh
<http://www.silkroadreporters.com/author/dmitry-shlapentokh/> June 5, 2015
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev introduced a new language policy, with
the goal of all Kazakhstan citizens being able to speak Kazakh, Russian and
English. At the same time, he stated that students in high school and
especially in university should be fluent in English.
One could regard this program as plainly cultural. Still, the cultural
aspect is only one of the dimensions. There are also broad political
implications of this decision. On the one hand, the cultural/civilizational
aspect, so to speak, of Nazarbaev’s desire to see the spread of the English
language is clear. English has become the language of international
discourse for science, culture and business.
Nazarbaev clearly wants to make Kazakhstan a part of the Western world, at
least from the cultural, scientific and economic perspective. Still, there
is a political implication driving this ambitious language policy.
Kazakhstan has emerged as a post-Soviet state, with a considerable
Russian-speaking minority, especially in the northern part of the country.
In the very beginning of Kazakhstan’s existence, the country’s elite still
entertained loyalty to Moscow and thought about a closer relationship with
At that time, the Kazakhstan elite had accepted Eurasianism as an almost
official ideological paradigm. Eurasianism is a philosophical paradigm that
emerged among the Russian émigrés in the 1920s. The point of the theory is
that Russia is neither part of the West nor Slavic worlds but “symbiosis”
of Slavs and Muslim, mostly Turkic, people , and this view of Russia had
been predominant through the late Soviet/early post- Soviet era.
In the Eurasianists’ view, Russia is a unique civilization based on the
“symbiosis” of Russians and Muslims, the latter mostly of Turkic origin.
The notion of “symbiosis does not always imply equality. In most Russian
interpretations of Eurasianism, it is the Russians who played the part of
“older brother” to ethnic minorities. In the Kazakh interpretation, the
role was reversed: it was the Kazakhs who either became equal or,
increasingly, the “older brother,” the leading ethnic group.
The increasing pressure of Kazakh nationalism started to challenge the very
notion of “symbiosis” where the element of equality have been implicitly
present. In the new interpretation, Kazakhstan was primarily a state of
ethnic Kazakhs. The other ethnic groups, including ethnic Russians, were
tolerated. Still, in this interpretation, they should understand that they
are a peculiar guest in the Kazakh house and, if they want social mobility
and good jobs, should study the Kazakh language.
This just aggravated interethnic/intercultural relationships even more; and
in the late 1990s certain Russians who used the nickname “Pugashe” after
the leader of the eighteenth-century peasant rebellion, planned to start an
uprising in North Kazakhstan with its strong ethnic Russian presence. The
uprising should have detached northern Kazakhstan from Kazakhstan and then
either created an independent state or become attached to Russia. The plot
was discovered and the ringleader received a big prison term.
In 2002, Eduard Limonov, a polemic Russian writer and politician, also
wanted to follow the Pugashev plan, albeit with certain modifications.
According to the Limonov plan, the emerging state of ethnic
Russian-Kazakhstan would be much more nationalistic than the Russian
mainland. Then “Sudeten” Russians would ignite the nationalist revolt in
Russia and would replace the Putin regime, which, at that time, Limonov
regarded as being pro-Western and, in general, quite foreign to Russian
national interests. Limonov’s plan was nipped in the bud. He was arrested
in Russia and spent some time in prison.
All of these events had demonstrated to Nazarbaev that catering to the
nationalistic feeling of the Kazak elite and increasing push for
“Kazakhization” of linguistic space could backfire and create serious
problems. At the same time, Nazarbaev, a moderate and generally enlightened
authoritarian leader, did not want to follow scenarios prevailing in many
parts of post-Soviet space and, of course, not only here. The first
scenario would imply a cautious linguistic pressure, which should have led
to emigration of most Russian-speaking Kazakhstanians.
This indeed happened in many post-Soviet spaces and, of course, in many
such countries in post-colonial Africa and Asia where considerable numbers
of Europeans departed. This departure of Russians from Kazakhstan, as
Nazarbaev understood, would lead to the loss of valuable trained cadres. A
second option implied that Russian-speaking ethnicities would be isolated
and marginalized citizens.
This was the option in some of the Baltic states, where considerable
Russian-speaking populations was discriminated against. Such a policy would
be quite dangerous, especially after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea on the
grounds of cultural/linguistic discrimination of the Russian-speaking
population. And there the stress on the importance of English as the
language of higher education and social mobility became quite handy.
Indeed, on one hand English became politically/ethnically “neutral” to both
Kazakhs and Russians. Its study is not related either to discrimination nor
In addition, both the Russian and Kazakh elite regard English as the
language of superior Western civilization or at least as the language that
opens the door to various opportunities closed to those who just knew
Russian and/or Kazakh. Thus, English emerges as the transethnic tongue that
helps to ensure the creation of a new identity based on citizenship rather
than on race/ethnicity and/or native language. One, of course, could
question how this enterprise would be implemented in reality. Still, it is
clearly a wise approach to Kazakhstan’s ethnic and cultural problem.
*Dmitry Shlapentokh is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana
University – South Bend.*
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