Staunton, February 24 – The Kazakhstan government has recommitted itself to replacing its Cyrillic-based alphabet with a Latin-based one by 2025, a step Astana views as necessary to integrate the country into the international community but one that Moscow views as the latest effort by Kazakhstan to leave the Russian orbit or at a minimum reinforce its independence.
In a “Novaya gazeta” article significantly entitled “Goodbye, Russian World,” journalist Vyacheslav Polovinko suggests that the latest Astana moves may be only part of the current election campaign in that Central Asian country but that they are a clear signal to Russia of where Kazakhstan is heading (novayagazeta.ru/politics/71942.html).
Last week, Kazakhstan’s culture minister, Arustanbek Mukhamediuly said that Astana has “already adopted an official program” to replace the Cyrillic script with a Latin one and that this program will be carried out “exactly on time by 2025,” although he conceded that many details of the transition must still be worked out.
“The national specifics of the pronunciation of Kazakh letters require additional decisions,” the minister said. “This is not simple [and it won’t be inexpensive] but it is necessary to integrate in the least painful way in the international community.”
According to Polovinko, Russian analysts believe that two things are behind this latest Astana commitment: “the authorities are again playing with national groups before elections, and at the same time are sending a signal to Moscow about their desire to escape the orbit of ‘the Russian world.’”
Kazakhstan has previous experience with the Latin script. In the 1920s, the Soviets introduced a Latin-base script for it and other Turkic peoples in order to wean them off Arabic and promote a rapid growth in literacy. But then in the 1930s, Stalin imposed a Cyrillic script on all of them.
That meant, Gasan Guseynov of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics says, that since that time, “all contacts of the bearers of Turkic languages with the rest of the world were realized through Russian mediation,” something that restricted their own importance and offended many of them as well.
Indeed, in the words of Dos Kushim, a Kazakh analyst, recently, “the Cyrillic alphabet [has been] like a cursed mark of Russian colonialism” (365info.kz/2016/02/dos-kushim-sejchas-ne-vremya-perehodit-na-latinitsu/). And since 1991, Kazakh intellectuals and the government have talked about making a shift to the Latin script.
The major question for Moscow, Polovinko says, is why Astana is choosing to take this step just now. Some Russian analysts blame the Turks because “for Russia which now nervously reacts to everything Turkish, the shift of Kazakhstan from ‘Russian’ Cyrillic to ‘Turkish’ Latin is a quite painful step.”
Arkady Dubnov, a specialist on Central Asia, says that Kazakhs have a natural interest in promoting their national identity but that Russian government statements about the Russian world and the importance of Cyrillic in maintaining it are pushing them to move in this direction even more rapidly than they otherwise would.
Three years ago, Vyacheslav Pugachev, who was then head of the Russian agency for CIS affairs, said that “even specialists do not understand why” Kazakhstan has been talking about shifting to the Latin script because “the Western world which uses Latin is losing its political and cultural influence in the world” (glavcom.ua/news/134049.html).
Looking forward, Guseynov adds that this step will certainly introduce a certain number of problems in the relationship between Kazakhstan and Russia, not least of which will be new pressures from the Turkic peoples on the territory of the Russian Federation to make this change as well, something they are currently prohibited by Russian law from doing.
And he hopes that Astana will back off after the current election campaign. Indeed, he says, it may be that talk about shifting from Cyrillic to Latin may be nothing more than a campaign slogan, especially given that Nursultan Nazarbayev has warned against offending Russian speakers there – a clear case, he says, of a politician trying to have it both ways.