National Identity

Kazakstan Table of Contents

As in the other Central Asian republics, the preservation of indigenous cultural traditions and the local language was a difficult problem during the Soviet era. The years since 1991 have provided opportunities for greater cultural expression, but striking a balance between the Kazak and Russian languages has posed a political dilemma for Kazakstan's policy makers.


The two official languages in Kazakstan are Russian and Kazak. Kazak is part of the Nogai-Kipchak subgroup of northeastern Turkic languages, heavily influenced by both Tatar and Mongol. Kazak was first written only in the 1860s, using Arabic script. In 1929 Latin script was introduced. In 1940 Stalin decided to unify the written materials of the Central Asian republics with those of the Slavic rulers by introducing a modified form of Cyrillic. In 1992 the return of a Latin-based alphabet came under discussion, but the enormous costs involved appear to have stopped further consideration of the idea.

Kazak first became a state language in the late Soviet period, when few of the republic's Russians gave serious thought to the possibility that they might need Kazak to retain their employment, to serve in the armed forces, or to have their children enter a Kazakstani university. At that point, fewer than 5 percent of Russians could speak Kazak, although the majority of Kazaks could speak Russian. However, with the separation between Russia and Kazakstan that followed independence, Russian nationalist sentiment and objections to alleged discrimination in official language policies have increased, especially in the north, as Russians have felt the threat of Kazak becoming the sole legal state language. Meanwhile, Kazaks have strongly defended the preeminence of their tongue, although mastery of the language is far from universal even among Kazaks. According to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the Kazak population is not fluent in Kazak. The standard language of business, for example, is Russian.

Even those who are fluent find Kazak a difficult language to work with in science, business, and some administrative settings because it remained largely a "kitchen" language in Soviet times, never developing a modern technical vocabulary. Nor has there been extensive translation of technical or popular literature into Kazak. Thus, for most Kazaks Russian remains the primary "world language." In fact, President Nazarbayev defended making Kazak the sole official language on the grounds that decades of Russification had endangered the survival of Kazak as a language. The practical primacy of Russian is reflected in the schools. Despite efforts to increase the number of schools where Kazak is the primary language of instruction, Russian appeared to continue its domination in the mid-1990s. In 1990 about twice as many schools taught in Russian as in Kazak. Although institutions of higher learning now show a strong selection bias in favor of Kazak students, Russian remains the language of instruction in most subjects.

The issue of languages is one of the most politicized and contentious in Kazakstan. The volatility of the language issue has been augmented by Russia's controversial proposals, beginning in 1993, that Kazakstan's Russians be granted dual citizenship. Although Nazarbayev rejected such a policy, the language controversy prompted him to postpone deadlines for implementation of laws making Kazak the sole official language. Thus, it is unlikely that most adult non-Kazaks will have to learn Kazak. Nevertheless, demographic trends make it probable that the next generation will have to learn Kazak, a prospect that generates considerable discomfort in the non-Kazak population. The 1995 constitution does not provide for dual citizenship, but it does alleviate Russian concerns by declaring Russian an official language. That status means that Russian would continue as the primary language of communication for many ethnic Kazaks, and it will remain acceptable for use in schools (a major concern of Russian citizens) and official documents.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress