Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazakstan: Language Tensions Mount

Ban on official use of Russian in southern region rattles non-Kazak speakers.
By Gaziza Baituova
Russian-speakers in the Jambyl region of southern Kazakstan are facing a bureaucratic nightmare. Almost overnight, any dealing with officialdom has to be conducted in Kazak - a language few of them understand.

“I wanted to submit a complaint to the authorities, but after looking at my letter the security guard refused to let me into the offices because it wasn’t written in the state language,” said Yadmin Yaroslavova, a Taraz resident.

At the end of May, the deputy governor of the region, Kenesbek Demeshev suddenly announced that Kazak would be the sole language used for local government business, leaving the non-Kazak community, just under a third of Jambyl’s population, bewildered and angry.

“This is a direct violation of Kazak laws,” complained Yaroslavova. She has a point: Russian and Kazak are both official languages, although the latter has higher status as the “state language”.

The governor’s draconian ruling brings into sharp focus a long-running debate over the Kazak language that threatens to alienate the country’s Slav nationalities.

Although Kazak is officially the principal language of local government business in the Jambyl region, as opposed to many other provinces which are required to make the transition by 2010, the state programme that set out the process in 2001 made it clear that documents submitted in Russian would continue to be acceptable across the country.

Ever since independence, efforts have been made to encourage Kazak language usage. But these have been mostly poorly-executed. As a result, the use of Kazak has diminished while the number of people who count themselves as Russian speakers has steadily grown – today they represent 85 per cent of the population.

Attempts to encourage the use of Kazak have included special programmes for civil servants, teaching materials for schools and an insistence that television stations give equal time to Kazak- and Russian-language broadcasts.

But civil servants have complained of badly organised courses; teachers have been critical of the quality of the materials they have been asked to use; while broadcasters have sneaked the Kazak programmes into overnight schedules when audiences are negligible.

Notwithstanding the lack of progress on this front, the Jambyl authorities’ decision to take such drastic action has been greeted with incredulity.

Some have suggested that they panicked after money allocated by central government for the development of the Kazak language had been used for other purposes, such as sprucing up the city of Taraz.

Demeshev may have also calculated that his move would not provoke too much of a storm since Kazaks make up 69 per cent of the local population - one of the highest concentrations of the indigenous ethnic group anywhere in the country.

But whatever his thinking, non-government groups and cultural organisations were keen to make their feelings known, railing against the edict in a joint memorandum on June 19.

“No one will convince us that restricting the use of Russian will in any way assist the development of Kazak, just as one nationality [ethnic group] cannot flourish by infringing the rights of others,” said Svetlana Chautina, the head of the Russian community in Taraz.

It’s unclear how the government will respond to the Jambyl episode, but there are signs that it wants to devote more energy to encouraging the use of Kazak – it has instructed the committee for languages, which comes under the culture ministry of culture, to come up with new approaches to the problem.

“Russian is the most widely used language in Kazakstan, while the state language is in second place. We must maintain the level of use of Russian, and by 2010 bring the development of the Kazak language to the same level,” said culture and information minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev.

Government critics are not convinced by such pledges, suggesting that there is little reason to believe officials when their record on promoting Kazak over the years has been so poor.

“We have ministers who don’t know Kazak - what can we expect from ordinary citizens?” said Dos Kushim, the leader of the nationalist political movement Ult Dabyly (Destiny of the Nation).

In particular, Kushim berates the education and culture ministries for failing to deliver on targets set in the late Nineties, and says there must be more of a focus on using television to boost Kazak language use.

“Television channels must obey the law and give 50 per cent of airtime to broadcasts in Kazak, as the law requires. There must be an end to the tendency for a number of television channels to run these programmes [after] midnight,” said Kushim.

Kushim and his supporters insist that if real progress is to be made, the 1997 law on languages which effectively gave Russian and Kazak parity should be replaced by new legislation whose clear objective is the revival of the local language, “We would like all of Kazakstan’s citizens to know Kazak just as well as Russian.”

Such talk alarms organisations which represent other ethnic groups, who point out that maintaining the linguistic balance is vital for ethnic harmony.

“A revision of language laws will lead to the departure of the Russian population and provoke conflicts within Kazakstan,” warned Ivan Klimoshenko, the head of the Slavic group Lad.

Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR correspondent in Taraz.

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