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What's Behind Kazak Language Campaign?

Calls for greater use of national language are really conduit for broader sense of dissatisfaction.
By Pyotr Svoik

The Kazak language question and the associated issue of ethnic stability in this country are of the utmost importance. What is even more important, however, is that the campaign to promote the use of Kazak is really a reflection of the dissatisfaction, anxiety and disappointment that have built up in society. 

In Kazakstan, divisions along political, social and economic lines coincide to an extent with ethnic – and specifically linguistic – distinctions.

The top positions in the political and business elite are held almost without exception by ethnic Kazaks. Most but not all speak Kazak, but while knowledge of the language is seen as an asset, it is Russian that is used in practice in official circles. In short, Russian de facto fills the role of state language.

As for the social groups that amount to a middle class, they include Kazaks, ethnic Russians and people from other communities. Some in this category speak Kazak, but all speak fluent Russian.

Finally, at the lower end of the hierarchy, one finds the bulk of Kazaks who function in their native language. When they look at what the constitution says about a state founded on historical Kazak territory and promoting their language, they are dismayed at the disconnect between this and the actual state of affairs.

It is perfectly understandable that these people identify strongly as Kazaks and want their children to be taught the language at school, although it should be remembered that members of the ruling elite and the middle class, including people of other ethnicities, share this ambition.

Shaping a broad sense of nationhood for Kazakstan, based on citizenship rather than ethnicity of the kind one sees in France, is still a work in process, and it is principally founded on Russian as the common language, with Kazak accorded a secondary role.

It is this concept that the Kazak nationalists oppose. They reject the principle of a nation founded on citizenship. In this respect, their aims hark back to the Alash Orda provisional government that tried to build a Kazak state during the Russian imperial collapse between 1917 and 1920.

For the nationalists, demands to make Kazak the dominant language in official life are simply the outward reflection of their view of state and nationhood.

Thus, we have two rival visions – the ruling elite, a clan-based oligarchic ethnocracy, which speaks of an all-embracing Kazakstan nation, and the nationalists, who see only a Kazak nation plus ethnic minorities. What sets the latter apart is that that nationalist intellectual thought overlaps with the discontent felt by the traditionally rural, impoverished Kazak population.

As an organised political force, Kazak nationalism does not exist, nor can it. First, the nationalists are themselves divided; and second, the authorities will never allow an ethnocentric party to emerge.

The nationalist tradition comes from the Soviet era, when intellectuals were permitted to express such ideas, within certain bounds, as a token gesture demonstrating the USSR’s cultural diversity. This took place behind the scenes; in public everyone had to declare loyalty to the Soviet state.

Independence in 1991 took the wind out of their sails. The new leadership appropriated Kazak identity and symbols and devised its own vision of nationhood, so that a separate nationalism was neither wanted nor needed, and became a source of concern for others.

The old guard of Soviet-era nationalists are now being challenged by a younger generation, who were educated after independence and embrace democratic values. These might be described as liberal nationalists, as they still talk about Kazak statehood and language, but take a cautious line on dealing with Moscow, and are avowed supporters of a free market economy.

The common ground shared by both old and new nationalists is their belief in a country that is first and foremost the homeland of the titular nation, and their insistence on Kazak being used in public life.

Even though it is somewhat stuck in the past, the nationalist message has more traction than the policies of conventional parties in Kazakstan. At least it reflects grassroots concerns, whereas political parties – according to their orientation – either support the current administration or just want to replace it.

There is a view that the authorities in Kazakstan are pulling the strings behind the current language campaign, but that is not true. The Kazaks who dominate the ruling elite are fearful of the nationalists gaining any ground.

As for the campaign taken in isolation, the nationalists want article 7 of the constitution to be changed so that it no longer accords Russian the same official status as Kazak in public life, government and other state institutions. (See Language Controversy in Kazakstan.) But this demand – that Kazak become the sole language of official communication – is just not practicable.

It would certainly be possible to require all official communications to be in Kazak, and to remove street signs and public notices written in Russian. But conducting government and parliamentary meetings in Kazak would turn them into a kind of performance where everything would be translated beforehand.

Nor is there much chance that Russian will be supplanted as the most widely used language simply because of the demographic shift which has turned the Kazaks from a minority into a majority over recent years.

Instead, the essence of the demand could be satisfied by changing the law to require anyone in public office to produce a certificate showing they have a command Kazak. Russian-speakers, too, should be happy with this – as long as the state provides free, affordable and effective courses in Kazak that lead to the award of such certificates.

One thing everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten about in this debate is that article 93 of the constitution already places the onus on government to facilitate universal Kazak language learning free of charge.

As for the deeper social and economic issues facing Kazaks at grassroots level, these should be addressed through a nationwide programme of modernisation that targets them specifically. Kazakstan should have a political force prepared to devise and pursue such a scheme. But no such force exists, there is no one to lead it, and no one knows what such a programme would look like. And that, in essence, is the biggest problem facing Kazakstan at the moment.

Pyotr Svoik is a member of the ruling board of the National Social Democratic Party of Kazakstan, and head of the non-government Anti- Monopoly Commission for Almaty.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of IWPR.

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