Kazakh and Russian

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 Kazakh and Russian languages have posed a political dilemma for Kazakhstan's policy makers.

Kazakh and Russian are the two official languages in Kazakhstan. Kazakh is part of the Nogai-Kipchak subgroup of northern Turkic languages, heavily influences by both Tatar and Mongol. Kazakh 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.

Kazakh first became a state language in the late Soviet period, when few of the republic's Russians gave serious thoughts to the possibility that they might need Kazakh to retain their employment, to serve in the armed forces, or to have their children enter a Kazakhstani university. At that point, almost fewer than 5 percent of Russians could speak Kazakh, although the majority of Kazakhs could speak Russian. However, after our independence Russian-speaking people feel discriminated for not knowing Kazakh. Meanwhile, Kazakhs have strongly defended the preeminence of their tongue, although mastery of the language is far from universal even among Kazakhs. According to some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the Kazakh population is not fluent in Kazakh. The standard language of business, for example, is Russian. Even those who are fluent find Kazakh 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 Kazakh. Thus, for most Kazakhs Russian remains the primary "world language". In fact, our President defended making Kazakh the sole official language that the decades of Russification had endangered the survival of Kazakh as a language. The practical primacy of Russian is reflected in the schools. Despite efforts to increase the number of schools where Kazakh is the primacy 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 Kazakh. Although institutions of higher learning now show a strong selection preference in favor of Kazakh students, Russian remains the language of instruction in most subjects.

The issue of Kazakh and Russian languages is one of the most politicized and contentious in Kazakhstan. When Kazakhstan declared its independence, the new government was faced with a political dilemma of identification. On the one hand, it was a newly independent state trying to assert itself as a nation with Kazakh and with its sole national language. The strong monolingual ideology was needed to build a new nation, to reserve decades of language shift and to unite ethnic Kazakhs who were divided in two groups, Russophones and Kazakhophones. On the other hand, the fact that Kazakhstan was historically and actually a bilingual and multiethnic country, together with the necessity to maintain good relations with Russia and retain the loyalty of the ethnic Russians and other minorities living in Kazakhstan encouraged the acceptance of a bilingual loyalty. Moreover, a bilingual ideology was to some extent motivated by the need to comply with the European linguistic rights requirements in order to be perceived as a democratic state by international organizations and by western countries.

This ideological contradiction was resolved by defining the new state as a homeland of Kazakhs and a bi-ethnic society. Societal bilingualism, with Kazakhs, though, given of higher status than Russian, was declared the desired outcome of the language policy. While the current 1995 Constitution defines Kazakh as the sole state language, there are two official languages - Russian and Kazakh. Though the status of Russian has been raised from "language of interethnic communication" (1989 Law on Languages of Kazakh SSR, 1993 Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan) into "an official language for the use in the state sphere", no authoritative explanation about the meaning of this formula has been given. All languages, Kazakh, Russian and minorities languages are declared to be "under protection of the government" (Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 1995, Article 7). Each person has the right to use his or her own native language and culture, and to choose a language for communication, child rearing, education and creative activities (Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 1995, Article 19).

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

Russians is as an important official language, as the language of education, science, and mass media and of course as the native and dominant language of ethnic Russians and Russuphones. The 1999 census revealed that 74, 8 % of ethnic Kazakhs know Russian and only 25, 2 % of them claimed to be monolingual Kazakh speakers. At the same time only 7, 7 % of Russians claimed to know Kazakh.

Russian is viewed as reliable linguistic capital, possession of which provides access to wider information, cultural and economic spheres. It also ensures empowerment and upward social mobility. Today Russian remains a prevalent language in all domains. In fact, oralmans (repatriated Kazakhs) have a lot of difficulty adjusting because of their lack of knowledge of Russian. They have to study Russian in their home country.

In my country Russian language is important in education, the main language of the media and also dominant in the printed media. Russian is clearly dominant as the language of day-to-day government activity. Among Government employees, more than 50 % use Russian. Parliamentary debates are usually in Russian. On rare occasions a Kazakh speaking Member of Parliament will choose to speak in Kazakh; when that happens all those members who do not speak it have to use headphones and listen to an interpreter. As a rule, official documents are written and edited in Russian and then translated into Kazakh. I have translated the official letters from Russian into Kazakh during my two internships in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Kazakhstan. According to the latest government requirements, government structures should be switching to all Kazakh by 2008 which implies that all civil servants will have to master Kazakh by that time. Even so, learning of Kazakh is not obligatory; it is encouraged. Government organisations make Kazakh language classes available free of charge to help adults to learn it. In Government bodies and local authorities there are special departments of state language to study Kazakh not only for Russian speakers but also for ethnic Kazakhs who don't know their native language. It is true that most of the ethnic Kazakhs don't know Kazakh. They speak Russian as their mother tongue which is understandable for historical and geographical reasons. Furthermore, since 1995 there is a requirement that in no less than 15 years all the state employees must know Kazakh. Despite the demands of the Russian-speakers to recognize Russian as a second state language, the Parliament had refused to discuss this question.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the language proclaimed as the state one de facto does not fulfill the assigned role. For a number of objective reasons, the Kazakh language is not developed enough to implement all the complex of state language's functions. This conclusion nicely demonstrates the administration's realization of the complexity of the linguistic situation in Kazakhstan and the reason for its eventual decision to change the course of actions.


Web site:

  • The Agency of Statistics of the Republic of Kazakhstan. http://www.stat.kz


  • 1989 Law on Languages of Kazakh SSR
  • 1993 Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan
  • 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan
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