CH-Ч-Changes: The Geopolitics Behind Kazakh Alphabet Reform

By Leora Eisenberg ‘20

It almost seems like a given that alphabets are a core part of a culture. What some may not understand is that language laws are a tense issue in post-Soviet space. Alphabets are integral to a language and its speakers, in spite of whatever historical revisionism an empire might seek to impose. They are inextricable from a country’s identity, history and culture. Outside of the former Soviet Union, consider Korean, Hindi, and Amharic — all languages with their own alphabets, created for the sake of a distinct national identity and literature. Within the former USSR, however, take Georgia and Armenia: in order to create a more distinct national identity, they created their own alphabets in the fourth and fifth centuries, which they insisted be preserved — and not changed into Cyrillic —  under Soviet rule. Similarly, in October 2017, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared the government’s intention to fully switch the alphabet of the Kazakh language — one of Kazakhstan’s two official languages and the language of its titular ethnic majority, Kazakhs — from the Cyrillic of Kazakhstan’s Soviet past to the Latin of its future.

The Kazakh language is, like any language, fundamental to the national identity of its speakers: it has a distinct grammar, a titular country, and a distinct literature. Until 1991, however, Kazakhstan (and, consequently, Kazakh) was, as part of Soviet policy, subordinate to Russia in most ways, including its language, and its alphabet. Originally written in Arabic script, the Soviet government imposed a Latin script on many of its constituent Muslim nationalities (i.e. Tajik, Karachay, Tatar, Kazakh, etc.), called Yangälif, in 1927, only to switch it to Cyrillic in 1940. The Cyrillic alphabet is still in use in Kazakhstan, although the government hopes to replace it with Latin by 2025.

The choice to use Cyrillic post-1991 is not only a marker of political, but sometimes also of ethnic/national identity: numerous post-Soviet governments, including those of Moldova, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, have made the switch from Cyrillic to Latin, ostensibly in a show of changing attitudes toward both Russia and the West. The alphabet is inextricably tied not only to Russia, but also to its language, culture, and history — which were made a substantive part of the language, culture, and history of the fourteen other former Soviet republics. The move away from Cyrillic is perceived by many ethnic Russians — in Russia, Kazakhstan, and across post-Soviet space — to be a move away from their ethnic “homeland,” to borrow Tasmamgabetov’s reference to Camus, of Russia/ USSR and from Soviet attitudes, to which Kazakhstan itself shared for so long (and which probably quite a few Russians in Kazakhstan still do).

Nazarbayev has claimed that the shift is nothing more than a step into the modern world, i.e. a world where English — and thus the Latin alphabet — is the most used language of the Internet and the international language of science and business. Others, however, have claimed that Kazakhstan’s decision is geopolitical, i.e. an attempt to distance itself from Russia, its historic colonizer (but also contemporary political ally). This decision is also perceived as a threat towards Kazakhstan’s largest ethnic majority — Russians, the vast majority of whom do not speak Kazakh.

Russian-owned online news publications have generally reacted negatively toward this development. Pravda.ru — separate from the print Pravda newspaper, the former official paper of the Communist Party, has 14 articles on the Kazakh language shift, six of which were at least marginally negative. Some articles, like “The Non-Russian World: Kazakhstan Replaces its ‘Older Brother’” and “Kazakh Activists Suggest a Suspicious Alphabet Reform,” with its secondary title of “Kazakhs Want to Throw 14 Letters out of Their Alphabet” are particularly indicative of the broader historical Soviet/Russian view of Kazakhs as their “younger brother” or as Kazakhstanis (and more specifically Kazakhs) inhabiting the “Russian world,” a geopolitical space with shared use of the Russian language, in addition to shared affinity for Russian culture. Further, the reference to “Kazakhs” (rather than “Kazakhstanis”) in the alternative headline of the second article is deeply racist, referring to the majority ethnic group of a country rather than its entire population, i.e. appealing to ethnic conflict rather than examining the issue as it is.

Komsomolskaya Pravda (KP), a former official organ of the Central Committee of the Komsomol, the youth branch of the Communist Party, had only eight articles on the alphabet shift, one of which was marginally positive. The rest, however, were at least fairly negative. The most blatant title was “Following Cyrillic, Kazakhstan Will Reject the Russian Language, Too.” The other headlines were not nearly as inflammatory, although they contained multiple references to the same ideas as in Pravda. Once again, KP likely appealed to the average Russian reader, who has become accustomed to Kazakhstan being a part of the “Russian world” and to Kazakhstan being subordinate to its “older brother.”

Kommersant, however, is a leading Russian business daily, and, as a result, has a completely different political slant from Pravda and KP. Only one article had a negative headline (but no negative content); most were neutral; one was marginally positive; and one was blatantly positive: “A New Alphabetical Order: Andrey Shukhov on the Kazakh Latin Alphabet.” Although the headline here is not indicative of any political slant, Shukhov, the author, disputes the notions of distancing from the “Russian world” and “older brother” so prominent in the other pieces. Almost as if he had read the headlines of Pravda and KP, Shukhov writes that “fans of historical conspiracy — some with enthusiasm, others with horror — saw in the rejection of Cyrillic something that, most likely, wasn’t there: the final withdrawal of the country from the post-Soviet geopolitical system.”

Whether or not the alphabet shift changes Kazakhstan’s orientation toward Russia or the West, however, remains to be seen. Post-Soviet nations which have switched alphabets met various results: Uzbekistan faced utter failure, while Azerbaijan has had relative success. Whatever the outcome is, it is fair to say that the Russian media coverage of the issue is, for the most partnegative. The views of PravdaKP, and Kommersant are not monolithic, although they do lean in one direction. The first two publications, Pravda and KP, heavily employ language that implies a Soviet worldview. Expressions like “older brother” (in reference to Russia and ethnic Russians) and “the Russian world” (in reference to the greater Russian-speaking world, i.e. former Soviet Union) set up an intra-article paradigm where ethnic Kazakhs and Kazakhstan are subordinate. Russia — and, consequently, the Russian language, Russian people, and Cyrillic alphabet — are superior in the eyes of the publishers of KP and Pravda, which explains the amount of negative coverage of the Kazakh alphabet shift.

But it’s more than just subordination: Russian publications like KP and Pravda are trying to get their readers to believe that they are at least better than Kazakhstanis, and perhaps even Kazakhs. (Remember that roughly 20% of all Kazakhstanis are ethnically Russian.) With headlines that invoke the notions of the “older brother” and “Russian world,” it seems as if they are trying to say that Kazakhstan — and all Kazakh-speakers, the vast majority of whom are Kazakh — are foolish for trying to distinguish themselves from the “Russian world” they’ve inhabited for so long. On the surface, these sources are reporting on an alphabet shift. A level down, these sources suggest that Kazakhstan is inferior to Russia, its “older brother.” And even below that is the notion that Kazakhstan cannot compare to Russia — and should abandon what they see as ludicrous efforts entirely.

As of right now, there’s no telling whether these efforts are ludicrous or not. In November 2018, students all across Kazakhstan took a proficiency exam in the Latin alphabet. According to the Coordination and Methodological Center for the Development of Languages, there are now pilot programs in 51 universities. Roughly $664M have been invested in this project. But Kazakhstan may well turn out to be another Uzbekistan, i.e. a post-Soviet state whose success in switching to Latin was so limited that twenty years after the shift Cyrillic is still more widely used. On the other hand, it may turn out to be another Azerbaijan, i.e. a post-Soviet state with objective success in switching. Not enough time has elapsed for the onlooker to determine the success of the initiative. Over the next five years, we’ll watch as Kazakhstan tries to change from Cyrillic to Latin, perhaps in a broader shift from Russia, the historic “older brother” to the West, including the United States. That said, whatever change does happen in the alphabet, Russia (and, consequently, its media) will almost certainly be opposed.

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