By Paul Goble
Nursultan Nazarbayev has called for agreement on a new Latin-based script for Kazakh by the end of this year in order to put Kazakhstan on track to make a complete break with the Cyrillic-based alphabet Moscow imposed on Kazakhstan in 1940 by 2025.
The Kazakhstan president delivered his call in Astana’s state newspaper Egemen Kazakhstan today. (The original Kazakh-language version of the article is available at egemen.kz/article/nursultan-nazarbaev-bolashaqqa-baghdar-rukhani-zhanhghyru; a Russian translation can be found at rus.azattyq.org/a/28424860.html.)
Nazarbayev has been pressing for this step since at least 2012 when Latinization was identified as a key part of the country’s development strategy. Making progress toward an alphabet that will link Kazakhstan more closely to the Turkic world and less closely to the Russian one has not been easy.
On the one hand, Moscow and many members of the ethnic Russian minority in Kazakhstan see this as a discriminatory step, one that will split Kazakhstan down the middle (regnum.ru/news/polit/2262150.html), and they point out that changing from one script to the other will be extremely expensive.
And on the other, some Kazakhs are worried that an alphabet reform will cut people off from the past and make it less likely they will read anything. They note that this is what has happened in other post-Soviet states that have made such a shift and suggest there is no reason it won’t happen in Kazakhstan too.
At the same time, however, many Kazakhs are enthusiastic about a move to the Latin script because they believe that it conveys more adequately the sound values of their language than does the modified Cyrillic alphabet they have been compelled to use for 70 years (turantoday.com/2017/04/qazaqstan-kazakhstan-latin-alphabet.html by end of 2017 and fergananews.com/news/26259).
Nazarbayev’s article does not mean that there will be agreement before 2018 or that the Latin script will win out over Cyrillic in the future. But his call will have the effect of mobilizing supporters of the move – and also mobilizing opponents not only in Kazakhstan but in Moscow as well.
One thing is certain, however: In Kazakhstan, the latest battle in the alphabet wars is about to become a lot more intense.